It seems like every other day another article comes out about mommy guilt. A woman whom we all relate to discusses how overwhelmed she felt by thoughts that she was never doing enough for her kids, partner, house, job, or life. Usually there was a turning point where she realized that she was tilting at windmills and trying to achieve the impossible when what she really needed to do was give herself grace and embrace the cheerios on the floor. Many moms applaud this kind of writing because it tells us that other people are imperfect so it might be ok if we don’t do everything the sanctimommies claim they do.
I’ll admit that as a completely imperfect mom, I am sometimes drawn to these stories. It is nice to read about other women who are just as exhausted as I am at the end of the day and who have to remind themselves to look interested during yet another 30 minute monologue on Minecraft. I like the idea that there are other moms who fantasize about burning the laundry pile and sometimes yell at their kids. In general, I think that women need more grace to be human instead of more pressure to live up to standards that are often contradictory and impossible.
Typically, these pieces end with a declaration that the mom is completely eschewing all the guilt and refusing to allow it any place in her life. We are supposed to cheer at this new found enlightenment but that is where the professor in me pokes her head up. I teach Introduction to Psychology to first year college students and I work hard to teach them that all of our emotions have a purpose. Our feelings are there to help us understand our world and what people or events mean to us. Anger is a natural response to a violation, sadness tells me that I have suffered a loss and fear says that I am in danger. Like every other feeling, guilt exist for a reason. Go ahead and clutch your pearls but I’m going to say it, mommy guilt is not always a bad thing. Guilt lets me know when I may have done something wrong. When I feel guilty for something that I am actually responsible for, and I feel it in an appropriate intensity, I can learn from my mistakes and become a better parent. The problem is sometimes mommy guilt turns into mommy shame and that is harmful.
Brene Brown is a researcher who has spent years studying some of our most difficult emotions. She teaches that there is an important difference between shame and guilt which many people miss. Guilt tells us that we have done something bad while shame tells us that we are bad. That distinction is important because it influences how we respond to our inner dialogue. Guilt encourages me to think about what I did and how I can repair it. Shame often causes us to shut down more and isolate farther.
Imagine that you are making dinner at the end of a horribly long day. You are tired and frustrated and just trying to make it till bedtime so you can crash on the couch with wine, popcorn and Scandal. Sensing this, your kids go into overdrive and push every button until you snap. Then they look at you with those big watery eyes like you just broke their little hearts. What do you then? What are the voices in your head saying for the rest of the night? Do your thoughts sound more like shame or guilt?
Shame says: I am a horrible mother. I ALWAYS yell at them. I mess up everything. I am destroying my kids. I want to put them in bed now and hide. I wish I wasn’t such a bad a mom. I just can’t do anything right. I wish I was more like that other mom who has everything together and never struggles.
Guilt says: I made a mistake. I was tired and upset and I took it out on them. I need to apologize to my kids. Next time I will try taking a few minutes alone to decompress after work before making dinner. I love my kids and also I am human so I mess up sometimes.
Do you hear the difference there? When shame speaks, it can feel overwhelming. Guilt recognizes that there is a problem but that problem does not define you. You made a mistake but you are not one. Guilt is not something we have to run from because it teaches us to be better parents, partners and people. Shame on the other hand is rarely helpful. Shame makes the problem bigger while tearing you down. It takes time and effort but you may find yourself experiencing more peace as your learn which voice to listen to.
The next time that mommy guilt or mommy shame are competing for space in your life, try thinking through these questions:
Is this something I should feel guilty about?
Am I remembering to focus on what I DID instead of who I AM?
Do I feel more guilt than I should about what I did?
How would I like to address this situation differently in the future or make repairs with the person I hurt?
Most moms struggle with guilt and shame at some point. We put so much pressure on ourselves to be the perfect mom that it can feel overwhelming. Learning to set realistic standards for ourselves can help us to resist the shame and listen to guilt when it says that there is something we can tweak. Let’s continue this conversation in the comments below or on my facebook page.
*Note: We all feel guilt and shame from time to time.Often we feel better when we talk with friends or work on changing our thoughts. If negative emotions start to feel overwhelming or you are afraid you might hurt yourself or someone else, it may be time to speak to a therapist. You can search for one near you at this website. Remember that there is no shame is getting help.