Insert yourself into any group of modern mothers and you are likely to hear discussions of “mom guilt”.

The sources of this guilt abound – screen time, food choices, discipline, not enough activities, too many activities! I find myself nodding along during these conversations, as I am no exception.

I am also a slave to guilt as I stumble my way through parenthood.

Does my four-year-old still feel special, even with a needy newborn at home? Am I soaking in this chaotic phase of life as much as I should be?

“Mom guilt” can easily dominate one’s internal narrative. We feel guilt over the decisions we make for our children, and yet the mere fact that we have enough concern to feel guilt in the first place suggests that we have their best interests at heart. It is ironic and complicated.

When “mom guilt” is borne out of grief, it becomes even more consuming and complex.

My mind keeps returning to this moment. It had been two years, three months, and five days since the death of our middle daughter. Autumn, my very favorite season, had just begun, and we had enjoyed a lazy Saturday spent with family. We were making the ninety-minute trek home from a beautiful afternoon in northern Wisconsin. Our oldest and youngest daughters were sound asleep in the dark backseat, and my husband and I were enjoying a joint interest in an intriguing podcast.

My heart was full, and an unfamiliar thought popped into my brain – “Life is good.”

My thoughts screeched to a halt. I was taken aback. My stomach lurched, and I felt the stifling heat of guilt fill my body. How is this possible? Our backseat should house three car seats, not two, and yet there I was, sitting in the dark with – could it be? – real, authentic joy in my heart. 

However quickly this thought entered my mind, guilt followed immediately in its wake.

“Life is good? Really??” it questioned. “Your daughter died. What kind of a mother are you?” And just like that, my perception of joy was squashed.

Guilt, the ultimate joy-stealer.

That moment in the car had filled me with warmth, and I allowed guilt to extinguish it. I pushed joy away in deference to my daughter who died. When I stop to consider this, I realize how ludicrous it really is. Would my daughter want this for her family? Would she want her legacy to contain only pain and sorrow? Certainly not. In fact, it would be a greater tribute to her life to seek out and embrace joy, rather than allow guilt to smother it.

My love and longing for my daughter who died become no less deep when I allow joy to enter my heart.

With this knowledge guiding me, I am working harder to release the guilt that too often claims my thoughts. I will always wish that my daughter could be here to experience the beautiful moments in our family’s story. She will always claim a space in my heart and my life, but guilt does not have to.

When joy finds its way in, it is wise to seize it, to let go of the guilt and embrace the beauty. The children we have outlived would want nothing less for us.

Photo by Jenna Christina on Unsplash