Guilt may very well be a universal part of the human experience, and is often compounded and heightened after becoming a parent. Suddenly, you are entrusted with the absolute care of another human being, while continuing to balance all the other aspects of your life from before becoming a parent. It can feel impossible at times to succeed at all the varied roles you must take on during a given day—as a parent, a spouse or partner, child, sibling, friend, and co-worker.
Often, we are our own worst critics, not only judging ourselves in the moment when things don’t go as we had planned, but also holding onto guilt far longer than we know we should. Unfortunately, holding onto guilt can keep us locked in a negative state instead of helping us to move forward with our relationships.
While we may know intellectually that no one is perfect, we must also learn to forgive ourselves in order to be the parent that we want to be. Part of this entails creating realistic expectations and seeking support when we need it.
But, how can we as parents learn to move past our guilt to be the best parents we can be? We live in a fast-paced world that puts many demands on our time and attention. As a parent, you are now dealing not only with all of your old pressures and expectations, but also with being a parent to a child whose needs and attention can feel all-consuming. We often approach parenting initially as we would a new job, and can feel that we are not succeeding when things go wrong or we don’t get done the things that we expected to. A large part of parenting involves adjusting expectations. Your world slows down with a new baby or child in your tow and it can be challenging to adjust to the new pace.
If you are working outside of the home and/or are taking care of your own parents as well, you may find yourself at wit’s end, not knowing how to balance all of the demands on your time and energy. Your own time to recharge and take care of yourself is compromised and you may be getting by on little sleep. Sometimes, you need to trust yourself and your instincts. Know that you are doing the best you can in a job that has no full-proof blueprint. It is okay to mess up, to not be perfect, and to forgive yourself and move forward.
More About Guilt
More than sixty years ago, pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott created the concept of the “good enough” mother. His idea was that an imperfect mother, providing love and nurturance to her baby creates the environment that a baby needs to thrive. In other words, a mother does not need to be perfect. In fact, it is not only impossible for a mother to meet every single need of her baby at all times, the fact that she cannot do so actually builds the baby and young child’s resilience. Sometimes, we need to remember that in doing the best we can, we are providing the best possible environment for our children. Yes, there will be times when you mess up, in many different ways, but you need to remember the base and attachment you are creating with your child and know that your relationship is strong enough to withstand difficult moments.
It is also okay to have conflicting feelings about your child, to feel frustrated and confused about your new role and about the demands that the child has put on your life. There are no relationships without mixed feelings. We learn parenting as we go, and learning necessarily means making mistakes. Approaching your relationship with your child with curiosity and engagement will help to bolster your connection, despite the mistakes you make along the way.
Self-Compassion Can Help
Kristin Neff, Ph. D. has done pioneering research in the field of self-compassion. She finds that self-compassion, based on Buddhist concepts, enables people to move forward in times of stress. Instead of beating oneself up for wrongdoings or imagined wrongdoings, a person practices self-compassion by treating herself as she would a dear friend or a child who was having a hard time. Instead of judging, criticizing, or ignoring the challenging situation, one can notice the feeling, be gentle with herself, and know that all people go through challenging times or fall short of their own or others expectations at times. This is a part of the human condition. We can then try and go forward and do better, but out of a place of understanding rather than of self-flagellation.
When we hold onto guilt, we don’t have space to repair our relationships. Repair makes relationships stronger, but first we have to forgive ourselves. Practicing self-compassion will not only help you, you are learning skills that will directly benefit your child as well.
So, Can Seeking Support!
When we keep guilty feelings locked inside, they can become more upsetting and even dangerous. Shame is incredibly destructive both to an individual and to relationships. Talking about your feelings with others can be incredibly cathartic. Making that first move to be open and vulnerable (your PEPS group is a great place to start!), will help others to feel comfortable sharing their experiences as well.
That said, one trap even wonderful parents can fall into is comparison. Remember that every person has his or her own tolerances and experiences. And, every baby has his or her own developmental stages, along with his own challenges and strengths. Try to stay attuned to your own experience and that of your baby, instead of measuring yourself and your baby against others.
When we parent with our best selves, we are kind to ourselves and to our babies, modeling repair and moving forward each day as we build strong relationships. Consider using the tools of self-compassion and support to bring you both comfort and joy in your parenting!
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS/JOURNAL PROMPTS
•Does guilt look different since having a child? When do you feel guilt?
•How was guilt handled in your family of origin? Do you want to handle it differently with your own children?
•Does your partner feel/deal with guilt in a similar way that you do?
•Is it challenging for you to move past feelings of disappointment? How do you do so?
•Do you find time to recharge? Do you have time for the activities that brought you pleasure before you became a parent?
•Do you feel that you hold yourself to reasonable expectations? What is reasonable to expect from a new parent?
•What advice might you give your own child when he/she is a new parent and feeling guilt?
•How do you imagine that parental guilt might change as your kids grow up?
•How do you think about using guilt as a parenting strategy? How do you want your own children to approach guilt and shame?
Are You a Guilty Parent? (Psychology Today)
Why Self-Compassion Trumps Self-Esteem (Center For Greater Good)
The Whole-Hearted Parenting Manifesto (Huffington Post)