Fellow moms: How many times in the last month or so can you remember saying “I felt so guilty:”
Probably at least once or twice, right? And let’s face it, that sentence most likely didn’t end with “:but I decided to toss the kids onto the side of the highway and see if they’d make it home anyway!” or something equally unforgivable. My guess is, you admitted to feeling “so guilty” over something relatively innocuous, like saying “no” to a playdate or reaching for a box of Sugar Krispin’ Krackles instead of Kashi.
See, I think guilt – true guilt, the kind you feel when you do something really wrong so that you won’t ever want to do it again – isn’t really so bad. In fact, I actually think that guilt is a necessary part of good parenting, not to mention the survival of human civilization. Guilt keeps us honest and forces us to pay attention, face our demons, and try harder next time.
That red-faced remorse I felt immediately after spanking my oldest child for the first time? Well-placed guilt. In that case, the guilt inspired me to apologize, to pull together some more effective discipline techniques, and to be proactive about keeping off that edge where I might lose it in the future. Without guilt, there would have been no such change, no such improvement. Properly harnessed and identified, in fact, I think a little second-thinking can be one of our most effective parenting tools.
The problem is, we often assign this feeling to emotions that aren’t guilt at all. We feel anxiety (because we’re worried our kids might have a hard time with the upcoming move) or sadness (because we’ll really miss our child while we’re out of town, even though we definitely want to go) and mentally categorize it in the huge, unwieldy GUILT column. Sometimes we even feel pretty good about our choices and then wonder if there’s something wrong with us because we don’t feel anything like guilt. And then : we feel guilty for not feeling guilty. Huh?
Thing is, there would be absolutely no point to me feeling guilty because I chose to go away for the weekend with my husband or decided that violin camp for my eldest son is too expensive. If I weigh a decision carefully and then make a choice that takes everyone’s needs into account, I owe it to myself (and everyone else in the family) to embrace that choice and move forward with it cheerfully, or at least with conviction.
Here’s my unpopular theory: Often, we say we feel guilty because we think it softens some small motherly sin. That way, we can confess to a decision that might seem a little self-serving or sloppy; something relatively minor like leaving your baby with your mother-in-law to get a pedicure, deciding to forego an expensive enrichment class for your preschooler, or buying a store-bought cake for your five-year-old’s birthday party. And when we admit to our “transgression,” we’ll still get the nod of forgiveness from other moms.
It’s basic mom bonding. We admit to all our little faults and then pepper them liberally with professions of our own guilt as well as validation of one another’s guilty feelings. But at the same time, we denounce guilt and moan about how guilty “the world” makes us feel for our parenting decisions – from not breastfeeding long enough to letting our children wear mismatched socks. All the while, we seem to go out looking for things to feel guilty about. Is it just me, or is this messed up and completely unproductive?
We aren’t helping anyone, least of all ourselves, when we continue to cloak ourselves in the same guilt we’re supposedly trying to shrug off. And we do other mothers no favors by constantly walking around talking about how guilty we feel, even when – especially when – it’s not strictly true. It just perpetuates the idea that doing X – whether it’s leaving the kids with a sitter, serving up mac and cheese for dinner, or forgetting a dental appointment – should make us feel guilty; that these are mom offenses worthy of remorse.
Getting out from under the thumb of professed guilt, we can more easily recognize when we’re making not-so-great choices and steer our boats in a new direction. Those Sugar Krispin’ Krackles? As a once-in-a-while purchase, no biggie. If my kids were having it for dinner every night, on the other hand, I might want to re-think my meal plan. That doesn’t mean I need to go to confession to unload the guilt of the week I got lazy; but I can use that uncomfortable feeling to do better going forward.
So moms, I propose that we embrace our imperfections. Logically, we all know that guilt is counterproductive, but sometimes you have to fake it ’til you make it. Maybe that means next time you make a parenting choice, even a difficult one that you aren’t 100% sure about, you talk about it openly (and even with a bit of swagger) instead of shrinking into self-consciousness. Maybe it means I can admire another mom’s handmade princess costume while still admitting, without a touch of hesitation, that sewing a Halloween costume is extremely unlikely to happen in my house. If we start with the assumption that we’re all doing the best we can, there’s no need for apologizing or hiding behind guilt.
Because if there’s anything we don’t want, it’s to pass down the legacy of rampant, oppressive mom guilt to the next generation of mothers. It all starts with us and the way we talk to each other about our kids : and in front of our kids.
And no, I’m not telling you that to make you feel guilty.