(CNN) — Every morning, while I open granola bars and pass them to my children in the back seat, I feel a familiar pang of guilt reminding me that a good mother would have made them scrambled eggs and toast. A good mother would have the time and the money to structure their day in a way that fosters healthy growth and development. Maybe we would meet a friend for playtime at the museum and lunch? That's what I would do if I were a good mother.
Sometimes my son wakes up in a pee-soaked bed and I just wipe him down with a wet wipe because giving him a shower will take five precious minutes I just don't have. There are other shortcuts I've taken in the interest of time: Sending my daughter to school in my socks because she doesn't have any that are clean; digging a toy out from under the seat of the car for show-and-tell because I forgot to pack one.
The same script plays in my head every morning: "It's just temporary. We just need to get through this week, this month, the summer, this school year," and then: "They won't wait for you. Their childhood is now and they are not getting what they need. You aren't giving them what they need. They need you, and you're not there."
I always wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, and most of what I know about parenting and young children I learned in college, where I earned a bachelor's degree in human development. Working full-time while my kids burned the hours in a day care was on my list of things that "I will never do." I had worked in day care centers. I have seen the runny noses and tired eyes of a kid getting picked up from day care after a nine-hour day.
"Why have kids if you don't want to raise them?" I often judgmentally wondered to myself about those parents. "Can't you see how much they need you?" I had other "never will dos" and "will dos" rigidly etched onto my brain -- a guide I'd created to build the perfect childhood for my babies.
For the most part, I was able to stick to the plan for the first couple of years. Aside from being a little too broke in the very beginning to afford an SUV or a Gymboree membership, my early mommy years were just as I hoped they would be.
Soon, my husband made more money and mommy life got even better. My kids went to part-time preschool for a few hours in the morning and spent the afternoons riding their trikes in the street of a nice quiet neighborhood filled with kids and other stay-at-home moms. They helped me shop for organic groceries that I would bring home to make a dinner from scratch. I taught them to swim in our pool, taught my daughter to read and my son to count. My mommy life was perfect. There were definitely tantrums and messes, but I was very happy with most of the pieces of my life.
In all this perfection, I failed to notice that for my (then) husband, things weren't so perfect. When our babies were 2 and 4, he decided he'd had enough. He asked for a divorce and moved into an apartment in the city. Suddenly I found myself jobless and alone with two small children in a big, beautiful house with a "For Sale" sign in the front yard. Their father is still present in their lives, but this was not how things were supposed to go.
The years that followed were a blur of exhaustion, anxiety and guilt. I moved those children three times in two years. Slowly, I was building a career that would give us pieces of our lives back, but it was a hard time for all of us. Tears would run down my cheeks each time I watched my daughter bravely march into a new school and again at the end of the day when my son would squeal and run to me after a nine-hour stretch at day care. Their resilience was absolutely dumbfounding. They adapted to each change with a strength that I will never fully understand.
Play dates with neighborhood friends were few and far between. Our dinners now were mostly from the drive-through in the car on the way home, just in time to get in bed only to start all over again in the morning. There were days I gave a dose of Tylenol and crossed my fingers that the tail end of a fever wouldn't come back at school. It was certainly a far cry from homemade chicken noodle soup, ice cream, and a movie marathon that the same fever would have required just the year before.
Our journey has not ended yet, but now that we've settled, the ride is less bumpy. We have lived in the same house for two years. We have a network of friends and we're back in our old neighborhood. My kids have a lot of people who love and care for them. I finally earn enough money to live in a nice neighborhood and send my kids to good schools. We have a routine and we all feel like we're on solid ground. My house feels like a happy home.
But the guilt keeps coming because this is ground I never wanted them to stand on. I wanted them to have a daddy who comes home and wrestles with them or takes them out for doughnuts to give their mommy a break. I wanted them to walk home from school to find their mom in the house and snacks on the counter. I wantedto read to the class on Friday afternoons and volunteer to host Girl Scout meetings. I didn't want to have my face buried in my iPhone while pretending to watch "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic" with my daughter. I didn't want be a stranger to the other moms at school, and I didn't want to throw chicken nuggets at them when I just didn't have it in me to make dinner.
What I don't yet know is whether I am mourning my loss or theirs. I know I have to make peace with my choices, with our fate and with the childhood that they will experience, but I'm not there yet.