“I let my one-year-old watch TV so I can shower.”
“My kids subsist on macaroni and cheese and graham crackers.”
“Our three year old still sleeps in bed with us.”
“I used the cry-it-out method to get my daughter to sleep at night.”
“I went back to work when my baby was just 6 weeks old.”
“I turned my back for just a moment at the zoo.”
“I let my son play in the water unattended.”
Welcome to the world of “Mom guilt.” If you’re a mother, you are familiar with this particular form of culpability. It refers to the blame a mother, or any parent, places on herself about the choices she’s made and their perceived or real consequences. It could be a small thing like a skinned knee; “I shouldn’t have let him ride his bike without kneepads!” Or perhaps something with more tragic results. I’ve thought a lot lately about the guilt two specific mothers must be feeling after their young sons were caught in life-threatening circumstances. Sadly, one incident did result in a tragic loss. This hits awfully close to home for me. I’ve found myself feeling a mix of sadness and compassion for these women I’ve never met.
I can relate to the experience of taking my eyes off my child for a moment only to regret it. Recently, my toddler bolted off in a busy parking lot and I was quick to berate myself. He didn’t get hurt, but I imagined the worst. “How could I make such a stupid mistake? How could I be so thoughtless, so distracted, so . . . imperfect.”
What I’ve realized, with some help, is that there is something deeper going on here than your typical self-blame. Being a parent is the most intense vulnerability I have ever experienced. The very real fear of losing those most beloved is so paralyzing that most of the time we can’t tolerate it. There is real terror in recognizing that try as we might, we cannot protect our children from every conceivable danger. Even when we make all the right choices (and who can do that?), the world is not always a safe place. Not being able to unconditionally protect those we love most is perhaps the ultimate form of helplessness.
As parents we all have slip-ups, most of which won’t result in anything tragic. When that happens, it is easier on the psyche to focus on ourselves, specifically our guilt, than to acknowledge that we cannot control everything in the world. Like us, our children are vulnerable – to germs, accidents and mean people. As parents, we want to protect them. Focusing on our own wrongdoing is a way of feeling as if we have some degree of control. “If I’d been paying more attention this wouldn’t have happened!” Sometimes that might be true. But most circumstances are beyond our control, and that reality just doesn’t sit well with Mama Bear. Guilt becomes a way to bypass powerlessness. Rather than feeling the fear and vulnerability–we blame.
Whether you’re guilting yourself about formula feeding or the latest household mishap, I invite you to let in those feelings of vulnerability instead of focusing on the guilt. It may be difficult to experience this intense form of helplessness. Just let it be. Don’t try to change it, you can’t. Try just being curious next time you notice mom guilt. Ask yourself, “what am I afraid of in this circumstance?” Then, treat yourself to some well deserved compassion and self-care.
Mom guilt might be here to stay, but with curiosity and compassion it can work for you instead of against you.