Last week, I spoke about guilt in the context of sibling transitions. But, of course, guilt is everywhere in the perinatal context, and the notion of “mommy guilt” is pervasive and pernicious.
From pregnancy to parenting, and everywhere in between, our culture is rife with judgmental messages and unrealistic expectations. We are supposed to love being pregnant, have the perfect birth experience, exclusively breastfeed, make our own organic baby food, attend every soccer game, and lean in at work. What a set up for endless guilt!
There are countless articles written about how to combat this guilt and rid yourself of these difficult feelings. In my practice, I take a different approach. As a practitioner of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), my aim it not to eliminate difficult emotional experiences for my clients. Rather, through acceptance and mindfulness, I help clients turn towards difficult feelings so they can shift their relationship to them.
More specifically, to try and rid ourselves of mom guilt, or attempt to ignore it, is an ineffective pursuit. Instead, the aim is to feel more easeful in its presence and continue to do the things you value as parent even in the presence of a difficult feeling.
So, what does this all mean for mom guilt? Below are some suggestions.
- Practice self-compassion: Parenting is hard. We want to do right by our children, we are presented with countless contradictory opinions, we compare ourselves to others to assess whether we are doing it “right.” No wonder we feel so guilty. Rather than adding a layer of self-judgment and berating yourself for experiencing guilt (in ACT we refer to this as “dirty pain,”) practice directing kindness and understanding inward. Some of my clients find it helpful to call upon a phrase or mantra, or conjure an image they can easily connect to, that cues them to practice self-compassion.
- Recognize painful thoughts or feelings for what they are: Simply put, thoughts and feelings, whether they be painful, neutral, or pleasant, are just a series of words or sensations. They are not facts or truths. For example, take the thought “I am a bad mother.” This thought only becomes problematic when we fuse to it and believe that just because you are thinking it, it must be true. Put another way, I feel bad therefore I am bad. If you can stop and recognize that you are simply having a painful thought, perhaps even label it as such, you can work to unstick yourself from it. As we say in ACT, work to look at the thought, rather than from the thought.
- Turn towards the guilt: When something is painful or unpleasant, our tendency is to turn away from it or try not to feel it. While this may provide a moment of reprieve, the end result is the feeling grows, and feels more intense than it really is. It’s like if your child is afraid of a monster under the bed and doesn’t look under the bed to see that there is no monster there, the fear grows. This can lead to avoidance and often additional layers of guilt. However, if you are able to engage kindly with the painful feeling, it loses some of its bite.
- Do what you value: In addition to engaging with the painful feeling of guilt, I encourage my clients to recognize that they can feel guilty and at the same time, engage in the things they care about and value. For example, let’s say you feel guilty that you are going to a yoga class on a weekend rather than spending time with your child. Instead of canceling the class, try feeling the guilt and taking the class that you know will nourish you personally and as a parent.
- Practice Mindfulness: Mindfulness refers to an intentional way of contacting and observing the present moment without judgement. I encourage my clients to practice mindfulness generally, but especially when they are working through a difficult feeling like guilt. When you begin to observe your guilt with moment to moment awareness, you will find that is shifts and changes. Sometimes it is less intense, sometimes it is more intense. Becoming more aware of this may enable you to attach less to the feeling.
- Check your thinking: Have you ever stopped to recognize the ways in which your own thinking contributes to feeling guilty? Don’t worry, this is not another thing to feel guilty about, but, rather, another way of saying that the way we think about and interpret our thoughts influences our emotional experience. For example, when it comes to mommy guilt, “shoulds” are ever present. Some examples: “I should exclusively breastfeed” “I should make my children dinner every night” “I should make time to exercise and work and make it back in time to take the kids to soccer.” Shoulds are essentially arbitrary rules we set for ourselves about our behavior. The problem is that when we inevitably break our own rules, we feel guilty. Similarly, I often hear highly polarized thinking. This pattern of thinking refers to what happens when we frame things as black or white and don’t recognize the grey in between. For example, I’m either doing a perfect job parenting, or I’m a failure. When people get stuck in this line of thinking, guilt is inevitable.
- Good enough is great: Being mindful of expectations is key when it comes to working with guilt. We set ourselves up for pain and disappointment when we put too much pressure on ourselves to perform and refuse to acknowledge our limitations. It is important to compassionately recognize that, as parents, we are tired, we are overwhelmed, we are overworked, we are overcommitted. Work towards embracing the idea of good enough.