Famously the preserve of Catholics, guilt seems to be the hallmark of modern day parenting.
It’s seemingly universal, whether you work or not. I’ve even known mums feeling guilty for not feeling guilty when they returned to work. It seems to start from the moment people find out they’re pregnant (“did I drink alcohol before I knew?”; “am I eating the right things”…). Indeed, a friend of mine’s reaction to her youngest not getting a wristband from the hospital after he was born was “he’ll think we didn’t care as much about him as his brother” (See my blog on Birth Order for more on the worries that come with having multiple children). I know it’s only natural, but it’s probably not helpful to think that our kids are going to be judge and jury over us as they audit keepsakes from their childhood.
Guilt can also set in when we are doing a good job parenting – especially on those occasions where we won’t be receiving accolades from our kids. They’re those times that we’ve all had when we ask them to go to bed when they don’t want to; when they want another helping of pud; or when we confiscate their felt tips after they’ve drawn on the wall. Whilst we can love them more than life itself, parenting is not a popularity contest and it can feel difficult to be ‘bad cop’. They are never going to thank us for setting limits (until perhaps they have kids of their own).
I guess you could say that guilt shows we care, but it’s also dangerously cultivated as badge of honour. An ever escalating series of Debbie downers does not show you love your kids more than the next person. Too much rumination can only be a bad thing – it’s an endless cycle. It’s also a waste of time – we’re only human so we’re on a hiding to nothing pretending that we’re not. Just get on with doing the best you can and living your life.
In terms of the practicalities of understanding it in order to manage it, Robin Grille wrote a great article called “Parent Guilt – a silent epidemic” (The Natural Child Project, 2016).
We need to understand it to tackle it:
To do that we need to distinguish between remorse (focused on the ‘other’ and prompts us to repair damage caused) and guilt being internally-focused – a way of beating ourselves up. I’m not sure about the definitions, but my take on his meaning is that a feeling which prompts action is constructive, whereas inaction doesn’t achieve anything.
Our expectations are unrealistic:
- Modern-day parenting ideals are often impossible to achieve – previous generations never parented in the way we try to;
- Counsellors spend years learning how to listen, so it’s unsurprising that we can sometimes get it wrong;
- If “it takes a village to raise a child”, then our Mumsnet generation are ill-equipped to do so. With geographically dispersed families, there’s often no helping hands at hand;
- We therefore shouldn’t blame ourselves if we’re at the end of our tether – but instead see it as a signal that we need more support. That doesn’t mean drafting in a team of nannies to rival Kim Kardashian, but simply connecting with like-minded friends.
Yet don’t minimise what children feel:
- The commonly uttered get-out clause ‘kids are resilient’ brushes over the fact that all of us will at some point need to apologise to our kids;
- Instead of focusing on their resilience, we should instead ask ourselves whether we have enough resilience to hear when they tell us we’ve let them down.
But there’s light at the end of the tunnel:
Whilst Grille urges us to think back to how we felt at our kids’ age to enable us to respond with more compassion, when we’ve not been able to do so, he suggests:
- Being kinder to ourselves by acknowledging that we are coping with challenges unique to our generation;
- Acknowledging that we’re learning as we go along. We can learn from our mistakes and that learning will make us better in the future;
- Accepting that we all have blind spots (often in the very areas that our own parents had lapses) – so there will be times when we will upset our children unintentionally and we need to apologise;
- Trying not to shoulder the burden of living up to a perfect ideal – taking the pressure off will help us be more resilient to the realities of day-to-day familiy life.
Perhaps taking some of these ideas into account will help us get on with living our lives rather than worrying about them?
You can read Grille’s full article at http://www.naturalchild.org/robin_grille/parent_guilt.html