Waging War Against Cancer…and Mom Guilt

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Medicine is a profession that consumes you. From the moment you declare yourself as “pre-med” (short for pre-medical, i.e. when you are taking the required college courses to be able to apply for medical school), your studies, your activities, your schedule—and often your whole life—suddenly become a backdrop to the singular goal of becoming a physician. When I entered medical school, I knew what lay ahead. I was the daughter of two physicians and engaged to a premed student whose father was also a physician. I quickly learned to cope with the all-encompassing nature of my training. The expectation to singularly focus on my profession did not come as a shock.

What did surprise me? How “mom guilt” was equally consuming.

Urban dictionary defines “mom guilt” as: guilt a mother feels anytime she takes time to do something for herself outside of work that does not involve her children. I define mom guilt even more broadly to include: guilt a mother feels about anything she does in her life which is related to feelings about being a mom. In my own life, and through social media, I’ve had the opportunity to connect with lots of mothers from many backgrounds, including those who work full-time or part-time, are in school, or are stay-at-home moms. I’ve done a combination of all of these myself over the years, and I’ve learned that each stage comes with its own associated guilt. Here’s my story:

I gave birth to my oldest at the end of my second year of medical school. I subsequently took a year off to be home with my baby. I quickly learned that raising a child well isn’t always intuitive, and my days were filled with decisions about how to parent. These choices often led to guilt—“What if I’m making the wrong decision about bottle feeding instead of exclusively nursing?” and “Maybe I shouldn’t have taken a year off from school?” As my year at home ended, and I went back to medical school, I had mom guilt for other choices, such as, “What if I’m doing the wrong thing hiring full-time help?” and “Maybe I should quit school altogether?”

As our careers progressed and our family grew, my husband and I spent years in the hospital, completing our training. Each stage brought new decisions and feelings, and along with them, the inevitable mom guilt. And yet, the things I would feel mom guilt about changed over time. The things I worried about when my oldest son was a baby, such as, “I really need to take his pacifier away already!”, were things I didn’t feel guilty about at all when my second, third, and fourth sons were born. I felt zero guilt about the pacifier! The memories of past mom guilt—now resolved—taught me how feeling guilty is often fleeting…and that these guilty feelings should frequently be deliberately disregarded.

When I finished my medical training and started my practice as an oncologist, I was so grateful to put those difficult years behind me…and I thought the mom guilt that was part-and-parcel of my road to becoming a physician would disappear, too. Yet, my days of mom guilt were far from over, because it did—and still does—crop up anywhere and everywhere. When I joined Instagram in 2018 and started talking about #momguilt, people shared enlightening stories about their own mom guilt. These mothers felt that mom guilt was destroying their happiness and self-confidence. The most fascinating thing was that they came from varied backgrounds, including stay-at-home-moms, women in school, women with one child or many children, and women who worked part-time or full-time. It’s simply something that all mothers face.

Time has taught me that mom guilt is ever-present, but also ever-fleeting. Years ago, when I worried about leaving my baby to go to school, did I truly feel guilt? I knew I wasn’t doing anything wrong, because he was happy, healthy, and safe. That feeling I thought was mom guilt was actually my fear of missing out, my fear of regretting my life choices, my fear of feeling sad I wasn’t watching him giggle. I overcame the fleeting sadness, and the mom guilt went away too (until the next time!). I wish I would have recognized those emotions for what they actually were, because I’d have learned more quickly to embrace decision-making as life’s biggest opportunity for growth, even when those decisions were hard to see through.

These days, when I notice my mom guilt, I try to remind myself that when I chose to become a physician, I knew I was in it for the long haul. And, I’m in it for the long haul with my family, too. I don’t see my job as a matriarch ending with my kids’ high school graduations. Or their weddings. Or any other milestone. My role models are the mothers and grandmothers I know who are ever-present in their families’ lives, their support unwavering in every facet imaginable. I try to take a wide perspective of my role and not get overwhelmed with mom guilt for the day-to-day hiccups which are part of life. Instead of falling prey to mom guilt, I use it as a reminder to reinforce my priorities and choices.

What does mom guilt mean to you?