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For the last week, my husband has been killing himself working fifteen hour days to meet some deadlines. Which means for the last week, I’ve been flying solo with the baby. When it’s still 95 degrees out, you don’t have a car, and you have a cranky baby constantly toppling over as she tries to stand, fifteen hours on-the-clock go by SO slowly. By the end of the day, I confess turn into the wicked witch of the west coast. I simply cannot deal, and my ability to feel empathy poofs into thin air.
So when my husband finally comes home and leaves a dirty dinner plate in the sink I just cleaned to the tune of our daughter screaming? I want to strangle him!
I’ve been feeling pretty crappy about it, especially since we only have one child and it doesn’t really take that much out of me to keep our little place clean. Why then did the end of the day feel like such torture? Why was I not able to keep my sh*t together? How do other moms with more kids manage so much better than I could? And there it was.
Mom guilt. I was a crappy mom. That had to be it.
Earlier this week was The Mom Conference, a free online conference featuring 20 amazing speakers sharing invaluable information on parenting and self development. It was a Godsend. It got me thinking about so many different things I could do differently in my home and in my life, but perhaps most importantly: It made me realize I had the tools to get over my mom guilt.
WILLPOWER GOT TO DO WITH MOM GUILT?
Turns out, basically everything. Susan Pierce Thompson, PhD, gave a talk at this year’s Mom Conference about what successful mothers need to know about willpower. The psych major in me was intrigued: I knew what willpower was and I didn’t feel particularly successful, so I was interested in hearing what she had to say.
In psychology, willpower is defined as more than just that “oomph that keeps you keepin’ on.” Instead, it is more specifically defined as the ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals (source). Sounds simple enough, but willpower is actually a complex and finite energy source, and some things you wouldn’t expect are capable of depleting your willpower reserves.
THINGS THAT DEPLETE YOUR WILLPOWER
- MONITORING – Your kids, the pot on the stove and the roast in the oven, your work email…
- DECISION MAKING – What’s for dinner this week? Which bills need paying?
- PERSISTING ON A TASK – Watching the baby, folding a mountain of laundry, cleaning a bottomless pile of dishes…
- EMOTIONAL REGULATION – When the kids are screaming, dinner is burning, and everything hits the fan at once…
- RESISTING TEMPTATION – NOT eating all the cookies in the house when you’re stressed out…
- LACK OF SLEEP – Because the only time you have for you is 11:30 at night!
In other words, all the things I do all day as a mom! #Allthemomthings drain willpower! What’s especially frustrating is that there is no clear indicator your willpower is being drained until it’s already happened. According to Dr. Thompson, lower willpower reserves are not associated with any particular emotions or an overall positive or negative mood. You could think you’re doing just dandy, and the next minute you want to slap your husband when he starts whistling!
Since there are no particular emotions or moods associated with low willpower, how do you know when your willpower is depleted? Dr. Thompson says you will know when it feels like “the volume on life is turned up.” You will feel all emotions, good and bad—and even physical sensations!—more intensely. If you find yourself more frustrated than a situation warrants, or if you know you’ve been engaging in a lot of decision making, monitoring, etc., it is very likely your willpower is low.
SO WHY DOES THIS MATTER?
Because these seemingly insignificant things deplete willpower in a significant way. It’s easy to feel the mom guilt when you go from “fine” to suddenly and impatiently snapping at your kids. But when you understand that you weren’t actually fine, that your finite energy source had been depleted hours previously by tasks you didn’t even realize were draining you, it becomes easier to give yourself some grace and ditch the mom guilt when you’ve lost it.
You are mom, but first and foremost you are human. Knowing your mood and emotions aren’t always accurate indicators of your capacity to be patient—and that your capacity is drained by a lot of everyday tasks you have no control over—goes a long way toward your ability to be kind to yourself when your patience isn’t as abundant as you might’ve thought it should be.
Does this mean we give ourselves a free pass to behave willy nilly towards our spouse and our children, mom guilt be damned? Of course not. But knowing all this helps us realize WHY we are losing it, recognize WHEN we might be prone to losing it, and motivates us to learn more about WHAT we can do to be better.
SO HOW DO WE BE BETTER?
There are several things you can do to replenish your willpower when the going gets tough, and there are a couple things you want to be careful to avoid.
- GET SOME SLEEP – We can always benefit from a nap, especially new moms or moms of younger children.
- GET SOCIAL SUPPORT – Specifically support that happens in real-time and has a sensory element to it (i.e. you can see/hear the other person).
- MEDITATE OR PRAY – Even a 3-5 minute mom “time out” can be enough to help put you back on track.
- PRACTICE GRATITUDE – This is a great article on how gratitude affects willpower.
- BE OF SERVICE – Doing something kind for others causes the brain to release oxytocin (the bonding/love hormone), your blood pressure to lower, and increases overall feelings of happiness, making it easier to find the strength to flex those willpower muscles.
- WATCH TV – Research has shown that activities like TV watching aren’t actually willpower replenishing even though they may seem relaxing. At the end of a long TV session you feel tired, not refreshed.
- GET SOCIAL SUPPORT FROM SOCIAL MEDIA – Scrolling through social media (think Facebook) doesn’t involve a real-time, sensory-based back-and-forth like what you’d get from an in-person meeting or phone conversation. In-person social support is always best, followed by a phone call or video chat (which I suppose technically can be done on Facebook), followed by text messaging, which isn’t ideal.
Ever since hearing this presentation I’ve made a point to schedule some “replenish time” for myself, and it has done wonders for me, let me tell you! I’ve become more aware of when I’m being “drained” and feel a lot less mom guilt at the end of the day. It’s really freeing.
WANT MORE GREAT INFO?
This is just a snippet of some of the awesome things I learned this year at The Mom Conference. I could go on, but my musings honestly don’t do the presentations justice. You’ll just have to check them out for yourself! The conference is usually available every fall, and its online format makes attendance a breeze!
If you need more parenting help, be sure to check out these resources:
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