Guilt is a 5-letter word

I did not know the meaning of the word guilt until I became a mother.

Maybe if I had grown up Catholic or Baptist, like my grandmothers… Maybe if I had grown up closer to my extended families (Wasilla, Alaska is a long way from the long shadow of the Gateway Arch)… Maybe if mine were the kind of parents who metered out punishment for unkempt rooms or unmade beds… maybe then I would have known a taste of the kind of guilt I feel at times as a parent. But probably not.

My daughter is 15-months-old and she can lay me out flat — with exhaustion, frustration and, yes, sometimes with guilt. This is not to say that I do not love her, because I do! The closest thing I know to a fountain of joy is her giggle. I know no greater source of unconditional love than her gaze as I sing her a lullaby. The treasures of parenthood are vast and sometimes hard to quantify in conventional ways.

But this is not a post about the joys. This is a post about the guilt. And every single parent I know has it. I think they hand it out with birth certificates, like the free “gift” with purchase.

Today I feel guilty because my daughter is in daycare. Now, before my working-outside-the-home readers gather stones to chuck at me, just hear me out. As a writer, I am a work-at-home mom. But generally speaking, my work tends to come not just second but sometimes tenth, to all the stay-at-home mom stuff. Now that my daughter is a (very active) 15-month-old who can run, jump, climb and generally get into a lot of trouble, it is very hard for me to just let her play while I sit at the laptop at the kitchen table. Even though the layout of my home is an open floor plan, in which I can see almost anywhere on the first floor of my home from the kitchen table, it doesn’t mean that I can safely sit here for much more than 5 minutes (if that), without a need to intervene before she breaks her neck — or a window. And then, of course, there are lunches, snacks, diapers, and all the times my daughter comes to tug on my arm to show me something, ask for something or start an impromptu dance party (she does love to dance!). So that means that these days my “work day” usually doesn’t start until well after everyone else is in bed (because I need to eat dinner and see my husband for more than 5 minutes, too). And that means that I typically stay up until around 1-2 am working and then have to get up and start the day anywhere between 5-7 am.

This cycle of sleep deprivation has hit a critical level for me lately. So, I either get to bed at a decent hour and get some sleep (but no work), or I do some decent work and drag like a zombie all day. As I’ve shared before, I have health issues and lack of sleep is not going to help. But more than that, I’ve been short-tempered lately. My brain has been foggy. And I’ve felt too tired to participate in social events and work opportunities I would normally be interested in. I really am a tired feminist! And unfortunately, something has to give. I need time to do my work at normal hours. And I need time to sleep so I can feel healthy, less stressed and calmer — all the better to enjoy time with my family.

So, today I took my daughter to daycare. It is not the first time she’s gone. She had to go a few days while I was recuperating from surgery last month. It’s a professional, clean place and I can even peak at her via webcam (which I’ve done three times while writing this). I like the place, and I have high standards since I put myself through college working as a nanny and then worked as a preschool teacher out of college. But I still feel guilty.

My guilt exists on a number of levels.

The first, and most obvious, is that I have the same guilt that most parents have when they start using childcare. Will something happen to her? Will she be mad at me? Will the childcare workers give her enough attention? Will she eat enough? Will they remember to put her sunhat on her when they go outside? And the neurotic stuff to: They don’t know that she doesn’t like noodle textures. They won’t rub her tummy to help her fall asleep. They won’t know that holding hands and jumping is the start of a dance party. They’ll do it all wrong!

It’s so hard to get used to the idea that someone else can take care of your kid. They won’t do it like you. Because they are not you. But that difference is not necessarily bad. I know this intellectually as well as from my experience being a childcare worker. But emotionally now that I am a parent… It’s very hard to remind myself of the things I know are true when all I hear is my daughter screaming and calling for Mamamama as I leave the daycare. I try to remind myself that, like encouraging her to eat her vegetables and teaching her that electrical outlets are dangerous, this is just another tough life lesson — for her and for me. But it is an eternal lesson. Whether she goes to daycare now or stays home with me and goes to preschool in a year and half — this lesson will come.

But here is the other part of my guilt: I am still a work-at-home mom. I am writing this from my kitchen table laptop, as usual. There are toys and Cheerios strewn all over the carpet at my feet. But my house is oddly still and quiet. And I feel deeply guilty about that. Maybe it would be easier if my work was somewhere outside the house. Maybe if I commuted to an office and exchanged pleasant Good Mornings with co-workers, it would feel more “normal” to me that my daughter is in daycare today. But it doesn’t feel normal at all to me. It feels strange and like a piece of me is missing. Meanwhile, I have already had a brilliantly productive day and it is only noon! And then there is more guilt for me, that I should feel glad that my daughter is not hindering my productivity. Because that makes it seem like I am glad she is not around. Oh the guilt!

Of course, the ugly little truth behind all this guilt is that deep down I feel like I am a failure as a stay-at-home mom if I need to use daycare, even just a little. Because how can you be a stay-at-home mom if your kid is not at home with you? As a mom who works from home, I have often felt caught between two worlds — the SAHM and the “working” moms. I do stay at home every day with my daughter. But I also work every day. I have different writing projects. A syndicated blog (which means I’m contractually obligated to write, or I don’t get paid). I work as a social media consultant for non-profits. And I do various grassroots activist projects in the community. I work! But I guess I thought I was gaming the system; having my (vegan) cake and eating it, too. I could be home all day with my daughter and still be a productive, working mom. But that only works if I sleep three hours a day. And that doesn’t work at all!

So before I completely lost my mind because of my lousy sleep schedule, I decided (with the loving support of my husband) to do something about the situation. Today my daughter is in daycare. And she will most likely go back at least once a week for a while. (It is expensive, after all.) And I will adjust my work schedule accordingly. I doubt that this will be the end of my days battling a lack of sleep — I can’t work just one day a week — but it should help stem the tide.

And in the mean time, I will have to learn to live with guilt. But hopefully, I can learn to stop feeling guilty and start enjoying my rare baby-free moments. After all, I don’t think my husband feels guilty about taking an occasional long lunch during his work day, surrounded by adults. It doesn’t make you a bad parent to work or even to need some kid-free adult time. The sooner I can learn that, the happier I think we’ll all be.

Parenthood: It’s not for wimps.

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