By Beth Berry
Pop quiz: What do the following have in common?
Food your baby sucks from a bag.
That empty threat you made that got him back in his carseat.
The soccer tournament you missed when you were home puking.
The movie they watched while you laid in bed and did nothing.
The fact that what's-her-face brought handmade, gluten-free, agave-sweetened, almond-flour cupcakes with raisins she dried from grapes grown by her guru and all you could manage was a jumbo box of cheddar bunnies.
You guessed it! Guilt. And not just any guilt, but mom guilt, the most relentless, indiscriminate strain of them all.
So what's the deal? Is there some mysterious right of passage (like through the birth canal) in which we see our perfect new babies for the very first time and are struck with a sudden sense that we've screwed the whole thing up from the start?
Or maybe it's a mammalian instinct that ensures we don't shirk our maternal duties? (You know, like all those guilt-ridden mares).
Or likely it's simply a punishment for being born a woman in the first place. (Easy now, dogma).
I'd like to propose another theory -- one based on nothing more than having worked through a good deal of guilt myself, watched as friends have struggled with it, too and seen the ways it contributes to a whole heck of a lot of nothing good.
Why Moms Feel So Guilty
- If there's one thing we don't want to screw up…it's our kids. The love we feel for them breeds an emotional intensity unmatched by most any other experience. We're not talking about pressure to pick the perfect paint color here, we're talking about the living, breathing beings we grew inside our bodies and birthed through nothing short of a miracle, whose very facial expressions, mannerisms and hair colics mirror our own. We're talking about our bloodline, our family lineage and the molding of future generations. Anyone else feel slightly under-qualified?
- We're plagued with options and bombarded with opinions. How to feed them, when to feed them, to wean them or let them wean? Public school, private school or no school at all? PET plastic, stainless steel or biodegradable? Save for college, take vacations or quit work and make do on one income? Not only are there a million choices when it comes to raising kids, but everyone and their mother has an opinion about how those choices ought to be made. This makes for a whole lot of second guessing, and guilt loves indecision.
- "Perfection" is plastered everywhere (and it doesn't look like us). Almost impossible to avoid and totally impossible to obtain, our culture has done a heck of a job making it seem as if "perfection" is the goal of a "good" mother. So when we fall short of the illusion (that we can have it all, that we can give it all and that we must add more in order to better our experiences), we feel we've failed, and the gates of guilt are flung wide open.
So what's a mom to do? She can't escape all the choices (nor avoid all unwarranted advice), she's not likely to attain imaginary "perfection" and -- though they sometimes make you wonder -- the love we feel for our kids is a lifelong contract.
Here's a method that's worked for me. The reason it works is because it's proactive and doesn't simply remove the guilt but replaces it with a new, more intentional set of emotions.
Redirect Mom Guilt in Three Empowering Steps
1. Embrace it (for a minute). All too often, we stuff, ignore or otherwise disregard unwanted emotions in attempts to be free of them. In my experience, honoring them and giving them (limited) undivided attention is a more effective first step in letting them go. Notice where you feel guilt in your body -- notice how it weakens you. Then recognize any other supporting emotions like fear, shame, embarrassment, regret or anger. Once you see them for what they are -- merely reactions to unexplored thoughts -- you can begin to weed them out and redirect them.
2. Give yourself more credit. Recognize that you do the best you can and that that's enough. Often, when we look back at decisions or circumstances and feel guilty about them, we are forgetting the old "hindsight is 20/20" adage. In the moment, we likely did what we thought was best or what we were able to do given our capacities or knowledge at that time. Likewise, we handle our current circumstances based on the resources and wherewithal we possess today. Acknowledging this idea -- along with the fact that nothing can be done to change the past -- begins to shed light on the futility of entertaining guilt and allowing it to grow.
3. Change your story. Guilt is a wanna-be emotion. Rarely sure of itself, it floats around, hanging out with and mooching off of other stronger emotions. You have to tell it what to do, where to go. For example, if my girl wants to take dance classes and we can't afford it, guilt (with nothing better to do) is first on the scene, rallying supporters: anger over our financial situation, regret that I haven't made enough money and fear that I'm not meeting her needs. But when I see it for what it is (lame and unproductive), I can change my story altogether to a more positive and proactive one:
My girl wants to dance. I love that she wants to dance. We don't have the money right now because we have chosen to live on one income so that I can be home with her and her sisters. I am also choosing free time over commitments because I believe family balance to be important. I provide for her in many other ways, am open to the possibility of dance classes in the future and for now, a dance party in the living room will suffice.
In this way, I not only let go of the guilt, but I affirm myself, create a positive place from which to parent and demonstrate a healthy reaction for my kids with which to process culturally-promoted "perfection" from a truer perspective.
Speaking of truer perspectives, I'd like to invite you over to my blog for a conversation I recently started about the need for a cultural shift with regards to homemaking (Redefine Homemaking, Change the World). Hope to see you there! (Oh, and when you leave the country for a couple of years and return to find that babies now suck food from bags, it takes a minute or two to process -- just for the record.)
About Beth Berry
Beth Berry is a writer, mother of four daughters and born idealist living the real life. When she's not orchestrating the household, she can be found in one of several precarious yoga poses, wandering indigenous Mayan food markets, or holed up in a sunny southern Mexican cafe with her laptop, a shade grown dark roast and a contemplative look on her face. Having lived against the grain as a baby-slinging, toddler-nursing, secondhand-shopping, wanna-be farmer for 17 years, she and her family decided to ditch the rat race for a taste of life abroad. Now, in addition to challenging conventional wisdom, she writes about her life-changing experiences working among women in extreme poverty and oppression. Keep up with her musings and adventures in imperfection at www.revolutionfromhome.com.