Guilt. The one accessory no mother is ever without. "You become conditioned to think that you should be able to do everything because you're the mom. And when you can't do everything, then there's something wrong with you," says Christina Bess, a mom of two in Maplewood, New Jersey.
That feeling can sap precious energy, which is in short supply for moms anyway. "When guilt starts to take the enjoyment out of your day-to-day life with kids, that's when you know it's time to address it," says Devra Renner, a mom of two and coauthor of the book Mommy Guilt.
How? Here's what makes moms around the country feel guiltiest -- and ways to cut yourself some slack.
Guilt Trip: Yelling
When Renner and Aviva Pflock set out to write Mommy Guilt, they surveyed more than 1,300 moms about what made them feel most guilty. Number one? "Yelling, by a large margin," Renner says. "And that surprised us because you hear it's not spending time with our kids that makes us feel most guilty."
Give yourself a break: Yelling is as much a part of motherhood as changing diapers and making mac 'n' cheese. "But if the decibel level in your household is always high, it's time to examine the tools in your parenting toolbox," says Pflock. "Counting to five works for me," says Jhoanna Wade, a mom of three in New York City. "If I get close to five, they know they may lose a privilege. And they really don't want that to happen.
A code word -- something you can say that lets your child know you're about to really lose your temper -- can be very effective. This works for the child, too. "If a kid senses a parent is losing control, then the child can use the code word and the parent will understand that 'Hey, I need to back up and get a grip,'" says Renner. That way, you can reset the situation to a calmer note.
Guilt Trip: Not wanting to play more
Somewhere along the line, "playmate" became another facet of the mom job description. But in today's crazy-busy life, slowing down is hard enough, and slowing down to play yet another game of Little Mermaid and the Princess Ponies is -- well, it takes a saint.
Give yourself a break: First, reconcile yourself to the happy fact that children don't need to be entertained their every waking hour (least of all by you). And when you do decide to spend time with them, really do so, even if it's only for half an hour. Focus on what you're doing, rather than on the to-do list in your mind.
"When my husband plays with the kids, instead of thinking 'How much longer do I have to do this?' he tells himself that he will just be in the moment, and he says it works great," says Jacqueline Mroz, a mom of three sons in Montclair, New Jersey. "So I tried it, too, and he's right!"
Remember also that your mom probably didn't get down on the floor with you all that often -- and she didn't feel guilty about it. I've always told my kids, only half joking, that I am not the fun parent. Daddy will play crocodile with them all day, but I'm too busy keeping them well fed and reasonably well groomed and chauffeuring them all around town. They seem to accept this as gospel -- and, yes, sometimes I break out and surprise myself, to their total delight.
Finally, realize that you do a lot for your child every single day. "At the end of the day, I try to tell myself, here are five things I did that my kids loved," says Pamela Anderson, a mom of two in Coronado, California. "You do the best you can on all fronts and try to ignore the rest."
Guilt Trip: Not wanting sex
"Having been in contact with small bodies all day long, I just don't want physical contact with another body at the end of the day, when I'm totally exhausted," says Mara Collins, a mom of four in Portland, Oregon. "My husband knows intellectually where I'm coming from, but there's the other side of him that feels rejected and hurt. And that just makes me feel worse."
Give yourself a break: Sometimes guilt is a necessary emotion -- it serves as an internal alarm that something may be amiss. The tricky part is knowing when to tune in to the feeling and when to tune it out.
No one is saying that feeling touched-out isn't valid. But before any misunderstanding snowballs, communicate: Tell your husband how tired you really are, even if you're sure that he already knows.
And at some point, you'll have to rally and communicate in that other way, for the good of your union. "When I say 'no' one too many times, we get into this negative-feedback loop," says Collins. "But it only takes once to get back on track. Being physical with each other keeps our connection strong, and it's worth it in the longer run. I try to remember that."
Yes, we all know about date nights -- but who can afford a regular one these days? So do what my friend Lynne Matlock does. "Sometimes we'll order takeout and have it delivered after the kids are asleep," says the Long Beach, California, mom, whose two kids go to bed at 7:30 sharp (she thanks her husband for that).
"We eat it by candlelight. Not only do we get to be together, but we also feel like we're getting away with something -- like teenagers!"
Guilt Trip: Wishing you were free
When Christina Bess's kids were 2 years old and 10 months old, she was invited to spend a week in London with a girlfriend from graduate school. "She had a hotel room all paid for by her employer -- all I had to do was buy my plane ticket." But the prospect of leaving her kids at that point struck her as outrageous. "I thought, 'How can I do this? Something terrible will happen!'"
Who among us hasn't wanted to simply walk away from the sleep deprivation and the crying and the chaos -- at least sometimes -- and then felt guilty about feeling that way? But this is an example of guilt trying to tell you something: It's important to take some time for yourself to recharge.
Give yourself a break: The experts all agree -- schedule regular "you" time, and keep it sacred. "I write in the mornings and I exercise a few afternoons a week," says Collins. "That's my time, and my family knows that if I get to do that, then I'm a nicer mommy to everyone."
Caroline Poser, a mom of three in Groton, Massachusetts, recently declined to teach Sunday school in her kids' class at her church. Instead, she joined the choir. "I go to church for myself, too, and I want to enjoy it," she says. "We're supposed to feel guilty if we don't make the 'right' decision, but I realized I need to take care of myself as a person, not just as a mommy."
In the end, Bess did go to London, and her mom and her husband took great care of the kids. And after a week spent recharging, she was happy to see her family again.
Guilt Trip: Working
When Susan Jackson returned to her job at an ad agency in Cincinnati, invariably the conversation with the other new moms in the office turned to guilt. "Even though my daughter was at home with my husband and I loved my job, I still felt pangs. The guys I worked with didn't get it. 'You're providing for your family,' they said. But the moms understood. This spawned our Working Moms Against Guilt blog," she says.
Give yourself a break: "The twinge of guilt is always going to be there," says Jackson. "But there are several ways to deal with it."
Find a sounding board. "Friends, and even blogs, have been a huge help to me," says Kim Moldofsky, a mom of two in the Chicago area who works part-time. "Just knowing that there are other women in the same boat, with the same struggles, always helps, because it puts everything in perspective." Her husband, too, often serves as a reality check.
Or find your balance. Gebler Ashkenazy used to work a demanding 60-hour-a-week job, but after she had her third child, she left for one with a more flexible schedule, so she's home a day and a half during the workweek. "I love my work and I don't want to give it up entirely," she says.
Finally -- and this is true for all these guilt trips -- accept the feeling and move on. Don't let it bring you down.
So take a deep breath and repeat after me: "My kids don't need me to play with them for hours." Now go hug them and tune out your guilt -- at least for today.
You can find Julie Tilsner at badhomecooking.com.