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I was a “bad” mom the other day.
My daughter and I had a difference of opinion when it came to how we thought nap time should go down. Little Bo thought it should be spent with me lying next to her while she nurses in her sleep. I thought nap time would be better spent working on my blog or just, you know, not lying on a nap mat with my boob hanging out. So when she drifted off, I unlatched her and executed a well-practiced ninja roll over to my laptop.
She immediately started whimpering.
These kinds of things don’t usually phase me and 99% of the time I unashamedly meet my daughter’s developmentally appropriate need for comfort and assistance falling asleep. But that day I had a thought that was mildly selfish yet totally empowering: It’s my boob.
And I didn’t feel like sharing it. I needed to get off the nap mat. So I did. And Little Bo got up and started playing with her toys. Nothing bad happened, and she was content…for a while.
After about forty minutes of play time, she started to fuss. I handed her some of her favorite toys, talked to her, and tried to make her feel acknowledged while I feverishly tried to finish typing up a blog post. She would be satisfied for a few minutes, then start fussing. Hugging my leg. Pulling my arm. Patting my lap, indicating she wanted up. Her fusses turned into whines and her pats turned into grabs as she tried harder and harder to get my attention.
I’m not ashamed to say it: It was annoying. I was annoyed. I got frustrated. I wanted to be left alone. I was touched out. So for a moment, I tuned everything out in a desperate attempt to get to a good stopping point in my work as soon as possible.
I did such a good job tuning out, however, that I didn’t even notice when she started crying. I looked up and saw her sobbing. She wasn’t whining. It wasn’t a tantrum. These were the tears of a genuinely sad child.
And I felt guilty. And it was good.
THE RIGHT AMOUNT OF GUILT
People don’t normally think of guilt—especially mom guilt—as ever being a good thing. In fact, it’s pretty obvious that letting our guilt run unchecked can have pretty serious consequences.
If your guilt threshold is too low, for example, you may feel guilty about more things more often than you should. This can cause you to assume you’ve earned disapproval when you haven’t and exposes you to a significant amount of unnecessary psychological–and physical–stress. In one study, for example, participants who felt guilty were more likely to assume their body weight was heavier than it was, and they even assessed physical activities as requiring significantly more effort. And of course, extreme amounts of guilt can destroy relationships and lead to self-harm.
So why in the world do I say it was good that I felt guilty? Because to the right degree, guilt can be a powerful motivator that prompts self-reflection and better behavior. It protects our relationships, spurring us on to make amends when we feel we’ve wronged someone or take action to make up for times when we could have acted differently. Guilt is often our conscience speaking, and that is of course something we should listen to.
When my daughter was crying, I reflected on how hard it must be for a small person to handle the big emotions that come with feeling ignored and unimportant. I imagined how frustrated I would be if I had no words to get the attention of someone I loved or to express how hurt I felt at being disregarded by them.
And it made me feel like crap. But just the right amount of crap. The right amount of guilt.
I put my laptop away, gave her a hug and, when she calmed down, more kisses than she cared to experience at one time. We played together. We read books. I was more present with her than I had been in a while. The rest of our day, and the entirety of the day after that, was probably the best we’d had together in weeks.
My guilt made me better. And in turn, we both felt better.
When I told my mom on the phone later how I had been a “bad” mom, it got me thinking about how we often throw out that label when we can’t be perfect for our children. We set our guilt threshold too low. We feel guilty about more things more often than we should. We assume that being a “good” mom is being a mom who doesn’t get angry, who doesn’t get frustrated, who is always there, always giving.
But being a good mother is not a function of our capacity to put up with crap. It is not a function of our ability to give when we have nothing left.
We need to stop feeling guilty for being human. We need to stop obsessing about feeling guilty period and instead focus on feeling the right amount of guilt. So how do we do that?
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HOW TO FEEL THE RIGHT AMOUNT OF GUILT
EVALUATE WHAT’S ACTUALLY IN YOUR CONTROL
A dear friend of mine made the decision to stop breastfeeding when her son was six months old. She had to go on medication to treat a condition that made working difficult, and she didn’t feel comfortable risking the medication affecting her baby through her breast milk.
She was wracked with guilt at the thought of no longer breastfeeding, but these circumstances weren’t in her control. It was nobody’s fault that she had this condition, that it impaired her ability to work, that her family needed her to work or that the medication made its way through her milk. These truths had to sink in before she could begin to let go of her guilt. And it showed her that you cannot allow yourself to feel guilty over things you cannot change.
FEEL CONFIDENT IN YOUR BEST
I’m not a perfect mother, but I do my best. I juggle homemaking, managing a blog, a side gig as a virtual assistant, and a fickle chronic illness along with being a mom. My hands are full. Most mom’s hands are full. There aren’t more than 24 hours in a day, and we only have two arms. Our willpower reserves run low.
That’s life. That’s being human. When you fall short, have confidence in the fact that you’re doing your best and imperfect motherhood is unavoidable. And if you’re not doing your best, take comfort in the knowledge that you have the power to change and do better in the future.
LET GO OF THE PAST
To be honest, I no longer feel guilty about basically ignoring my daughter to tears. Feeling bad about something that happened in the past and that has already been rectified doesn’t help anything or anyone and only hurts me. This point brings us full circle: Don’t allow yourself to feel guilty over things you cannot change. You cannot change the past.
Yes, I ignored my daughter. I let her cry. But I wasn’t a bad mom.
I was a human mom. I was a mom trying to balance my need for autonomy and my daughter’s need for connection. I’m a mom constantly striving to figure out that balance and not always succeeding. I’m a mom who isn’t afraid to admit when she’s messed up.
I like to think these things make me a good mom.