We do our imperfect best. From the moment we push them naked and helpless from our bodies, they’re ours to nurture, protect, and love. They come without instructions and each one is so uniquely different that a single guidebook would never suffice.
We agonize over every nuance of development: breast milk or formula or both. A strictly enforced regimen or a relaxed approach. We check two hundred times those first nights to make certain they’re still breathing and wake them up if there’s any doubt.
As the cranky weeks of teething drag on we begin to wonder if there’s a God. Through it all is a nagging feeling that we’re not doing enough, that we’re unwittingly wreaking irreparable damage on this helpless tiny being. Mother guilt.
I was talking to a neighbor with an eight-year-old. Sometimes she’s so adult, and then, no warning, she’s a hot mess screaming at me that I don’t love her and sobbing. I feel so guilty! A conversation a few days later with my friend whose 50-year old son still blames her when anything goes wrong has decided she can’t be sorry any more. Yes, I made mistakes, but how many times do I have to apologize?
I have three daughters who are the joy of my life. They’re well-adjusted, successful women and I couldn’t be more proud. But even now when I least suspect it, a pang of guilt can knife through my happiness. I should live closer, I should be helping, I should, I should, I should. They aren’t the ones guilting me, I’m doing it to myself. But why?
Guilt is healthy when it functions as a moral compass and motivates us to right a wrong. Mother Guilt, on the other hand, is like a low-grade fever, an ever-present condition that tells us we’re not measuring up. But measuring up to what, and to whose standards?
Recently, in the throes of a self-imposed guilt-journey, I took a closer look at where those feelings were coming from. Why was I doing this to myself? What I discovered shocked me. It took me back to deep-seated core beliefs that I thought I’d dealt with. But there they were striking where I was most vulnerable: my mother-heart.
I had struggled with issues of self-worth in the past, feeling unlovable and unworthy. The fact that I’m living a life of extraordinary happiness on the opposite side of the world from family triggered guilt. The unspoken belief was: Perhaps I don’t deserve this. But it manifested in the thought that I should be closer to my children. That was the self-sacrificial, martyr mentality that would ensure my unhappiness.
Another story I believed for years was that I needed help. I wasn’t old enough, strong enough, smart enough, rich enough to do it alone. How could I have possibly thought that was true? It boggles my mind. In the past years I’ve manifested things that others only dream of and I’ve done it as a single woman. But the old fear slipped out sideways and I projected it on my girls. They must need my help, I should be helping.
The overarching proclamation, I’m a terrible mother! is code for the core belief: I’m not good enough. This damaging self-concept drives most perfectionists. A woman with this belief often sets impossibly high standards for herself and reaps more guilt and shame when she doesn’t achieve them. It has nothing at all to do with mothering skills and everything to do with inner programming.
So much of what drives us isn’t what we think it is. The best thing we can do for ourselves is to discover what’s really running the show. Now when Mother Guilt, or guilt of any kind hovers in my mental space I know that some fear of my own has been triggered.
I take a closer look at the story I’m telling myself and ask why? Why am I feeling guilty about this? What’s really going on here? Almost always, when guilt is called on the carpet it magically disappears. And if you really want to know what’s behind it, the questions can lead to the most startling awareness.
Have you experienced Mother Guilt, or Grandmother Guilt? After reading this article, can you identify what fears might be triggering your guilty feelings? Please join the conversation and share your experiences of Mother Guilt.
I have been a family law attorney for 30 years. I did not yell at my son or lose my temper. (My Mom did, and it was hell.) You know–that litany of things your parents did that you swore you never would. I validated all of his feelings (never said, “Shut up and go to your room.) I know from my career what marginally equipped parents are and truly horrible parents do. My son is a youngish (35) accomplished man with a golden personality, beloved by everyone who meets him. His childhood was filled with long leisurely vacations, camping trips, opportunities to try every extra-curricular that he fancied at any moment. His father never said, “No, I’m busy,” to his requests of, “Dad, can you take me and my friends camping/fishing/hiking/swimming/you name it.” Last weekend, I intermittently sobbed and raged over him (and his only-child girlfriend), saying, “I would never have just one child, like you guys did to me.” I have five siblings and have many times only half-jokingly said to my son, “Siblings are over-rated.” He KNOWS what a pain-in-the-ass his aunts and uncles often are. Yet here he was sitting atop his Pity Potty because he was an only child who had the best life a kid could hope for. He has apologized all over himself but that stab through the heart from that (momentarily anyway)
ungrateful kid found its mark in my heart. Even as a teen, he told me once, “You know how embarassing it is to have this family?” WHAT??? It was “cool” to say, “Yeah, my Mom’s a tweaker and my Dad’s in prison.”
Hear me, my friends, nobody what you do, kids will find something to gripe about UNTIL they are about our age and realize, “Oh my God, I’m going to lose my Mom/Dad someday!” My parents were flawed and I
knew all those flaws and when I was mature enough, decided only to focus on their wonderfulness.
What a mixed bag of poop. My sweet kids grew up to be people I don’t understand. I don’t even really like them so much any more. Always love them, not really like them. They are mean and judgemental. Not at all the people I knew. I expected them to grow but not this way. Not the people I raised. I sure miss them.
Thanks for commenting, Teresa. I love it that you’re caring for you now. Too bad we can’t learn to do that a little younger! But better now than never.
I feel I raised my daughter the best I knew how (I had a wonderful, loving mother myself! at times, when she left the nest, i beat myself up with guilt bc she took a different direction than I would have liked. Today I am 75 and I have forgiven myself, for maybe caring too much, being over protective, helping financially. i am caring for me now and letting the past go. Our children will do what they want inspite of their upbringing. As long as they are safe we did our part. I’m 75 now and I did what i was going to do when I left the nest. sometimes, our children hurt us and sometimes we hurt them, but the love is always there!
You’re right. We do the best we can. At some point, we have to let go. It’s telling that your efforts to help are unwelcome. What is your motivation for continuing to try to ‘go there’ in spite of rejection? It sounds like this is possibly more about your needs than theirs. If your children know they’re loved, if they know you’re there in case they do need you, then perhaps it’s time to step back and wait for them to come to you. It’s easy to become enmeshed with our children. Boundaries get blurred. But if they are adults, let them know you trust them enough to let go – allow them their independence. It’s one of the best gifts we can give our grown children.