Letting Go of the Mommy Guilt: The Way Your Kids Act in Public


The other night my 5 year old had a sleepover at her best friend’s house. In the evening, the girls got along wonderfully and had a great time. In the morning, my daughter’s friend woke up in a bad mood.  As 5 year olds are wont to do, she acted mean and nasty and made my daughter miserable. When her mom brought my daughter home, this mom was so full of apologies to my daughter I started to feel bad for her – the mom, not either of the kids. I should mention that the other mom is one of my closest friends, and the girls have been friends since infancy. My daughter has been a mean, rude little brute to her friend as often as her friend has been to her. They’re little kids; kids do that. They can hate each other one moment and love each other more than life the next. My mom friend and I have the rare kind of friendship where we cBronze sculpture of a mother and child by Henry Moore.  Photo by ariadnaan jokingly and honestly commiserate about what complete shits the other’s kids can be. Yet, despite this close comfort and familiarity, my friend felt the need to practically trip over herself apologizing for her daughter’s typical 5-year-old behavior. Classic Mommy Guilt.

I was taken aback by the amount of mommy guilt my friend was experiencing, which got me thinking about the whole idea of Mommy Guilt.

Mommy guilt can rear its ugly head in many forms, but it all boils down to one thing: perceived perfection. Much like the “ideal” of womanly beauty that the media bombards us with, moms are bombarded with the “ideal” of the perfect mother and her perfect children. When a mom or her kids deviate from this ideal, Mommy Guilt can take root and flourish. There’s just one problem: moms and their kids are human, beautifully flawed, perfectly imperfect humans.  The evil beast that is Mommy Guilt has two heads – judging yourself and judging others. For now, I’m going to let the judging others head snarl and snap, because I want to attack judging yourself and How Your Kids Act In Public.

No one is perfect, especially not kids. Kids are still trying to figure out this whole “being human” thing; of course they are not going to be perfectly behaved all the time, or any of the time, in the case of my kids. I’ve been a mother for almost eight years, and I have yet to even see a live example of perfect child behavior.

When my oldest kid was still a baby, I was riddled with Mommy Guilt. I would anxiously attempt quick-dash outings around her nap and feeding schedule trying to grasp that elusive time when she would be on her “best behavior” so no one would have to be subjected to her behaving like a baby – crying (oh no!), screaming (gasp!), or (God Forbid!!) pooping in her diaper. Did you ever notice that when a baby cries in public someone inevitably asks, “What’s wrong with her?” The right answer is: “Nothing’s wrong with her! She’s a baby, babies cry.” It took me a long time to figure that one out. But when I was a new mom, part of me always thought I must have been doing something wrong because my baby didn’t resemble those darling, angelic, ever-smiling and sweetly scented cherubs featured in parenting magazines and TV shows. Not in the least. Well, maybe sometimes”¦ when she was asleep.

Going out to eat was the worst.  Mr. Nevada and I rarely went out to eat, and when we did, we were always worried that the baby would act up and disturb the other diners. Sometimes we would get side-eyed looks or comments. Sometimes we escaped unscathed. But we would always be so anxious fussing over our daughter to keep her pacified we couldn’t enjoy our dinner. I’m not talking about a 7 p.m. reservation at a she-she-la-la “date night” restaurant. I’m talking about 5 p.m. at family-friendly place like T.G.I.Friday’s or Ruby Tuesday.

When I had my second daughter, I faced the double burden of guilt over a toddler’s behavior and a baby’s.  I spent so much time and energy trying to smooth my kids’ behavior in public I was exhausted. I would never leave the house without enough toys, games, activities, snacks, drinks, and treats to fill a suitcase, all in name of getting my kids to “behave” in public. And when one or both of them acted up, I felt it was my fault because I wasn’t prepared enough, didn’t discipline them the “right” way, or some other such nonsense. And I always felt I had to apologize to those around me for being subjected to my kids’ behavior.

When I found out I was pregnant with my son, I threw in the towel. I was done with trying to get my kids to act perfectly. I was exhausted to the point that I didn’t care anymore. To be sure, I didn’t allow my kids to be rude, mean, destructive or in any other way little shits without disciplining them, but I just didn’t have the energy to chase the ideal of “perfectly behaved” kids any more, and I really didn’t have the energy to keep apologizing to the public at large for the way my kids acted. If I had to go out to run an errand and one of the girls had a temper tantrum, well, so be it. I had things to do, and I couldn’t waste any more effort lugging around the baggage, literal and emotional.

As I struggled to let go of my Mommy Guilt, I realized how ridiculous my Mommy Guilt was, which helped me let go of it more – kinda cool how that works, huh? Kids are as unique as snow flakes and as multi-faceted as finely cut diamonds. Trying to force them into one ideal of perfect behavior is a waste of effort and just stupid. Kids will be kids, and any mom with Mommy Guilt needs to understand that. If your kids misbehave in public, or even if they aren’t misbehaving but are acting in a manner that is perceived as inappropriate for the setting, it’s not your fault; they are just being kids. Do what you think is appropriate to correct what you consider unacceptable behavior, but understand that behavior is not your fault.

I have consciously made the decision to stop apologizing for my children’s behavior in public. If they misbehave, I make them apologize. But if they are just acting like kids their ages act, even if it doesn’t fit the mass media ideal, I just accept that they are acting their age. When a mom friend (especially a new mom) bemoans the public behavior of her child, I try to tell her to just let it go and stop beating herself up about it. Because in the end, there are two types of people in the world when it comes to this: those who “get it” and won’t be bothered by it, and those who don’t “get it” – and do we seriously give a damn what the second group thinks? And really, the only person whose opinion about her child counts is hers.

2 replies on “Letting Go of the Mommy Guilt: The Way Your Kids Act in Public”

THANK YOU for this, Alice. Mommy Guilt can overload a woman’s brain and suck on her soul. Between the 24 hour news posts on mothering and people who are self-appointed Mommy police (jellyfish?) it can drive a woman to deep neurosis. When I’m in the midst of Mommy guilt the worst part isn’t the worrying about my kids– it’s that I forget I am Hello Kitty the person first. I lose a sense of myself because I’m over thinking my role as mother/parent. In those times I need to “zoom out”, like a google map, and force myself to look at the bigger picture of what is actually happening.

You are exactly right– I think so many parents feel like their kids are an extension of themselves. It always cracked me up when I was teaching how parents would tell me their preschoolers dressed themselves. As if I couldn’t tell by the striped skirt, polka dot shirt and patterned tights :)

Leave a Reply