Most of us are familiar with the concept of mommy guilt. That feeling of “I’m a terrible mom,” “I’m not good enough,” or “I failed my kids”. Sometimes it takes the shape of comparing ourselves to an idealized version of a mother, or to our peers, who always seem to have it together and are effortlessly mothering without faults.
I have felt it in various ways, too. When I’ve decided to forgo buying Valentines during a pandemic, but the teacher decides to buy them for my child, or when I wonder if it was my fault that my son had trouble gaining weight while breastfeeding as an infant. Sometimes, the guilt is self-inflicted – “I feel bad that my breastmilk wasn’t enough for him and he’s missed out on growing well” or seemingly inflicted by others, even if in well-meaning ways – “I remember how my kids were at that age, so I went ahead and bought some Valentines for X. to give out”.
The guilt seems one-dimensional and wholly directed at ourselves, until we take a moment to analyze it more closely. Shame and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown’s definitions of guilt and shame use the following distinction: Guilt is what we feel when we think we’ve done something bad, whereas shame is what we feel when we believe we are bad.
So thoughts like “I feel awful that I’m leaving my baby to go to work” are manifestations of mommy guilt, whereas “I am an awful mother for leaving my baby to go to work” is evident of mommy shame. In common parlance, we usually conflate the two into an umbrella term of “mommy guilt,” but it is an important distinction.
Shame is a focus on the self, whereas guilt is a focus on a behavior. Brené Brown believes that guilt can be a useful way of pinpointing behavior that may need to change, whereas shame is mostly self-destructive and harmful to the psyche.
I think of mommy guilt and shame as my feeling bad because I didn’t live up to my own expectations of motherhood, or to my perception of others’ expectations of me as a mother. In the Valentines example, I was okay making the trade-off between my child not having Valentines to give out and minimizing the risk of transmitting COVID, during a time when we weren’t sure how contagious surfaces were. However, when the teacher brought up how her kids would have felt, I felt guilty that I had somehow deprived my child of a wonderful experience. I also felt ashamed that the teacher may have thought I was a terrible mother for doing so.
Without taking a step back to analyze the situation, I could have easily fallen into a guilt and shame spiral and continually self-flagellated for my decision. In fact, I have done so in the past, many times.
This time, I tried to approach my thoughts about the situation in a neutral, curious way. Yes, I was feeling guilt and shame, but did that really mean I was being a bad mother? What if I acknowledged how I was feeling, accepted what my feelings were telling me, without judgment, and then let them go? What if it was OK that I had made a weighted decision not to provide Valentines AND the teacher’s decision to provide them was also OK? What if I didn’t automatically assume that the teacher thought I was a bad mother?
What if we didn’t constantly judge our own mothering skills?
Also from Brené Brown, resiliency is the ability to overcome adversity. Shame resiliency allows us to overcome harmful feelings of shame that erode our sense of self-worth and lead us to isolate ourselves from others. In practical terms, according to Brené, shame resiliency could mean practicing 1) vulnerability, 2) self-acceptance, 3) self-compassion, and 4) authenticity.
Vulnerability involves showing your true self to others, without hiding the “shameful” parts. It could mean telling your best friend that you fed your kids ice cream for dinner, or admitting that sometimes, you get so frustrated at your kids’ behavior that you want to cry, or have actually cried big, fat, ugly tears. Vulnerability allows you to let go of shame and realize that you’re not alone.
Self-acceptance could mean being ok that you are an imperfect mother, because you are human. To accept yourself and your thoughts and feelings without harsh judgment. To love yourself, even when you are in the throes of mommy guilt, and remind yourself that mistakes don’t make you a bad person. Acceptance that your flaws can be embraced as an innate, loveable part of you and do not automatically have to be rejected or hidden from view.
Self-compassion is key. Talk to yourself like you would a trusted, loved friend. Would you berate your friend if she made a mistake, or didn’t live up to her own expectations or yours? Chances are, you would be kind and compassionate. Offer yourself that very same courtesy. Modify your self-talk to be less harsh and more understanding. It could mean telling yourself, “I noticed that you’re beating yourself up for not breastfeeding. Could we examine your feelings about that and see what thoughts arise from them? Now, are those thoughts true?” Or “I see you’re really suffering about your low milk supply. That must be so hard.” Or simply shifting from “You’re a bad mom!” to “This must be so hard for you. You’ve tried your best and you are good enough.”
Authenticity means leading a life of realness, of being exactly who you are, without having to act a certain way to avoid shame or judgment. It means forgoing perfectionism, which causes us to strive toward an unattainable ideal and then beat ourselves up when we inevitably fail. If we stopped holding ourselves to the image of a “perfect” mother, then we could live as authentically flawed human beings, who are unashamed and unafraid of mistakes and imperfections. Authenticity, then, is an antidote to shame.
Ultimately, my title of mommy guilt being optional is probably simplistic and reductive. But I hope I’ve expanded on the idea that mommy guilt and shame do not need to be reflexive responses to everyday life. Remember that your fellow moms are struggling with the same issues, even if they appear to “have it all together”. You are most certainly not alone.