We live in strange times, living much of our life online. Social media affects who we are and how we feel about everything, including motherhood.
Through the filter of Pinterest, Facebook and Instagram, the guilt which seems to be an integral part of motherhood gets amplified. It can make best of us feel like it’s impossible to measure up.
No one likes to feel guilty. It’s not much fun. We can expend a lot of energy trying not to feel the guilt which lurks in us all. A new mother seems to have two choices. Work your butt off to achieve Pinterest-ready perfection. Or throw in the towel.
You can co-sleep yourself into a sleep deprived neurosis. Declutter, spring clean, systemize, organize and plan your home into an impossible level of perfection. Eliminate anything processed, sugar laden or practical from your family’s diet. Or whatever your definition of what good motherhood is meant to look like. It might even work. You’ll banish your guilt. But you’ll be in danger of becoming a burnt out shell of a human being.
If you admit defeat before you even get started, you risk becoming defensive and bitter. Perhaps you’ll write articles defending the amount of time your kids spends watching TV, or your addiction to your iPhone (maybe that was just me).
Bury your guilt down as far as it will go and maintain an anything goes approach to your kid’s life. Junk food, screen time, whatever else you know is bad for them. Best not to think about it. We all know you’re tired, who can blame you? You’ll find plenty of other moms willing to join you on this route.
But neither approach works. The guilt is always there bubbling below the surface. You’re constantly using up emotional or physical energy to avoid the feeling. And anyone who says they don’t feel mom guilt is probably trying to sell you their fail proof and proven method to becoming Super Mom. Who needs that?
What if there’s a third way? A way to acknowledge you feel guilty sometimes, but which empowers you to make your guilt work for you. You don’t have to aim for perfection or end up feeling stuck and defensive when your choices are less than satisfactory.
What would happen if we learned to listen to our mom guilt? Is it possible to find a way to use that feeling to propel us into something better? Rather than becoming bitter or burnt out we can keep moving forward.
What is guilt?
Before we go any further, let’s take a moment to define our terms. We often use the words shame and guilt interchangeably. However, there is a significant difference in meaning. Brene Brown has some useful thing to say about this.
She says that shame tells you ‘I am bad.’ Fundamentally as a human and as a mom. No matter how hard you try you will never measure up, you will always be a bad mom. That’s who you are.
Guilt, on the other hand, opens the possibility for change and improvement. It says ‘I did something bad.’ Making mistakes is part of being human, but mistakes have a solution.
We need to remember the term is mom guilt, not mom shame. In other words, you are not a bad mom. You are a good mom who has bad days, and it is within your power to chose how to respond to that.
Why do we feel guilty?
In her book “Emotional Agility” Susan David points out that among the seven basic human emotions the majority of them are negative and difficult to feel. She argues that there must be a reason for this, evolutionarily speaking.
All of our emotions must have a purpose. Our guilt might be trying to tell us something. If we can find a way to slow down and get curious about what we are feeling and why, maybe we will learn some valuable information.
David says that she feels guilty for having to be away from her children for work, but points out that: “My guilt is a flashing arrow pointing toward the people I love and the life I want to lead.”
In other words, your guilt might be trying to tell you what matters to you. Some reasons for mom guilt might be universal, but others may be specific to your personal circumstances.
I tend to feel guilty when I’ve been feeding my son too much processed food. This tells me I value healthy, home cooked meals. I care about nutrition, and I know it’s important for growing minds and bodies.
I feel less guilty about the amount of time he watches TV. We have limits on TV time (he’s about to turn three for reference), although some days those limits are ignored. But, as we live overseas, I weigh the benefit of English language input through Netflix against whatever some expert or fellow mom has to say about dangers of too much screen time.
What to do with our guilt once we’ve heard what it’s telling us?
First I ask why I’m feeling guilty, then I start to wonder why I’m making particular choices. Why, if I value home cooked meals, am I not making sure I provide them right now? Are there some changes I need to make?
Do I need to get on top of meal planning? Maybe I can spend a few minutes on Pinterest and find a printable meal planner. Or perhaps the issue is that there is not enough time to shop and cook? So I might need to look into grocery delivery service or stock the freezer in bulk, so I don’t have to think about it.
Or maybe I just need to go easy on myself for a change. Am I my own worst critic? Maybe a week of crappy food, when I was extra busy and tired, isn’t the end of the world. I live don’t have a lot of outside help. Trying to be Wonder Woman or comparing myself to someone else is super unhelpful.
Maybe your guilt is telling you where you need to make some changes. Or maybe what you need is to learn to practice a little self-compassion.
If your friend came to you saying how she was such a terrible mom for letting this one ball drop would you join her to pile on the blame? Or would you tell her she’s doing a fantastic job and the kids are totally fine? Why are we so hard on ourselves?
Maybe I need to stay away from Pinterest and Facebook for a while. I don’t need to see anyone else boasting about how their kids eat kale and homemade sauerkraut. Or whatever. Maybe we all need time offline sometimes.
Maybe what our kids need isn’t a mom who is always trying so hard, but one who is learning to love herself more fully instead.