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I’m really good at the bad mother talk. Any of you (fathers included) who have spent any time at all hanging out with other parents or inside your own brain likely know what I’m talking about.

Sometimes it’s the sarcastic, self-deprecating, but mildly humble-brag (as in, “hey, at least I’m not that super-uptight helicopter parent”) claim to bad motherhood.

“I’m such a bad mother. I gave my daughters mac ‘n cheese from the box three times last week.”

“I’m such a bad mother. I let them watch an entire hour of Dora last night.”

Other times, though, the bad mother talk is much darker and meaner. (These are the conversations that we generally reserve for the privacy of our own minds.) We judge ourselves so harshly for every real or perceived parenting infraction, from not bathing our children often enough (guilty!) to yelling at them (yup). We tell ourselves that we’re bad parents, that a better parent (of which there are so many, even if they only exist in our minds) is more patient or calmer, reads to her children more often, cooks healthier meals, and keeps her house clean, all with a smile on her face and a song in her heart.

But we’re not her, we tell ourselves every time we miss the mark. We’re bad mothers.

Here is what I have come to realize about the bad mother talk (even the sarcastic, I-don’t-really-mean-it variety): it’s not true, it feels like crap, and it’s totally unproductive. Every single bad mother comment I make is nothing more than a condemnation, which leaves me feeling stuck and miserable. There’s just no benefit in berating myself. I might change my behavior for a few minutes, but in the long run, there is little room for improvement once I have declared myself to be a bad mother.

Lately, I’ve been trying to use some slightly different language when I’m a bit off base. Instead of resorting to the bad mother baloney, I’ve been thinking about whether my choices and behavior are skillful or unskillful. (Those of you familiar with Buddhist psychology may recognize these particular words.)

The idea behind skillful and unskillful is that nothing I do is inherently good or bad—the question is, does it lead to the outcome I want? Unskillful behaviors generally make my daughters and I feel more disconnected from each other and worse about ourselves, all the while not achieving whatever behavioral change I was aiming for. Skillful behaviors generally do just the opposite—they help us all feel better about ourselves, closer to each other, and they are more likely to get the girls to share or stop fighting or whatever it is.

For example:

Yelling at my daughters: unskillful
Taking a deep breath (or 10) and responding calmly: skillful
Freaking out over yet another glass of spilled milk at dinner: unskillful
Realizing that my 3 year old is exhausted and needs a sippy cup: skillful

What I have found over the past few weeks is that when I try to understand my behaviors in this way, I don’t feel as down on myself and I’m able to improve my mood much more quickly. The reality is that we’re all unskillful at certain things—it’s not a moral judgment or a label, it’s just an acknowledgment that there is room for improvement. By speaking to myself in a kind, honest, and shame-free tone, I’m not only creating the space and energy that I need to make better choices, but I’m also making it more likely that I’m going to speak to my daughters in that way, and I’m setting an example for how they might speak to themselves.

That’s a whole lot more skillful than beating myself up with bad mother talk.

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