Being a newish participant in social media, I was heartened by the deluge of tributes I witnessed this week to mothers far and wide for Mothers Day. I don’t think anyone would argue with me that such recognition is extremely well deserved and often not adequately expressed.
But lets be brutally honest here. How many of us mothers out there truly FEEL, deep in our hearts, that we deserve all of this praise?
Best mother in the world? Who me?
As a former psychotherapist, mother of a teenager, and a current health coach, what I have discovered over and over again is that modern day mothers are completely riddled with guilt for the myriad of things they think they should be doing for their families and themselves that they aren’t.
Conscientious and often highly educated women, in particular, seem especially prone to mother guilt. They’ve read the baby books before their babies are even born, they watch the “educational” news shows and read parenting magazines. They are keenly aware of competition in education and begin priming their children to aspire to the best colleges before they are even out of grade school. The demand is endless–music lessons, year round travel sports, clubs, activities that encourage leadership and/or community service, perfect grades… And then there are the other “shoulds” like feeding your family healthy meals, teaching your children responsibility with chores, keeping a respectably clean and stylish home, all while continuing to stay looking young and fit.
These standards are what make us great moms, but I would venture that this pressure is also what makes us feel so guilty because, News Flash, no one can do all this without something giving somewhere.
Let me ask you, how many of you mothers out there have lamented the lack of sit down family dinners in the past week?
How many of you moms feel trapped into, yet guilty for, buying too much processed food and not cooking enough whole food meals at home?
How many of you wish you could have a couple of hours to yourself during the week, but then feel guilty for that?
Guilt is an interesting emotion. If asked what the purpose of guilt might be, most would probably say that it’s role is to motivate us to do better, make amends, and learn from our mistakes so that we will make better choices in the future. But I want you to stop and think about this for a minute. Is guilt really a motivating emotion for you?
What kind of thoughts tend to come along with your mother guilt?
How do those thoughts make you feel in general and about yourself in particular?
What do those feelings make you want to do?
Here is how a typical session of mother guilt works for me. Say I watch my son grab a box of sweetened cereal and sit down to two servings for breakfast. I feel a wave of guilt. I tell myself I really shouldn’t have let him talk me into buying it and that I am actually harming him by letting him eat it. My heart drops to my stomach and I feel a bit sick. I wonder why I, a health coach and chef, can’t get my own son to eat something better like steel cut oats with fresh fruit and no sugar. I start to beat on myself about my general worth as a mother, and even question my competence as a health coach.
Then here is where it gets interesting….I make the grand promise to myself–Never Again! I tell myself in no uncertain terms that I will not buy this cereal one more time! And yet, the thought is more like a form of punishment, a self flagellation engineered for penance, than of true motivation. Rather than feeling the energy, hope and promise that comes with real motivation, my feelings are of depression, resignation, and self anger. I feel heavy, miserable, defeated. Does this sound familiar? Does it sound like someone who is likely to have the “get up and go”, self-confidence, and persistence to follow through on a new family nutrition plan anytime soon? NOT! It sounds like someone who is likely to climb into bed and put the covers over her head, or worse, go eat a bag of M & M’s because life is so hard and she justs wants to feel better.
I maintain that guilt is a harmful, completely unproductive emotion unless it is managed in a healthy way. Feelings of guilt must be the first and last stop on the emotion railroad, not allowed to be the endless track itself.
The feeling of guilt, if recognized right away and stopped in its track, is nothing more than an indicator that something is not right with how our priorities and/or morals are matching up with our actions.
That is ALL it means. It suggests nothing about ourselves as mothers or as a human beings. It simply means it is time to get off the guilt track and on to a new one, a track of self examination and problem-solving.
Let’s go back to my example above. I watch my son eat the cereal and feel an immediate sensation of guilt that soon spirals into much more. But now, instead of getting on the blame and self-flagellation train, I see the guilt as a red flag that maybe the way I am living is not matching up with my priorities. So I get off the guilt track and step onto another train whose first stop is to ask myself the following question:
What really are my priorities here and how do they interact with one another?
Let’s explore this question with my original example. While I do have a very high priority to serve my family only healthy food, I also have a high priority to keep the peace with my teenage son and not damage my relationship with him by digging my heels in too far with rigid food rules. It seems my equally strong priorities are in conflict with one another.
I realize that I can either adjust my priorities here or make some sort of conscious compromise between the two. So I ask myself, “do I wish to put nutrition higher on my priority list and suffer the consequences to my daily interactions with my son? I decide not, exactly. Instead I come to a compromise between the two priorities. I give in to some degree over the “boxed cereal for breakfast” fight with my son, but I decide to buy only healthier boxed cereals that he is willing to eat. This my conscious decision, made not by entering onto the crazy guilt train and making punitive demands of myself that will make me feel awful and thus, unlikely to change, but by carefully stepping off the guilt track and examining what is important to me.
Yet oh my gosh, what happened to the guilt? Suddenly it has disappeared. While I may wistfully wish that things could be different and that I could get rid of boxed cereal in my house forever, I realize I’ve acted in the manner most consistent with my priorities. This realization feels good. I experience a calm self confidence, rather than feeling beaten down and resigned. I feel in control over my life and my decisions rather than believing that life is controlling me. I am at peace.
In my next post I am going to get more specific about how we can productively use guilt, particularly guilt about family nutrition and health habits, to cue us into a careful examination of our priorities and then into a mode of productive problem solving. This is the train track we must ride if we truly wish to make significant, sustained changes in our lives. Self-punitive, reactive measures just don’t work!!
Don’t you think it is time to get off the crazy mommy guilt train and be the mom you most authentically want to be?