A few days ago while I was cleaning my daughter's bathroom sink, she said, "Hey mom, I remember one time when you were coming to check if we had cleaned our rooms, and I really wanted to please you. So I took some toilet paper and got it wet and cleaned my sink. And then you came in and told me it was a mess. It made me feel so bad."
Ugh. Mom guilt. I threw my daughter's gift back in her face and told her what she did wasn't good enough. I'm a monster.
Being a mom can come with a triple scoop of guilt. We find all the ways we're doing it wrong. We're not good enough. We're messing up our kids. And it doesn't help that family members, friends, social media, and the news often point out all our shortcomings.
There are a million reasons to feel mom guilt. We work. We stay home. We don't read to our kids enough, we don't feed them the right foods, we give them too much screentime, we don't enjoy being with them, we don't do enough fun family activities, we don't make them do chores, we make them do too many chores, and I could go on and on and on.
Guilt feels terrible, and it's not useful. Guilt never makes you a better mom. Guilt makes you insecure. Guilt leads to all kinds of behaviors that are net negatives for you and your kids. When we feel guilt, we snap at our family members and buffer away the negative feeling with excess food or Netflix.
Guilt is going to keep coming up, so what are constructive ways to deal with it?
1) Realize that you are a human, which means you screw it up sometimes. We all have moments when we are an awesome parent, and moments when we are a terrible parent. But most of the time, we're pretty good. We're all doing our best. Sometimes our best is terrible, and that's ok. One of my fellow coaches, Jody Moore, has a shirt that reads, "World's okayest Mom." I love it.
2) Question whether there is a "right" way. There is no right way to be a parent. Who gets to choose what is right for your family? You. That's it. Make parenting decisions intentionally, and then have your own back. It's totally fine if your mother-in-law thinks it's terrible that you work or don't work. That says something about your mother-in-law and her preferences. It says nothing about you or what is right for your family.
3) Don't compare. Just don't. I promise that lady you think is a better mom than you isn't a better mom. Sure, she probably is better in some ways, but she's worse in other ways. Your lives are different. Your kids are different. Your spouses are different. There's no way you can be like that other mom, so just don't try. You know who God looked at and said, "This parent is the perfect one for little Johnny?" You. Sure, we're all messing up our kids. But we're messing them up in all the best ways. If God had wanted children to be raised by perfect parents, he would have sent them to be raised by robot moms. He didn't.
4) Think about how you could improve. All of this isn't to say that you don't have things to work on. But guilt isn't the way to do that. You know what works great? Self-compassion and self-love.
Ask yourself why you did the thing causing you guilt, but ditch the judgment and self-loathing. That thing you did, that was just your action line. Move up in the model to your feeling. What were you feeling that produced the action? And then move up again, what thought sparked that feeling? That thought produced a result you didn't like, so let's look at it.
Let's examine the model from the example above about my daughter. Here was my model.
C: My daughter has a sink with dirt in it and little bits of toilet paper.
T: It's my fault that my daughter doesn't know how to properly clean a sink.
F: Guilt (check this out -- guilt made me show up in a way I ended up feeling guilty about later. Guilt upon guilt!)
A: Snap at daughter. Tell daughter she didn't do it right. Clean sink for daughter and make her watch how to do it properly. Judge self. Judge daughter. Ruminate on why I can't properly teach my children basic life skills.
R: I'm not being a good mom in this situation
Now that I clearly see what led to this series of events, I gain some power over it. I get leverage. I can look critically at my thought: Is it really a problem my 11-year-old daughter doesn't know how to properly clean a sink?
Actually, no. It's totally normal. Some thoughts take time to change, but this one is easy. As soon as I see it, I'm immediately ready to stop thinking this is a problem. Instead, I choose to see it as critical data I can use to be a better parent: Here is a skill I would like to teach my daughter.
I could use the knowledge of where I went wrong as another opportunity to feel guilt and beat myself up. But we know where that goes. Instead, I choose compassion. Hmm, that wasn't my best moment. I can apologize to my daughter and show her what it's like to recognize when you've made a mistake and correct it. I also get a chance to model self-forgiveness and self-love for her.
And next time, I'll do better.