As soon as my first son was born, I began to feel it: guilt. Omnipresent, constantly crushing, never-ending guilt. I felt it when I didn’t spend enough time with my newborn, felt it when I wasn’t able to breastfeed him, felt it when I had my second son and didn’t have one on one time with my oldest, felt it when neither one had eaten a single vegetable that day, and felt it when I yelled at them. Guilt, guilt, guilt.
Guilt can be destructive. While self-improvement is essential in parenting, feelings of guilt can lead to depression, anxiety and resentment.
I just gave birth to my third son. Parenting guilt has become an almost constant companion over these last five years. After quiet contemplation and re-evaluation of my priorities as a parent, I’ve been able to find a few ways to reduce this guilt. I don’t think I can ever extinguish it completely, but being able to minimize the guilt makes me a better parent, wife, worker and person.
Don’t be afraid to say ‘sorry’
On occasion I screw up. I yell at my kids, I punish them for something they didn’t do, or I just generally fall short. I’ve realized that apologizing to my kids not only makes me feel better, but it teaches them that there are healthy ways to right a wrong.
A few weeks ago I was having a particularly exhausting day. Work deadlines were looming, my newborn had been up frequently during the night, and, while it was almost noon, I was still in my pajamas and feeling like a slug. My two oldest boys disappeared for a while into their bedroom. I was anxious at the chance to sit down for a minute, but soon learned the break came at the expense of a new tube of finger paint, artistically smeared all over their floor.
I got super mad. I yelled. I told them they knew better, that they needed to clean up every spot of paint, and that it needed to be done now or Mom would “lose it.” They scurried around trying to clean things up, which only made the mess inevitably worse. My blood pressure started to rise as I realized cleaning things up would cost me precious minutes I didn’t have that day. I felt myself getting angrier, and in turn, feeling immediately guilty for that anger.
So I stopped. I sat down with my boys and gave them each a hug. I apologized for yelling, I helped them get some rags, and together we all cleaned up the mess.
Apologizing to my kids helps me feel like a more effective parent. While it doesn’t take away the impact negative parenting moments may have on my kids (and we all have them) it shows them that Mom is human, that she makes mistakes and that it’s OK to say sorry.
Admit that you’re a good parent
For whatever reason, moms especially have a hard time admitting to themselves when they are doing a good job. And most of us are doing a fantastic job.
I tend to let guilt shroud my self-confidence when it comes to parenting. I tend to be amazingly hard on myself. “Oh man, you should have read that book to Sam today when he came asking,” “I can’t believe I didn’t play more with the kids outside today,” “I spend too much time on my phone. I need to be more present for my kids.” These thoughts and a million like them cloud my days. They bring me down and create a fog of guilt around my head.
I’m learning more and more to remember to tell myself what an amazing parent I am. My kids love me. I’m doing a pretty awesome job. Sure, I fall short, but for these little men, I’m the very best they’ve got, and it’s not so bad.
I hear moms and dads all the time depreciate the way they parent their kids. It becomes almost habitual. Saying out loud, “I’m really good at disciplining my kids,” or “my kids really love and respect me,” seems so vain. But it’s not, and it can be incredibly helpful as a parent to admit, aloud and to yourself, that you’re doing amazingly well.
Focus on the macro, not the micro
Quite often, I find myself obsessing over meaningless moments. I keep myself up at night agonizing over times during the day when I lost my temper, didn’t play Legos long enough with the boys, let them eat too much sugar, didn’t feed them enough good stuff, missed a teaching opportunity, and so forth. I’m realizing more and more that most of the time, these things don’t matter in the long run.
My wise sister, who has raised five children, told me once that she views parenting like a bank; you just have to make more deposits than withdrawals. Make sure you're loving your kids and providing a safe and generally happy environment for them. Chances are in 20 years they won’t remember that you lost your temper that one time, or said something you shouldn’t have, or made a mistake. But they will remember how they felt overall growing up. They’ll remember the relationship they had with their mother and father in the home, and how it shaped them into the person they are.
Focusing on the big picture helps eliminate guilt because it provides an opportunity for parents to learn from their mistakes. Instead of dwelling on a momentary moment of misjudgment, we can take that moment and turn around and make it better the next time. Knowing that our kids will probably not remember all the minute times we screw up makes it easier to move on from mistakes and let go of daily guilt.
It goes without saying that focusing on the big picture never justifies neglect or abuse. It can, however, help ease the guilt of momentary mishaps and the inevitable parenting “oops” moments that come with raising these small, adorably frustrating humans.