Cap was traveling. I had spent the day alone with my dear five-year-old, my adorable nineteen-month-old, and my moody, hysterical threenager. All day long I had placed her in her room so I could cool down, resist the temptation to erupt volcanically, cry out for help, and guide her patiently into an understanding that her constant unkindness, whining, and anger were not acceptable. By the end of the day, I had seen some fruit. I walked slowly out to the kitchen to wash the dishes, feeling the relief and satisfaction of a job well done.
Then I saw a book sitting on the chair. I didn’t read to them for twenty minutes today, I thought. And felt like a failure.
Thankfully, that night, I had enough self-awareness to laugh at the situation: only a “mommy-guilt millennial” could maintain self-control and kindness toward her children on a day like I had—and still figure out a way to feel guilty at the end of it.
I am almost sure that mommy-guilt has almost always been a thing. But I’m convinced that it’s reached new heights with this generation. As Abigail Dodds articulates, “In a world where information about everything is at our fingertips, it seems everything has been elevated to the status of ‘this matters.’ So, from laundry to food to sunscreen to screen time to simplified home decor, nothing is no big deal to millennial moms. And because we also are finite women who cannot ride every hobbyhorse at the same time, we are exhausted, burnt out, and often very guilty.”
On days when I plan a fun structured activity for the girls, I feel guilty for not giving them enough free play time outside to be at one with nature and develop resilience or whatever.
On days when I stay out of their way and let them free play, I feel guilty for not being more involved with them. We should be making memories, dangit!
On (rare) days when I successfully give structure and free play time, I look around at my house and lament what a poor job I’m doing of keeping a clean, yet cozy, yet intellectually-stimulating atmosphere. (I’m aiming for a kind of Sally-Clarkson-meets-Magnolia-in-Rivendell vibe, but most often the result is Tornado-Swept Garage Sale.)
On days they’re enjoying their PBJs, I feel guilty that the peanut butter has hydrogenated oil in it. On family pizza night, I feel guilty at the lack of vegetables. When we eat vegetables, I feel guilty that we haven’t eaten MORE vegetables.
And don’t even get me started on screen time.
A MILLENNIAL LOOKS AT PROVERBS 31
The reason I feel so guilty is that I have the blessing of instant access to a metric ton of information about parenting. I have at my fingertips the ability to look into the dangers of high fructose corn syrup; to see pictures of my friends’ fun planned activities, trips, and healthy family meals; and to see how improper sleep habits, the wrong view about vaccination, not enough outside time, GMOs, plastic toys, and a myriad of other things are RUINING MY CHILDREN’S LIVES AND MAYBE KILLING THEM GARRRR BLARG BAAAAAAH.
My takeaway from all of this online advice-giving is the overwhelming impression that I should be able to do all of it. One lady posts about her Pinterest-level bread-making abilities, another posts about taking the kids hiking, another posts an article about how kids need to help with chores, and I immediately feel that I should be doing all three, right now TODAY.
For refuge, I turn to Scripture. Let me get a good word on womanhood: Proverbs 31. “The poem is an acrostic,” Cap’s voice warns me in my head (we have been through this before). “It may not be talking about just one woman.”
“Yeah, I know; do you think I’m stupid?” is my mental response. Then I read the passage. “Oh man, though, some commentators say this *is* all one woman and the poem represents a progression of her success–and and if she can do it, I should be able to do it, too.”
So I feel condemned all day. I walk around lamenting that the Proverbs 31 woman is out there making money and doing charity work and clothing her family in homemade, probably organic clothes while I have not managed to brush my three girls’ hair in a literal week.
“If she can do it, I should be able to do it, too.” That’s the subliminal message that feeds my mommy guilt. And it’s also what steals the comfort I should receive from Proverbs 31. It’s not you, Proverbs 31. It’s me.
THE OTHER WOMAN
During my last panic attack about Proverbs 31, Cap—aware that his acrostic warning had once again been met with me completely ignoring it—pointed the way through. In the course of our conversation, he asked something like, “In the whole Bible, is there any other standard upheld that you have actually thought you could achieve?”
Blank stare. Snicker. He got me.
No. No, there isn’t even one other standard in the Bible at which, when I’m in my right mind, I think, “Yeah, I got this.”
In fact, the whole point of everything I believe is based on the fact that I can’t uphold any biblical standard, so Someone else did it for me instead. Glory.
But somehow, when a standard is embodied in another woman, I think, “If she can do it, I should be able to do it, too.”
What this led me to realize is profound. Ironically, though my subliminal message causes condemnation, it’s actually a thought of self-exaltation. “If SHE can do it, I SHOULD be able to do it, too.” Translation: Because I am just as good as, if not better, than her. Right?
THE REFRESHING BREEZE OF A GOOD HARD SLAP
Reading Jen Wilkin after my most recent episode of Proverbs-31-anxiety, I felt like she slapped me. And then, before I even had the chance to turn the proverbial other cheek, slapped me again. But it was the kind of slap that brings you to your senses, like that time Edna Mode literally attacked Helen Parr in The Incredibles.
In None Like Him, Wilkin argues that the human pursuit of limitlessness is actually pursuit of divinity: our own self-sufficiency and power. And what is my mommy guilt but a feeling that I should be able to do it all—in other words, to be unlimited in my mothering ability? “Ye shall be as gods…”
In contrast to this mindset, Wilkin writes, “Our limits . . . are reminders that keep us from falsely believing that we can be like God. When I reach the limit of my strength, I worship the One whose strength never flags. When I reach the limit of my reason, I worship the One whose reason is beyond searching out” (25).
Wow, that sounds better than a panic attack.
Next time I feel that “If she can do it…” creeping into my thoughts, I am going to yell this verse at my computer: “The BOUNDARY LINES have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance!” (Ps. 16.6).
Well, maybe not yell. Someone might be napping.
But I do want to embrace my limitations, not keep chafing at them. As Wilkin says, “Whether we spend the rest of our lives denying or embracing this basic truth [of human limitation] makes all the difference in how we will love God and others” (28). Every temptation to mommy guilt, if viewed in this way, is a path to accepting my limits. It’s a path, in other words, to blessing.
Wilkin, Jen. None Like Him: 10 Ways God Is Different from Us (and Why That’s a Good Thing). Crossway, 2016.