Close your eyes and picture this: You wake up the day after Mother’s Day, and walk into the living room to find your kids watching cartoons — and not the educational kind, the kind where anthropomorphic cats hit each other over the head with hammers. You tell them to go get dressed, in whatever combination of shirts and shorts is the closest approximation of clean.
You kiss them goodbye as they head off to school and you head off to work, where you don’t think about them: their soccer practices and orthodontist appointments, their probably-too-small sneakers and definitely-too-big backpacks.
After a productive day at work, you send out your final emails for the evening and shut your computer, not to be opened again until the next morning. You come home to find the kids fighting with each other over some plastic toy that, if consumed, would definitely cause their kidneys to duplicate or their hair to turn green, and break up their wrestling match with the promise of pizza and ice cream.
You put the kids to bed, only to remember you forgot to help them brush your teeth. You skip brushing yours in solidarity, and wake up the next morning to do it all again.
For those without kids, this kind of guilt-free day feels mundane, even boring. But for mothers, a day without mom guilt is a dream come true.
But at the moment, it’s just that — a dream. A dream that our partners and kids try to approximate one Sunday in May, but by Monday, we’re still the ones left to balance it all, and clean up the mess when something inevitably falls through the cracks.
Mom guilt is the natural product of a society that both expects moms to be perfect, and chastises them for failing to meet that impossible standard.
For working moms, making that dream a reality would require a job that allows you to put your family first — whether it be for a few months or a few hours — and ensures you’ll have opportunities, and a career path, and a fair salary to return to. For married moms, it would require a partner who shoulders their half of parenthood duties without ever being asked. And for all moms, it would require affordable, accessible, quality childcare to make work possible, and home bearable. In other words, a society free of mom guilt demands structural solutions on top of cultural ones.
But don’t get me wrong — our culture needs to change, too. Mom guilt is the natural product of a society that both expects moms to be perfect, and chastises them for failing to meet that impossible standard.
While moms may not have created that standard, we are often the ones who enforce it — even on ourselves. Some 80 percent of moms reported being “mom shamed” for their parental choices, often by fellow parents; at the same time, three in four mothers stress more about the pressure they put on themselves to be perfect than the judgment they receive from other parents.
That constant mom-policing is exhausting. It’s no wonder that moms are in a mental health crisis, with over half of us reporting anxiety and depression.
But to suggest mothers simply shrug off mom-guilt is like asking us to just whip-up dinner: sure, it should be easy, but it takes time — far more time than any of us want, or expect, it to.
Perhaps the better strategy, therefore, is to ask moms to think about those impossible standards: why they exist and for whose benefit, and what would happen if you didn’t meet them.
And then… start failing.
So this Mother’s Day, I’m picking out my own gift: the gift of falling short, on purpose. Don’t pick up your phone at dinner — or do! — and refuse to believe that the choice says anything about your commitment to your job, or your commitment to your family.
Let your kid leave the house in a marinara-stained shirt — or you yourself leave the house in a marinara-stained shirt! — and remember that anyone who judges you as less of a parent, or less of a professional for it, isn’t worth your limited time.
Instead of being the house manager, and delegating tasks to your partner, do your half and leave them the rest — and then go on a walk, because investing in your mental and physical health is far more valuable than teaching your husband how to load the dishwasher for the fifteenth time.
And watch those small rebellions — those tiny, mundane victories — turn into a day free of mom-guilt. A day that turns into a month, that turns into a year, that turns into a lifetime.
To be sure, this is no small ask. But go forward knowing you’re paving a better path for generations of moms — or at the very least, giving them more than just one guilt-free day in May. Now that is something to celebrate.
For more information and to make this dream a reality, visit TheMarshallPlanForMoms.com.
Reshma Saujani is the founder of Girls Who Code and the Marshall Plan for Moms, and advocate for women and girls’ economic empowerment. Her most recent book is Pay Up: The Future of Women and Work (and Why it’s Different Than You Think).