In the filing cabinet upstairs, I retrieve the beautiful keepsake box my mother gave me when my son was born almost two years ago. Still in its packaging, the personalized “vault” contains over 50 labels to show what, as parents, we’re supposed to save.
As I read through them–pregnancy test, birth story, important firsts–I can’t help but feel like a failure, as I don’t have most of these things.
And the guilt has been weighing on me.
My pregnancy tests (because who doesn’t take at least a few to be sure?) were thrown away after a couple days. My husband believed it was gross to hang onto “urine-soaked sticks.”
Birth story? Well, I remember the Pandora radio station we had on (Hipster BBQ), the terrifying dilation poster across from my hospital bed showing random objects equivalent in size to a vaginal opening (1 cm, a cheerio; 7 cm, a soda can; 10 cm, a bagel), the pitocin, and the pain that nothing, no one, can prepare you for. Does that count? I certainly don’t have anything official.
And important firsts? There have been so many, of course, but what do I have to show for them?
I have some hair from his first trip to the barbershop, and the certificate they gave me. And some of his other “important firsts” can be found in pictures and videos on my phone.
But most live only in my mind, kept alive through conversations and day-dreams.
Is this something I should feel bad about?
Are these untouched memory boxes an indication that I’m a bad mother? Is the mom-guilt I carry warranted?
Mom-guilt is the incessant, cruel voice I hear quite often. It comes in fast with piercing whispers, pointing out all my weaknesses, magnifying my every mistake.
It reminds me of the things I could’ve done, should’ve done, and all the amazing milestones of my baby boy that I neglected to record.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist Ellen Kolomeyer says this kind of guilt stems from worrying about all the shoulds parents are bombarded with, anxiety about always making the best parenting choices, and of course, those unfair social comparisons.
She says, “Social pressures can make us feel like we aren’t meeting our children’s needs or fulfilling our roles as good parents. These thoughts creep in like, ‘A good mom would…’ ‘A good dad always…’ ‘Good parents never…’ These are just negative thinking traps; this all-or-nothing type of thinking only steals our time and our joy.”
It’s no wonder why I feel pressured to capture every milestone, document every achievement.
My Instagram feed is flooded with posts from moms who appear to have it all together, effortlessly balancing raising children with everything else and looking Pinterest-worthy while doing it.
But I must remember, it’s all an illusion. Behind these moms, there’s undoubtedly some struggle, some challenges, some insecurities. I can’t compare myself to them based on perfectly-staged, filtered snapshots. The rational part of me knows this, yet the insecure, self-doubting part of me doesn’t ever seem to quiet.
I fear one day my son will come to me with questions I don’t have answers to, or request to see something I didn’t save. I know I have to rid myself of this weight and instead, focus on all the moments I hold in my chest, and in my mind.
I know that is how I will be a good mother. The vault may remain empty, but dwelling on things left undone seems like a waste of time. And time is precious these days with that little boy of mine running around.
Dr. Kolomeyer says, “We can’t look back, we can only look forward.”
She suggests that when parents feel guilt, we should reframe it and use it as a reminder of what’s important to us, and make an effort to do more of it in the future. She encourages parents to stay true to ourselves, our values, and our core beliefs about what we and our children need.
“Curb your comparisons and don’t take others’ opinions to heart. What works for others may not work for you (and vice versa) and that’s okay. You can listen to information and opinions without internalizing it and you can reframe negative thinking patterns and perfectionism.”
My son may not have a completed memory box at any point or a baby book to bring to Show and Tell, but he seems to be having a pretty good time.
He’s happy. Healthy. Thriving. He’s loved–by so many. Adored. He smiles– a lot. Giggles from deep in his belly. He’s learning constantly, repeating our every word, absorbing our every motion. He fills our home with positive energy, bringing out the best in us. And he has a mother who loves him with no restraint.
This love stretches far beyond anything I could ever hold in my hand. It’s far too vast to live in a box, too complex to be tied to one simple label. It transcends all trinkets and tangible treasures. It exists in every kiss to his buttery-soft cheeks, every embrace, every morning greeting, goodnight, sweet dreams.
This love will shape him, help guide him as he moves through this complicated world. It’s everlasting, and it’s ours.
Sarah Michelle Sherman is a writer who lives in Albany, New York with her husband, 2-year-old son, and golden-mountain doodle, Sundae. Devoted to telling truthful stories in an effort to help people feel less alone, her work has appeared in Today, Insider, Parents, and more.