“Am I a bad mom . . . ”
I cannot tell you how many times I have sent texts starting with this phrase to friends when life feels like a mess. I’ve seen countless posts in Facebook moms groups that start this way too. These questions about one’s quality as a mother may finish with anything from missing a child’s school event because of work, to forgetting a child’s lunch when rushing out the door, or even for far less dire things like bringing store bought treats to the bake sale. When I ask the question myself, I usually couch it as a joke, though I am seeking some level of real-world affirmation or at least sympathy from my friends. So, when I see other moms ask this question, my answer is always “no” and I’m usually part of a chorus of other moms who, in unison, proclaim “hell no!”
I’m glad these supports are out there. I appreciate it when my loved ones come to my aid when I get down on myself. But I hate seeing so much evidence that wonderful women are seriously considering whether they are good mothers every time life happens. I’ve struggled with this myself in the past and occasionally still do. In fact, mom guilt is why I started meditating in the first place. I had it so bad when my first daughter was born that I developed post-partum depression and it took years to work out of my self-judgmental tendencies. How did I do it? Self-compassion.
Self-compassion is the way out of mom-guilt. Am I saying it is the only way? Absolutely not. It’s no secret that moms, and parents for that matter, are doing far more on their own than they have ever done before. Our modern culture has lost many of the supports for parents we enjoyed in more traditional times. Unfortunately, legal and social networks in the United States have not progressed to fill in the gap with things like paid family leave and corporate cultures that really walk the walk in terms of respecting the demands of working caregivers. As a society, we’ve got to do better for moms and caregivers overall.
But self-compassion isn’t at odds with that. Self-compassion is what we can do right now to care for ourselves in the imperfect world in which we live. It’s not a vague platitude to “make time for self-care”. Rather, it’s a practice that you can bring into your life to care for yourself even when you have no time. More importantly, the practices are based on traits we all have as humans, so we can all cultivate them with subtle shifts in mindset and practice.
So what is self-compassion? It’s the same compassion you offer to everyone else in your life. The only difference is that you offer it to yourself. Compassion is nothing more than presence with suffering and the willingness to help. Researcher Kristin Neff, Ph.D. breaks down the elements as (1) awareness/mindfulness; (2) kindness; and (3) common humanity. If anyone understands compassion, it’s moms. For cultural reasons and maybe because our time and energy are often so short, the hard part is factoring ourselves in.
How can moms bring in self-compassion to reduce mom guilt? They just need to remember one rule: self-compassion is always the answer. By that, I don’t mean the only answer but it’s always the first response. I bet this sets off all sorts of alarm bells and “buts” and “what ifs” in your mind. So let me break it down.
First, let’s start with the easy one: a situation where you feel guilty or bad about your performance as a mom, but your better angels (and maybe loved ones) are telling you that you didn’t do anything wrong. As an example, maybe you were tickling your child and they fell back and hurt themselves. It’s totally normal to get down on yourself about this situation but it’s not really something morally bad, is it? I mean, it’s actually good that you were playing with your child, right? So why the bad feelings? Because our brains are trained to react to bad things and assign blame. If there’s no one else around, we are the only targets. So we blame and attack ourselves. The problem is, of course, that our kids being hurt causes pain for us too. We may comfort our kids in that situation, but who’s comforting us?
That’s where self-compassion comes in. We can use awareness to recognize that we hurt too. We can offer ourselves care just by experiencing the pain and reminding ourselves that all we can do is our best. And we can remember the common humanity: how many parents across time and the world have done the same thing? We aren’t alone in this struggle. It’s a human struggle. We aren’t bad at life; life is hard. Going through this process feels a lot better than guilt and it keeps the mind rooted in the present so it doesn’t go down the path of blame, shame, and rumination about the past.
Now, you are probably thinking: “Hold your horses on all of this self-compassion business. If I did something wrong, I deserve a kick in the ass.” Yeah, I struggled with this one too. It’s true that even us moms screw up sometimes. We lose our cool. We make bad choices. We say and do hurtful things to people we love. You know why that is? Because we are not superheroes, or saints, or martyrs, or TV moms with a makeup artist just outside of camera view. We are humans. And humans make mistakes.
Guess what? When we humans make mistakes, we get a kick in the ass in the form of consequences and bad feelings. As an expert at losing my cool with my kids, I can tell you I always get payback. They react to my anger with anger and bad conduct that I have to eventually control. And then I get treated to a nice tepid bath of shame and regret. In those situations, I don’t really need to pile on by kicking myself while I am down. Instead, what I really need is to restore calm, forgive myself, recognize what caused the problem, make amends, and move forward.
Will nasty internal comments help me do that? Hell no. So I have learned to recognize instead that parenting is hard, that I do a lot, that my limits get tested and pushed every day, and that me breaking sometimes is what most other moms and parents around the world experience too. Then I remember how good I am, how much I love my kids, tell myself I can do better, and go apologize. In the process, I remind myself that I deserve forgiveness and teach my kids that, instead of hiding from our mistakes, we own them and fix them.
And what if it’s more complicated? What if the causal chain of your screw up is mish-mashed up with someone else’s or that of society at large? I’d argue that this category comprises the vast majority of the incidents that may trigger your feelings of guilt. We don’t live in a vacuum; we live in a complex social system and are subject to all the restrictions and mores and whims that entails. How on earth could we possibly distill our role in a situation, with the aim of doing better next time, if we don’t employ clear vision and a relatively friendly attitude towards ourselves? We can’t.
This complexity, of course, leads to something even bigger: the reality that self-compassion isn’t even just about us and isn’t something we necessarily have (or ought) to do alone. It isn’t about coddling ourselves or giving ourselves a pass on our nonsense. Rather, it’s about adding a baseline level of comfort so that we can face the cold hard facts about ourselves and the world in which we are living. When we can do that, we are more likely to foster and rely on relationships that can support us through hard times. Through this process, we become stronger, healthier, happier, and we can offer our kids, teams, and communities so much more. Because when we learn to pick ourselves up when we fall, forgive our own mistakes, and take care of our own pain, we find new courage to reach higher, take risks, and face the pain of others and the world.
Self-compassion is therefore not just the way out of mom guilt. It is one of the steps we can each take to make a better world. Imagine what might happen if, all of a sudden, 90% of moms didn’t feel guilty but instead knew that they were good, kind, loving, strong, and resilient? Rather than asking whether they are good or bad, those moms would ask two much better questions over and over again: “what do I need?” and “how can I help?”
For more resources on self-compassion, check out Kristin Neff’s work which is linked above or our Guided Meditation for Caregivers.
For more discussion on the topic of mom guilt and self-compassion, check out the Instagram Live I did with Mom Life and Law podcast host and lawyer, Megan Whiteside.