One of the hardest things about helping parents is the guilt that new knowledge inevitably stirs up in our mommy and daddy hearts - regret about what we wish we’d done last week, self-blame that a condition such as Plagiocephaly (flat spots on head) or Torticollis (neck tightness) could have been prevented, or remorse that help wasn’t sought sooner.
Helping parents better understand their babies and giving them tips and tools for promoting healthy early development is one of the most rewarding jobs on the planet. How can you NOT love your job when you're told:
-“I’m so proud of my little munchkin!"
-"My husband and I perused your site last night and in just that brief overview we were inspired/educated to change several things we are doing"
-“This has helped tremendously."
But almost as frequently, I hear:
-“I’m really sad I’ve caused this."
-“The guilt of this is overwhelming!"
-“I feel like a terrible mom."
The Value of Guilt
Guilt can be a useful emotion. It feels really icky, so we tend to judge it as bad. But without it, we'd be really terrible people with no concern for others and no interest in righting our wrongs. In addition to gnawing in the pit of our stomach, guilt also motivates us to self-reflect when undesirable things happen and drives us to do something different in the future to avoid a repeat of guilt-inducing outcomes.
"This is why ‘mommy guilt’ is key for parenting – you learn from it and it can make you a better parent." -Tracy Cassels of Evolutionary Parenting
The problem comes when there are additional "beat myself up about it" and "think and rethink and think some more about how terrible I am" responses to guilt. But those aren't inherently necessary parts of guilt.
How do we as parents let go of obsessive self-criticism when our child is going through something tough that we feel we played a part in?
Remember That Parenting Is A Learning Process
Parenting, both on a societal level and in individual families, is a learning process.
Research, advances in technology and infrastructure, and inter-generational trends and patterns inform parenting on a societal level. It's why the Victorian era "children should be seen and not heard" mentality doesn't prevail today and why we don't send our littles to work in factories instead of to Kindergarten. It’s why we look for BPA-free water bottles to give our toddlers and we keep our kiddos in car seats longer than we did a decade ago.
It can be helpful to remember that we don’t blame our parents for ditching our car seats when we were 1 or 2 years old. We don’t accuse them of neglect or horrible parenting. We recognize that they were operating to the best of their knowledge at the time and we move forward making different decisions for our own kids based on what we now know.
It’s important to extend ourselves the same gentleness on an individual family level. Parenting is a learning process and your child will receive the best parenting possible if you allow your approaches, decisions and philosophies to evolve and change as you (and our society as a whole) gain new knowledge. You would never want to declare, "I will be no better a parent 10 years from now than I am today." We all hope to grow and improve in this crazy journey of raising adorable small people.
A Helpful Exercise
It can be a lot easier to extend compassion and kindness to others than it is to ourselves. One helpful exercise to use when you’re feeling guilty and can’t let go of the repeated self-criticisms is to imagine what you would say to your child in a similar circumstance.
Imagine your child shared his snack at school with a classmate, not knowing his buddy had food allergies. After watching his friend swell and suffer, your child is racked with guilt that he was a horrible friend, a stupid person, and mean to his core for hurting his buddy. As his parent, how would you respond?!
As you think about how you would offer reassurance and perspective to your child in this scenario, can you find anything you would tell your child that you yourself need to hear and could tell yourself at times of peak parenting guilt?
One other helpful way to turn down the volume on your guilty thoughts and gain perspective is to remind yourself of some important FACTS in the form of affirmations:
- I know more now than I did before and that helps make me a better parent.
- I have always tried to do what's best for my child and my family to the best of my knowledge.
- When I realized my child was facing a challenge, I responded in ways that were helpful and caring.
- Even if I can’t go back and change what I did for my own child, I can help inform other parents.
This last one is extremely powerful. I’m sure you’ve read the tragic accounts on the internet of children suffering great harm or death from an unanchored dresser falling on them, from being turned forward-facing in their car seat too soon, from being left unattended around a pool or a gun or any number of other dangers. Can you even imagine the guilt the parents of those kids face?!
One common thread is that many of these parents don’t hide in their homes in shame or conceal their grief. No, quite often they make it their mission to inform other parents so that the same mistakes aren’t made again. They may not be able to change the negative outcome for their own child but they can turn their negative experience into a helpful and educational one for others.
What Guilt Are You Carrying With You Today?
Do you feel bad for not having a weekend full of Pinterest-worthy crafts and activities planned for your child? Do you suspect that too much time in Baby Holding Devices contributed to your child's flat head? Did you take a medicine or undergo a procedure while pregnant that you fear may have affected your child? Are you starting back to work soon and feel terrible for leaving your baby all day? Do you feed your kids foods that you think may not be the best for them?
Whatever you’re feeling guilty about, I encourage you to take a moment or two of quiet today to process what parts of the guilt could be helpful - to fuel new decisions, motivate new actions, or help others - and to filter out what parts of the guilt are unnecessary self-criticism and unhelpful repeated thoughts.
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