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Guilt is something that parents dread, but inevitably have to deal with throughout their children’s lives. For Jillian Harris, it’s a natural part of life that she is learning how to navigate when it comes to her son Leo George, 8 months.
“I think that everybody gets mom guilt, and as females out there, I’m sure we’re all so hard on ourselves,” the former Bachelorette tells PEOPLE in an exclusive interview for this week’s issue that also includes show alums DeAnna Pappas Stagliano (season 4), Ali Fedotowsky-Manno (season 6), Ashley Hebert Rosenbaum (season 7), Emily Maynard Johnson (season 8) and Desiree Hartsock Siegfried (season 9) — all who welcomed babies in 2016.
“Should I work? How much should I work? Do I leave him with a nanny? Do I don’t?” continues Harris, 37, who appeared on The Bachelorette season 5 and now works as an interior designer and the host of Love It or List It Vancouver.
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“I feel like one of the things I always worried about is what kind of energy would I have around him,” Harris continues. “I know that he senses that energy and I think, for the most part, if I’ve ever had a bad day or frustrating day or if I’m sad, I feel like I’ve been strong for him so far. I know that there’s going to be a day where I break down and he’s going to have to witness that.”
The mom of one — who got engaged to Leo’s dad Justin Pasutto, 29, on Christmas Day — admits that even though she has come to terms with the fact that she is only human, she still carries the weight of one particular instance that she does “feel very guilty about.”
“He was probably 10 days old and we were at our Vancouver house setting up the nursery and I had him in one of those little like bouncy chairs. And he was sleeping. And I didn’t strap him in because I didn’t want him to wake up,” she recalls.
“I went downstairs to grab some laundry and we heard some crying upstairs and we ran upstairs, and he had slid out and rolled over,” Harris continues. “And that’s before we even started him on tummy time or anything. It had maybe been like five seconds, but Justin was like, ‘Jillian! Why didn’t you strap him in?’ ”
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” ‘Oh my God,’ ” I said. ” ‘Please never tell anybody that this happened.’ So that was probably the most guilt that I’ve felt, and [now I say] ‘From now on, you get strapped into everything.’ ”
The tears Harris may have shed over that incident weren’t the first surrounding her little boy. She recounts the first time she left Leo with a nanny when he was around 3 months old.
“I sobbed — like, you know those cries where you can’t even breathe? — all the way to work, and I cried all day,” she admits, saying the incident was “my biggest cry since I’ve had him.”
“It was a disaster. My heart broke, and that’s when I realized, Mama ain’t going to be doing this for long. Like, I’m planning my exit strategy. I want to be at home more.”
Harris explains that she deals with her fair share of mom shaming, too (“If one more person tells me that the Sophie Giraffe gets black mold everywhere, ” she jokes). But some of the cry-inducing emotions she feels are completely because of just how much she loves her son.
“The other night … I was kind of lying there watching [Leo] while he was sleeping, and then he opened his eyes and just stared at me … and looked at me like, ‘I love you,’ ” she says. “Tears just started pouring down my face and there was nobody to share that with, it was just him and [me].”
“I’m like, ‘This is why I’m a mom. This is the best,’ ” Harris adds. “Nothing ever will beat that feeling.”
For more from the Bachelorettes on motherhood, pick up the newest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.