“I’m just a bad mom.”

If you have kids, you’ve said it. Being a bad mom is so much a part of mom culture there’s even a movie about it. It’s the excuse we use when we don’t know what we’re doing. The excuse we toss out when we’re guilty about taking time for ourselves or putting our needs first. The excuse for why our houses are messy and our hair isn’t washed (#day12ofdryshampoo anyone?).

We talk about being bad moms far more often than we call ourselves good ones. 

I became a bad mom almost instantly. Just days after I’d taken my son home from the hospital, I was up at 3 a.m. in desperate need of a shower and with no idea what the rest of our day would look like. I was living in a strange town where I had no history or support. My husband’s job came with a 4-hour commute. My best friend was 12 hours away and childless. I had been a mom for less than a month and I wanted a break. 

Plenty of women are moms. They take multiple children to the grocery store on their own. They know what to pack in a diaper bag. They know where to meet other moms and schedule play dates.

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It wasn’t the transition into motherhood that was hard, it was me. I called myself a bad mom so often those first few months, the title settled around me like skin. I felt untethered from the world. I didn’t recognize myself or my life. I was scared for myself and my baby. 

Being a bad mom wasn’t as fun as it looked in the movies.

I settled into a new normal of crying myself to sleep (when I could get sleep), feeling disconnected from the reality of my new life, and wondering what on earth I’d been thinking. I was embarrassed to ask anyone who knew me for help. I had been an editor who read—at least—five books a week. Now I couldn’t even make it through a book review. 

My husband demanded I call my OB and ask about postpartum depression (I had not been tested for it at my post-natal follow-up appointment). It took the office four weeks to get back to me, only to reschedule and eventually cancel my appointment. Another confirmation that I was the problem. I wasn’t sick. I was just a bad mom. If it was important, if other women went through this, everyone would be taking it seriously. I wasn’t sure what giving up meant, but I was ready to consider it as an option.

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But before giving up, I tried one last thing. I blocked all my social media accounts. I’d been spending every free minute I could scrolling through other moms’ posts and with every minute, I felt worse and worse. I wasn’t Pinterest perfect. I wasn’t staging elaborate monthly photoshoots. I wasn’t an ironic bad mom with sarcastic quotes painted on a wine glass.

I was just failing.

But without anything to compare myself to, I had to confront myself. And in the light of reality, it was obvious the thoughts I was having—the bad mom thoughts—weren’t objective and they weren’t funny. They lived in a part of my brain that wasn’t healthy. I wasn’t a bad mom. I was sick. 

I needed to get better. I needed to start taking care of myself with the same compassion I took care of my son.

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As I put less pressure on myself, I was able to find more time to take care of myself. I spent time online learning about postpartum depression. I got help through Postpartum Support International. I didn’t feel like my pre-baby self, but I wasn’t ready to give up either.

My baby is two now. I am still not the woman I was before becoming a mother. My time isn’t always my own, but sometimes it is. It’s an ongoing process. As my son’s needs change, so do mine. I’ve started treating motherhood like any other relationship. There is compromise. There are hard limits. We can’t both have what we want all the time.

We are learning from each other.

And I don’t post about what a bad mom I am on the bad days because the truth is . . . 

I am a mom who sometimes struggles with my mental health.

I am a mom who sometimes puts myself first.

I am a mom who sometimes has no alone time.

I am a mom who sometimes works.

I am a mom who sometimes spends all day with my kid.

I am a mom who sometimes has afternoon dance parties.

I am a mom who sometimes struggles and cries.

I am a mom who sometimes lets my kid cry.

I am a mom who is sometimes joyously, blissfully happy.

I am a mom who is sometimes not happy at all.

But I am not a bad mom. 

And neither are you.

Theresa Panuski

Theresa lives outside of Chicago with her son and husband. Formerly the managing editor for a non-profit publisher, she now works and writes from home--and still doesn't use social media.