Listening to the Mom Guilt

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Children need kind, consistent, well-informed parents. Whatever parenting beliefs a mom holds, if they’re backed up in fact (good advice, careful observation, and thoughtful research) and implemented kindly and consistently, children will turn out okay.

All of this requires confidence. I find that when I’m feeling worried, guilty, or unsure, I don’t apply my beliefs or approaches consistently or kindly. I get frustrated, and that frustration can come out on my child. I waffle back and forth on how to do things, confusing my child who needs consistency to navigate his world.

Have you ever noticed that the most volatile of parents are also the most easily swayed? A lack of confidence in one’s discipline methods, for instance, can turn a kid whining for candy in the checkout line into the end of the world for the parent, too. Flustered and at her wit’s end, the mom starts yelling at her child to stop whining. When the whining inevitably escalates into all-out tantrumming, the mom will scream, “Fine! Have the candy!”

Without confidence, our worry, guilt, and uncertainty makes us lose our cool and our parenting approaches that made much more sense when we read that article a few days ago.

Unfortunately for moms, this uncertainty crops up everywhere, sometimes even right after we’ve gained certainty. I’ll study out an issue and come to a satisfying conclusion, only to hit a roadblock with my baby (or a well-meaning online comment) that sends me reeling back to the drawing board. More often than not, this uncertainty feels like guilt — mom guilt.

Since we carry around mom guilt about the smallest, craziest of things, we think that the guilt is something to get rid of. It’s inaccurate and unhelpful. It’s certainly something moms shouldn’t listen to.

But maybe it isn’t.

Whenever I feel mom guilt, I’ve found leaning into that feeling to be productive and insightful. Even though the feeling manifests as guilt and often begins in response to a less-than-gracious question or rant, it’s drawing on many of those other underlying mom emotions. I don’t feel mom guilt about the things I confidently believe and have seen successfully implemented. It never feels good to hear another philosophy or parent questioning your style, but I put that in a different category than mom guilt.

I feel mom guilt about the new things, the uncertain things, the things I’m not quite sure I understand or am doing correctly, the things that I think I should do according to the parenting philosophy I follow but that don’t feel right.

When I lean into the mom guilt, I hear what my gut is truly saying: I’m not sure this is working for my baby. I’m not sure this is working for me. I still have questions and concerns that bother me more than I want to admit. 

This is a matter of confidence. The mom guilt clues me in that I am not confident about some aspect of my parenting and that I should start troubleshooting the issue.

Sometimes I just need reassurance, either from a mom friend who’s been there and done that, or from my husband who’s ready to back me up when I chicken out, or from my own experience seeing a parenting decision work out well for our family. Being a mom is hard. It’s easy to lose perspective amidst the sea of options and potential disasters stemming from those options. Feeling confused turns into feeling inadequate — and that’s when good husbands, sisters, friends, mentors, and my own mother step in to remind me that I am a good mom and I will get through this.

Sometimes I need more research or thought. I’m analytical and systematic in my approach to parenting; I need to understand things conceptually in order to implement them practically, or I’m lost. Plus, there’s so much I don’t know! I thought babies would be more straightforward, but ever since the first moment when I held Emmerich and hoped to goodness I didn’t drop him, I’ve been Googling the most basic of things. Mom advice is indispensable in sorting through all the expert opinions and data, but the expert opinions and data still need to be sorted — including the personal data of observing my own baby more closely.

What I try not to do is stuff the mom guilt away. It’s right that we empower moms to listen to their motherly intuition, and that’s why it’s important to listen to the mom guilt: mom guilt is part of that motherly intuition. It’s not the comforting side where mom knows best. It’s the side that reminds you that you don’t always know best, especially in the particular situation making you uneasy.

Moms, like any humans, get caught up in their lofty parenting goals or limited perspectives or sleep deprivation or stress and fail to see their children clearly. We don’t know all the answers off the top of our head. We haven’t done all the research possible. Mom guilt reminds us of our humanity. While we need to respond to mom guilt with so much grace, we need to listen to the mom guilt when it shows us where we might have gone wrong — whether it’s as benign as losing confidence or not understanding our children or the issue or it’s as serious as potentially wronging our children.

All of us can think of loving, devoted mothers doing something from less-than-ideal information or ideology, even some truly horrible things like hitting children with plumbers’ pipe for punishment or yelling at their children, not apologizing, and then blaming their loss of temper on the children’s bad behavior. I would venture to guess that the majority of parents who hit their children or yell feel guilty about their actions, but instead of leaning into the guilt, they stuff it away with excuses and beliefs that led them to believe hitting or yelling is okay in the first place. How many broken parent/child relationships could have been saved if parents were encouraged to listen to the guilt they felt after inflicting overly harsh punishment or insensitively communicating?

A mom who doesn’t listen to her mom guilt can build up problems in her relationship with her children. As I said above, a lack of confidence often leads to a loss of the firm, kind, consistent parental leadership children need. Some parents let that lack of confidence and uncertainty fester into a feeling of inadequacy, lashing out at others — their children, their nosy relatives, the random people of the internet. Some parents overcompensate for their lack of confidence by putting on a show and justifying their behavior without true introspection.

It’s difficult to allow ourselves the possibility of being wrong as we interact with and care for the people we love most. Leaning in to the mom guilt requires (ironically) a level of confidence in our self-worth, and that’s hard to come by, especially for moms in a parenting culture of shame and way too much information.

But the grace we need is that it’s okay to be wrong. It’s okay to try something else. It’s okay to feel guilty, or uncertain, or clueless. We need to believe that for ourselves and for other moms so much that we’re empowered to admit when we’re wrong or unsure, and make the necessary change.

Kids don’t need perfect moms to turn out well. They need kind, consistent, well-informed moms — and all of us are capable of being that if we listen to our mom guilt and try again.

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3 thoughts on “Listening to the Mom Guilt

  1. Bethany

    This post was very inspiring and I loved everything about this! I even sent this link to my cousin who seems to struggle with this issue with her child! Of course, every mom wants her kids to love her and never get upset at her but the child needs the constant mom that does what’s best for the child! Thank you for this!

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