Sometimes the person we need to forgive, the one most in need of the gift of grace, is ourselves. We need to release our own guilt.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to speak to moms of preschoolers on social/emotional development. As I reflected on my children during the preschool years, the topic that demanded reflection and airing was who I was as a parent of a preschooler. So I talked about the moms instead of their kids, specifically mommy guilt. I suspect most moms deal with mommy guilt long beyond the preschool years. I know I have.
Even though Teen is smack in the middle of high school and Tween is rounding the bend toward middle school, the preschool years were some of the hardest and loneliest years of my parenting thus far. I wanted these kids desperately and waited a long time for each of them, and then they arrived: these little people so different from me.
I thought motherhood would be filled with books, arts and crafts, music and baby gym classes, baking special treats – quiet, creative and mostly indoor activities. And while we enjoyed some of those things, Teen took off running full speed before his first birthday and hasn’t stopped since. He wanted to be outside, up a hill, in a tree, at the zoo, collecting snails and lining them up for races; he got the ‘creative’ but not the ‘quiet’ or ‘indoor’ part of my vision.
Meanwhile, I seemed to be surrounded by super moms parenting super kids. While I made activity charts and set timers to balance high- and low-energy activities and wrestled with boredom and most days felt like I was on a see-saw of incredible joy and wanting to yank out my unwashed hair, these moms appeared 100% put-together, never frazzled, and yes, their kids were eating, sleeping and pooping right on schedule.
I watched and listened and tried to take advice. I read about parenting. I joined a moms’ group. I talked with teachers and pediatricians. I tried to apply what I learned. Some of it helped; some of it made me feel much, much worse. Why couldn’t I be the mother I wanted to be? What was wrong with me? Desperately in love with my son, too often I felt like a terrible mom.
One mom who happened to write down a story much like mine said her “Aha!” moment came when she was carefully making the final arrangements for her son’s sixth birthday party, trying so hard to measure up to society’s – and her own – vision of perfect motherhood. As she set the table, her son came bounding in and bounced apart all the work she’d done. She shrieked, “Can’t you see I’m trying to make a nice party for you?”
Can you see his face?
Can you feel her guilt?
As she attempted to be the Pinterest-perfect mother, she moved farther from being her son’s best mother. ‘Doing it all’ on the outside, inside she felt inadequate, overwhelmed, and burned out.
Popular authors Cloud and Townsend point out that most parents are perfectionistic when it comes to their kids. We want to parent perfectly to raise perfect kids. But we aren’t perfect and neither are our kids. Hence, we experience mommy guilt.
I asked my Facebook friends what causes them mommy guilt and their answers mirrored my experience:
I felt guilty for wanting my child to be more like me.
I felt guilty for not understanding more about who he was and what he needed.
I felt guilty for being low-energy when my child had enough energy to power a large metropolis region.
I felt guilty for not having enough time to care for anything well or even adequately –my child, my home, my husband, or myself.
I felt guilty for needing to work and so being away from my child, and I felt guilty for enjoying my work time away from my child.
I felt guilty for not having it all together like the other mommies seemed to.
I felt guilty when my child was the one screaming in the grocery store.
I felt guilty when I was so beat at the end of the day that I read myself to sleep in my child’s bed.
I felt guilty for wanting to read a magazine instead of Moo, Baa, La La La for the 100th time.
I felt guilty for feeling so guilty!
And this one made me laugh: one friend responded that she felt guilty for hiding in the bathroom to eat chocolate so she wouldn’t have to share.
There are plenty of real reasons why a parent could feel guilty, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the real or perceived pressure we put on ourselves to be perfect parents, get it all done (whatever “it” is), to measure up to unrealistic standards…
I think you follow. Take a deep breath and give yourself grace! Yes, you will fall short. So will the people around you. They need grace as well.
One of the most encouraging things I heard during the preschool years was this: “Don’t compare what you know of yourself to what you see in someone else.” I recently heard these quotes: “Comparison is the thief of happiness” and “Faith and worry cannot live in the same heart.” Maybe other parents felt as worn-out as I did and simply did a better job hiding it, but I compared and let it drag me down. I wish we’d all been honest with each other about the joys and struggles of parenting. Friends, find those safe people!
The single most encouraging thing I’ve ever heard about motherhood: God chose me to mother my child. That makes me the perfect mother for my child. YOU are the perfect mother for your child – God intended you to be and grow together. And along the way, God helps, guides, and supports you. He isn’t surprised that life is hard, that it twists and turns. God has equipped you for the journey, and He trusts you to do a good job in His name.
Of course you have things to teach your child, but be open to the ways that God wants to use your child to teach you. There is no one perfect way to raise children. In fact, since God created each person unique, there have to be as many ways to parent a child as there are parents matched with children. While preparing this talk, I found a whole book on just that. Funny, I found it on my own book shelf. I have decided not to feel guilty about not knowing I had a book that might’ve helped me had I realized I had it.
Get to know yourself. Say yes when you can and no when you need to. Parent from your strengths and find others who can fill in where you’re weak. Rely on your husband, and try really hard not to correct him when he does things differently than you would have. Surround yourself and your child with trusted friends and coaches and teachers who can build them up in ways you can’t.
One time when I felt particularly discouraged in parenting, someone asked me what I do well for Teen. Unsure I was doing anything well it took me a while, but eventually I realized that I cheer him on. I know him and understand him and can advocate for him like no one else in this world. That day I decided I would be Teen’s biggest fan. I will never have the organizational strengths to be PTA president, but Teen will always know I have his back. Yes, I know, most moms are big fans of their own kids. But consciously recognizing my own strengths as a mom helps me to let go of my weaknesses.
Hanging in my kids’ bathroom is a series of sayings entitled “How to Really Love a Child.” One line says: “Teach feelings. Heal your own inner child. Learn about parenting.” Unfortunately, as kids, a lot of us didn’t learn feelings, or at least, we didn’t learn well how to feel. We can let God work to heal the little girl hiding in our heart. We can ask God to help us forgive our parents for their own shortcomings. We can let God teach us how to feel – how to love, how to be kind and gentle, how to have strength and courage. The more we know our own hearts the more we will be able to let go of guilt and teach our kids well about feelings.
One friend confessed that she thinks she comes from a line of guilty mommies and simply inherited a legacy of guilt. As she pondered the idea, her middle schooler entered the room. She asked if he understood “mommy guilt.” He pointed to a specific example when he knew she felt guilty and then said, “Mom, you shouldn’t feel guilty. None of you should. It’s good for moms to take care of themselves!” I’m so impressed that he was able to bless his sweet mama (may we all have such experiences, eventually!).
The flipside of knowing yourself is studying your children. Think about the process you went through as you first got to know someone who has become dear to you. You observed them, asked them questions, spent time getting to know their likes and dislikes, and after all this time they probably still surprise you. If you put so much effort into getting to know your peers, it makes sense that you’ll have to put even more effort into getting to know your children.
I continually unwrap the mystery God built into my kids. They amaze me, surprise me, frustrate and delight me constantly. Having spent sixteen years with Teen, I know to send him outside when he’s having a hard day, when he’s reading a book, when he’s having a good day, pretty much all the time. And of course that doesn’t work as well with Tween because he’s a different kid with a unique personality and needs. I try not to beat myself up any more about what I don’t know. I want to continually become a humble expert in knowing my kids.
What about when we have a real reason to feel guilty? Hallelujah, children are resilient, and even better, God offers forgiveness. When we admit our failures, ask forgiveness, and seek to grow from our mistakes within the context of our families, we model for our kids health and faith. We can learn to be less afraid of mistakes and more afraid of denying them. Romans 8:1 assures us that “…there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus.” No condemnation, no fear, no guilt!
You and I are God’s children, and so are our children. God doesn’t abandon His own. God loves your child more than you do. He fearfully and wonderfully made your child, and He is deeply invested in their growth and safety. Psalm 27:10 promises: “Even if my father and mother abandon me, the Lord will hold me close.”
Not long ago one of my kids pronounced me “the worst mom ever!” I told another mom and she burst out laughing, “No way! That’s my title. You can’t have it. I am the worst mom ever!” Her perspective brought me back to myself. I am not my kids’ mom in order to be their best friend. If I’m doing my job well, they will occasionally not like me at all. And more often than I’d like I will not do my job well. I am not a super mom but I am a good enough mom in love with my kids and trying to be the mom they need.
We’re not perfect and God loves us anyway. We’re not perfect and our kids love us anyway. Let’s give ourselves the grace God wants to freely pour out on us. My favorite line from “How to Really Love a Child” is this: “If they’re crabby, put them in water. If they’re unlovable, love yourself.” Stop the mommy guilt. Let’s trust God and learn to be gentle with ourselves and gracious with others.