Last week, I presented a webinar on working parent guilt for a corporate client. It’s a subject I know only too well…
Having been a mum for 14 years and having coached so many mums for almost the same length of time, my old mate Guilt pops in for a cuppa and a chat on a regular basis.
The last time Guilt made a social call at my house was a week last Monday. I remember the visit very well indeed. The boys and I had returned from a wonderful holiday in Spain the day before.
I thought I was organised for their first day back at school and up to a certain point, I was. I’d managed to unpack the suitcases, a small miracle as it usually takes me weeks. I’d laid out their uniforms the night before and I’d made their packed lunches.
So far so good. Then it all went wrong…
We couldn’t find Freddie’s school shoes anywhere. We went from on time for the first day back to slightly late. Freddie had to wear a pair of grey and green shoes – the closest thing he has to formal black school shoes. I shouted at Freddie.
But it got worse…
We drove down to school. As we turned into the school road, I saw a child with a suitcase. He was in non-uniform.
I’d forgotten – it was his residential visit.
I uttered several profanities:
“Fred – it’s your residential today. Oh no (insert profanities here).. I’d completely forgotten”
And then, in front of my poor little boy, I burst into tears. I felt like the worst mother IN THE WORLD. And it wasn’t as if this was the first time I’d forgotten it was a “special day”. I felt GUILTY. I cried tears of guilt and shame – you can’t get a more toxic combination of those kind of tears.
I drove back home and raced into the house with Fred, giving him panicked instructions to take his uniform off.
I called my friend Claire to ask her what I needed to pack for the residential:
“Amanda, calm down” she said. “The Residential is next week”
I looked in my diary.
So it was.
So I’d done a double cock up. I was convinced it was this Monday, had forgotten and then realised it had never been this Monday. Even more Guilt.
I felt guilty for:
- Upsetting Freddie
- Not being more organised
- Making him late
and on and on it went. Guilt. Guilt. Guilt.
I asked friends who are parents “When was the last time you felt guilty as a parent?”
Rachel said, “This morning as #2 daughter left for school and I realised I’d barely said 2 words to her, apart from the nagging to get dressed, brush teeth, hurry up etc.”
Another Rachel said, “I think the worst time in the last few months was just before Christmas when I got stuck on a train with no driver coming out of London (Southern rail contribute to many of my parenting fails) and I missed my youngest playing one of the lead roles in the school nativity. I was gutted.”
Gill said, “Yesterday when I was late for school meeting due to train arriving back from London 10 mins late making me 10 minutes late therefore enabling the parental failure button to be pressed.”
As I started writing this, my dear friend Claire, who to me is the epitome of Wonderful Mum, has just messaged me to say she felt guilty for not having done something earlier about an issue one of her kids is facing. I could wax lyrical about what a wonderful, balanced, kind, funny, simply gorgeous mum Claire is. Yet she said she felt guilty.
What was she guilty of?
Not being perfect.
Not being all seeing, all knowing
Not having the benefit of perfect hindsight
And who is perfect? Who is all seeing, all knowing? Who does have perfect hindsight?
I find that guilt had reduced its coffee dates with me over my years of parenting. However, it seems to have become a more constant friend since divorce. As I have more to do now, I inevitably make more mistakes, miss things or simply have to say no to many things. Guilt loves to keep me company every time I can’t be the perfect mum.
Hmmmm… now there’s a phrase – perfect mum. Perfect parent.
Of course, there’s no such thing as perfect, is there? yet we frequently expect perfection from ourselves, especially as working parents. We expect to be able to serve everybody, be in 2 places at once. We expect ourselves to be Super Heroes.
And Super Heroes are fictitious characters, so THAT ain’t working for us, is it?
Enough already. What do we do about it?
Well, there are several things we can do to discourage our old mate Guilt from calling in too often, but today I’d like to focus on the one that, in my experience, helps more than any other.
First of all, we need to distinguish between “healthy guilt” and “unhealthy guilt”. Healthy guilt can push us in a positive direction of change. When we are not living our lives in accordance with our values – what is inherently important for us – guilt can steer us in the right direction.
However, for the purposes of this post, we’ll assume we all know what unhealthy guilt is – a toxic emotion. In fact it’s not even a real emotion. In Transactional Analysis terms, it’s a “racket emotion”, meaning that there are emotions underneath it.
Unhealthy guilt can lead to stress, anxiety, depression and fear. We don’t want any of that, so we need to step back and learn a strategy for dealing with guilt.
Here’s the one thing I know for sure that will help you deal with unhealthy guilt:
**Look** for the GAP between your expectations and reality.**
Here’s how to do that in 3 simple steps:
- Grab a piece of paper and brainstorm all the times when you have felt guilty. It might help to write “I feel guilty when” at the top of the paper
- Now write all of the expectations you have of yourself. Think about what you expect of yourself at home as well as at work
- Look for the gaps. If, like Gillian, you expect to be able to influence the train companies’ punctuality, you might want to adjust your expectations
In itself, this exercise is simplistic. It’s telling you what you already know. But the thing about guilt, is that we don’t see what we already know. By doing this exercise, you are using your rational brain to put things into perspective.
You might find, when you do this exercise, that there is still some nagging guilt left behind. Take that kernel of guilt and ask yourself, “Is there a change that I really want to make here?” If the answer is yes, then you have yourself a highly desirable goal. But be careful not to create “should” or “ought to” goals. Enlist the help of a friend or partner with a healthy dose of common sense and rational thinking to challenge you.
I’ll leave you with 10 things to remind yourself of next time you’re beating yourself up with guilt:
- You’re not the first, you won’t be the last to feel guilty. You’re not alone in feeling guilty. We’re all in this together, muddling through life as best we can.
- Stop striving for perfection – it’s a fool’s game, because it’s impossible.
- You’ll never be guilt-free, as kids are great at finding the weaknesses in our defences. It’s par for the course.
- Roll with the punches, go with the flow, bend with the wind (choose your metaphor!) It makes life a lot easier when you stop trying to control everything.
- Get into the habit of forgiving yourself, no matter what. It makes you into a kinder parent anyway.
- Remember that we often drop a proverbial ball because we are trying to juggle too many of them. When you next miss something (see my story above), see it as an opportunity to look for a way to simplify, rather than an opportunity to beat yourself up.
- Surround yourself with supportive people who love you and who can put it into perspective.
- And weed out the negative people in your lives. You know the ones – they delight in telling you how wonderfully perfect their life is, often in sly, insidious ways. Get rid. Life is too short for psychic vampires.
- Don’t take yourself, parenting, work or any of it too seriously. Humour is one of the most powerful antidotes to guilt.
- Good enough is good enough.