Fitness and mom guilt: it’s just not that simple

by Kim on December 12, 2013

Every mom deals with guilt, to some extent. And every mom knows that, in a lot of cases, we “shouldn’t.”

We feel guilty leaving our kids crying in the gym childcare center. But we “shouldn’t” because we deserve to work out.

We feel guilty ignoring our kids’ demands to play with them when we’re sick. But we “shouldn’t” because, hell, we’re sick!

We feel guilty coming home from work and basically just putting our kids to bed. But we “shouldn’t” because we’re doing what’s best for our family.

(P.S. I felt guilty when I was a stay-at-home mom too. Just for different reasons.)

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I see the guilt card being played ALL the time in fitness marketing for moms. “We know you feel bad leaving your kids at home to hit the gym, but…you’re worth it! Take care of yourself so you can take care of your kids! You deserve this!!”

As much as I’m all about those messages–and believe me, I am–they always rub me wrong because I can’t help thinking: it’s just not that simple.

Moms know–intellectually–that they “deserve” to exercise, just like they deserve to shower. (Wanna talk about how that goes sometimes?) They know it’s great for them, and would probably benefit their kids, too.

But entitlement doesn’t magically reverse mom guilt.

When you’re a mom, everything that used to be super important pre-kids can’t hold a candle to your new responsibilities. Your priority hierarchy is totally reconfigured.

So here’s the truth bomb: Moms will never be their own top priorities again. Stop trying to make us, society.

When the plane is going down, you bet I’m ignoring those instructions to put my own mask on first. I’ll be helping my kid, because my instincts literally won’t let me do otherwise. I will not be checking with my brain to see what’s intellectually the best choice. I will not be considering all angles–I’ll be responding to an immediate need.

When you have a baby, you’re conditioned from day 1 to drop everything for that baby. He’s completely helpless and completely reliant on you, and that responsibility is a heavy load to bear. Then that baby becomes a toddler, and is still pretty darn reliant on you…

…and the Constant Red Alert Responsibility thing just sticks.

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People who promote fitness to moms do recognize that moms are short on time. But all those tips about squeezing in quick 10-minute sweat sessions here and there or doing squats in your kitchen while you’re cooking?—that’s crap.

Not that it’s not good for you, if you can make it happen, but in my experience, taking a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach to fitness just doesn’t work.

First of all, the only way it’s even remotely feasible is if you plan in advance. So, the first time I get 10 free minutes today, I’m going to do 30 push-ups. Great. Day 1: nailed it.

But then, the next day, you forget to plan, and when you randomly stumble into your free 10 minutes, you’re flustered, and it’s easier to throw a load of laundry in instead. And suddenly you’re cleaning the kitchen. And then you’re writing a grocery list. And there goes 1/2 an hour.

Plus, eventually, you run into the whole “how much difference is 30 push-ups here and there really making?” thing, and it all falls apart.

Here’s the only possible solution to all this, in my opinion: habit.

Achieving the lifestyle you want is all about habits. A great place to be is one where you work out more out of habit than anything else. This doesn’t have to be every morning at 6 AM or every night at 8 PM (although those are pretty prime times for moms). But some kind of routine in your brain that causes it to regularly signal, “time to work out!”

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My only workout “plan”—which is not a plan so much as it’s a habit I’ve just sort of fallen into—is to not let more than 2 days in a row go by without working out. It’s not a foolproof plan, and it isn’t meant to be. It’s just a little built-in trigger that makes me go, “oh, guess I should work out tonight.” It’s also for maintenance only, of course (and, lately, lots of stress relief)—if I wanted to make changes to my body, I know I’d have to crank it up.

The trick is to find something that accommodates whatever flavor of mom guilt you’re dealing with, rather than trying to pretend it doesn’t exist.

For example, working out in the mornings before the kids wake up or after they go to bed is sometimes just the easiest way to go. There’s no guilt, because the kids are sleeping. Sweet freedom!

BUT: you have to be kind to yourself, because either way, you WILL be tired.

If you’re shooting for mornings, but you sleep in one day, oh well. Reschedule for that evening.

If you want to work out in the evenings but you’re exhausted by the end of the day, tell yourself, “No problem–just 10 minutes.” (That’s what I do.) You can barter for more later–at that point, all that matters is starting. This is where a habit comes in handy, because you’ll eventually sort of forget that skipping your workout is even an option.

Whatever approach each of us takes, we can’t afford to wait for it to feel perfect. Perfect time, perfect guilt-free scenario, perfect physical condition. We have to embrace good enough.

Because, of course, we won’t regret ignoring our fitness until it’s too late. Which means we can’t necessarily trust how we feel about it right now. Our brains will reason that we’re soaking up every second with our kids and taking care of ourselves by sleeping when we get the chance, while our body sits around and waits with crossed arms, going “fine, but you’ll be sorry.”

Here’s another trick our brains use: If our bodies try to send us “please exercise” messages (fatigue, feeling down, digestive issues, whatever), fitness will be the last thing we blame because, duh, we have kids! All that stuff is their fault!

Anyway. My point is that I just don’t think moms skip working out because we don’t value ourselves. Not that no mom anywhere struggles with self-worth, but the two are not as directly correlated as people act like they are.

Also, we’re not going to snap our fingers and make the mom guilt go away. We need to learn how to succeed in spite of it. To not let it make our decisions for us ALL the time. But most importantly, to acknowledge it, and then say, “here’s how I’m going to work around it.”

And it’s hard. It’s really, really hard. There just aren’t any quick solutions. Don’t trust any articles telling you otherwise.

To anyone who says moms don’t work out because we don’t care about ourselves, I say BS.

It’s just so much more complicated than that.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah January 28, 2015 at 11:25 am

This was incredibly helpful for me. I have just decided recently to train for a half marathon while being a single mom to a 13 month old. And this definitely comes with self guilt trips. So thanks for calling me out before I do something dumb like give up my goal before I even try!

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Kim February 5, 2015 at 9:44 pm

Glad you found this helpful Sarah! I wish there was a trick for making the guilt go away, but it just never does. I hope you go for it!! I think it’s important for moms to find ways to feel proud of themselves. :)

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ErikaMC December 13, 2013 at 2:11 pm

I don’t really like the phrase “deserve it” – what we do and how hard we work don’t make us deserve anything. If you want something or want to do something than just do it – you don’t have to deserve it to want it and make time for it and it isn’t selfish to just say “I want that” instead of “I deserve it”.

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Katie December 13, 2013 at 9:54 am

Nice work Kim! Everyone is at a different place and has a different barrier, no advice is going to work for everyone.
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Kim December 12, 2013 at 5:59 pm

Yep!! You are so right – the mom guilt is hard to overcome and there are many reasons for it. I agree, it’s never that we don’t think we “deserve” the time!
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Katie @ running4cupcakes December 12, 2013 at 3:21 pm

Great post Kim!! I just kept shaking my head yes through the whole thing. You NAILED it. :)

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