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stay at home moms

When Stay At Home Mom Guilt Strikes Hard

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Yesterday I did nothing. And by nothing, I mean nothing. I was unmotivated, uninspired, and–unless seasoning the salmon we had for dinner counts for something–woefully unaccomplished. Smoked sea salt, lemon zest, plenty of dill. 

Days like that are few, if ever, for me. Not the unmotivated and uninspired part, I’m sure that happens to the most of us but we keep on keeping on. What was different about yesterday was that I was also remarkably unscheduled. No appointments. No meetings. I pretended we were not out of dog food or dangerously low on laundry detergent, so no errands. The day shone up at me from my iPhone, strangely and uncomfortably blank.

Like most stay-at-home moms and dads, I am always doing something. Four kids equals frequent trips to Costco and Target where the Suave 2-in-1 is supersized and so are the strawberry yogurt smoothies they all love to drink. It’s a relentless cycle of dentist, doctor, and orthodontist appointments. Someone always needs new shoes, a haircut, poster board, or a birthday present. It’s volunteer library duty at the elementary school, serving lunch at the middle school, stuffing envelopes for the fundraiser.

Mornings are for errands and my own appointments, as many as possible during kid-free hours. Even on an unscheduled day there is always something: a closet to organize, a photo project, dinner to prepare, an article to write, or a potential publication to research. No weekday is ever a day for doing nothing.

But consumed as I was with the mid-week blahs on this day, not even my sternest pep-talk-to-self could motivate me to do any of it.

Instead, I imagined all the ways I could while away these rare and suddenly empty hours–ways I could feel relaxed, inspired, re-energized. But I couldn’t bring myself to actually do any of them, because I would feel too guilty, too self-indulgent, if I did.

I decadently imagined that I could:

1. Watch TV

So many good shows, so little time. Even if it’s too much of a commitment to start “Breaking Bad” or “House of Cards” between now and when the kids get home, a rehash with Peggy, Don, and the rest of “Mad Men” is always a great way to spend a couple hours. But no, very unproductive. And anyway, TV is for nights and weekends, not Wednesday at noon.

2. Nap

Omg never. Next.

3. Go to the movies

Delicious. The last movie I saw was “Annie.” It’s cute. But I am dying to see my celeb crush Reese Witherspoon bring Cheryl Strayed’s amazing book “Wild” to life. Or is “Boyhood” still in theaters? Really, could I? While my husband is working his butt off, and my kids are learning about the Holocaust and decimal long division, am I going to sit in a dark movie theater and lose myself on the big screen? Um no. I don’t think so.

4. Play Words With Friends

I admit I did do this. I can add the word “hairs” to my two-item list of accomplishments. Is it above or below seasoning the salmon? I felt less guilty doing this than any of the others because I had to use my brainpower and work with letters.

5. Go to the beach

While the rest of the country freezes in the clutches of a polar vortex, it’s a lukewarm January week in Northern California. A few hours watching the surfers in the icy Pacific with the sun on my face would probably turn those blahs into ahas pretty quickly. But no, I couldn’t possibly. Not when there’s so much to be done inside, even though I’m not doing it. What if I get stuck in traffic on the way back and am late for pick-up? And we really do need dog food, so if I go anywhere it has to be to the supermarket.

I know this is the life of a stay-at-home-mom. Mostly it’s chaotic, busy, kids, rushing, errands, kids, schlep, schlep, schlep. I am filled with admiration and respect for the working parents who make all this work while working. But sometimes, there is downtime. Even working people have downtime, room to breathe and think. Sometimes the day isn’t as busy as the days before. Or I don’t feel like cleaning out that closet today. Or I’m not inspired to write just this minute.

But I feel so guilty doing anything that doesn’t feel like something I’m “supposed” to do in my all-the-time job as Mom. There is no work-life separation, it’s all this all the time and it feels awkward and uncomfortable to separate my own self from my mom self, like trying to wriggle into a too-tight t-shirt. I can’t wear that, I’m a mom!

I feel guilty because my husband is working. My working friends are working. They are accountable to colleagues and clients and consumers. During school hours, I’m not accountable to anyone except myself and the reproachful empty fridge. Maybe if a friend joins me at the movies, I won’t feel quite so guilty, or at least not so alone in the guilt? But my fellow SAHMs and SAHDs are probably volunteering, or running errands, or driving a field trip, or doing anything more productive than crunching buttery popcorn in the dark.

The long, bony fingers of guilt held every one of my ideas up to the light, and labeled them: self-indulgent, unproductive, selfish, waste of time. And then those fingers pinned me down by the arms, and unfairly distorted my sense of what’s acceptable for a person like me to do on a uniquely free weekday morning.

Perhaps when I pick the kids up from school tomorrow, they’ll wonder why there’s a fine sprinkling of beach sand on the floor under the steering wheel.

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