Avoiding the Guilt Trap
Nearly a year into motherhood, I’ve come to the somewhat disheartening conclusion that guilt is going to be a big part of the rest of my life. It creeps up on me when I drop my son off at the nursery of our gym. It catches me off guard when I spot, from my office window, a stay-at-home mom on the way to the park with her kids. It lurks in the shadows as I prepare meals, make plans for a night out, or take a longer-than-usual shower.
I’m not alone. I hear it all the time from my fellow mommy friends, “I just feel so bad when I…” The rest of the sentence looks a little different each time: “leave my daughter with my husband when I go to get a pedicure” or “pick up pizza instead of cooking dinner” or “buy myself something instead of using the money on my kids.”
As with many feelings, guilt is not all bad. Guilt causes us to reflect on something we’ve done or something we’re doing and to ask ourselves if we should keep doing it. In this way, guilt can motivate us to make important changes. Unfortunately, guilt also can be a barrier that keeps us from doing good things for ourselves and from enjoying ourselves when we decide (force ourselves?) to do those things. So, what are our guilt traps, and how do we free ourselves from them?
Guilt trap #1: Seeking perfection.
Free yourself: It’s natural sometimes to question if you might be doing something wrong as a parent. Some nights when I lie in bed, I wonder what my son will hold against me when he is an adolescent or an adult. We all have our moments when we act out of anger or frustration and soon regret it. We all could be better at some of our parenting techniques. But, setting standards too high is stressful. Do the best you can, and find some satisfaction in knowing how hard you try.
Guilt trap #2: Comparing yourself to other parents.
Free yourself: Just stop it already! There will always be moms out there who do things better than we do, and there will be others who do things worse. Who cares? Learn what you can from the successes and failures you witness, but stop keeping score. Parenting is not a competition. Focus on what you’re doing and on getting better at it, not on what’s going on around you.
Guilt trap #3: Thinking “I should have known” when something bad happens.
Free yourself: You are not a psychic. Try as we may, we can’t prevent every accident or mishap in our children’s lives. You simply can’t blame yourself when your toddler falls and bumps his head or when your kindergartner trips over a cord and breaks a lamp. You only can do so much. When something goes wrong, remember that a lot of life is outside of our control.
Guilt trap #4: Feeling like you are repeating the mistakes your parents made.
Free yourself: As much as we don’t like to face it, our behavior is learned. If your mom slapped you on the hand every time you reached for something she didn’t want you to touch, chances are your natural reaction to similar situations with your own kids may be a smack. We certainly can learn from the mistakes of generations past and attempt to avoid repeating history. However, our learned behavior may sneak in every once in a while. As long as you’re not harming yourself or your family, accept your mistakes, learn from them, and move on. Our parents weren’t perfect, but we turned out okay, right? There’s some comfort in reminding ourselves of that.
Guilt trap #5: Listening too hard to what others say.
Free yourself: Think “grain of salt” with this one. Just today, a woman approached me and said in a disdainful tone, “why isn’t your son walking yet?” I mean, seriously?! All I could think was, “Come on, lady, are you really judging me for my almost one-year-old’s preference for crawling?!” Every time you hear, “do you really let him/her do that?” or “oh, s/he’s much too old to be…”, smile, and remind yourself that children develop at different paces and that your choices about how to parent your child are based on your own reasons—reasons that you don’t have to share with anyone who questions how you do things or how your child is turning out.
Guilt trap #6: Forgetting who you were before you were a mom.
Free yourself: Every once in a while, think back to what your life looked like before you gave birth. What was important to you then? What were some of your favorite activities? Then, give yourself permission to fit some of those things into your life now. As busy moms, it’s therapeutic to take a little time for ourselves each day. Don’t sacrifice your workout, a healthy lunch, or your friendships just so you can avoid feeling guilty. Sure, be selective with your sacrifices. Are you going to give the whole fam PB&Js every evening for dinner so you can make a daily spinning class? Probably not. However, tossing a frozen meal in the microwave or ordering takeout here and there is not a bad thing, especially if it means mama can catch a glimmer of her old self. Most of us have no intention to get back the lives we had before we had kids, but keeping in mind that we are more than just moms is important too.
The next time you’re feeling guilty, ask yourself if the remorse is doing you any good. Are you feeling guilty because there is something in your life that truly needs to change? Or, have you fallen into a guilt trap? Remember that you’re not doing yourself any favors by letting guilt keep you from the activities you value. In fact, you’ll probably be a better mom if you let go of the guilt and do what makes you happy. And we’ve heard it all before, happy moms make happy babies. As a mom, your life will never be guilt-free, but doing what you can to free yourself from some of the guilt can be good for you and your family!