Susan Bartell, Psy.D.
Guilt is a huge subject for moms. As I’ve seen again and again in my practice, they feel guilty that they don’t spend enough time with their kids: that they work too much or they’re on too many committees or they have lots of kids and don’t spend enough alone time with each one.
Many also feel guilty that they’re not a good-enough mother: that they’re too strict or not strict enough, that they let their kids go to sleep too late, or they yell too much. They feel guilty that they don’t do enough arts and crafts, that they’re not making a great school lunch, that they don’t supervise homework well enough. The list is endless.
Fathers may feel guilty, too, but not usually to the extent that moms do. It’s a burden they carry on their own. And it’s exhausting. It can cause depression, sadness, and anxiety. It’s a very destructive emotion. And worst of all, it doesn’t actually change anything. Instead, it immobilizes you, which prevents you from changing the things you feel guilty about!
If you make and keep only one resolution in the new year, I hope it will be this one: Let go of the guilt. Here are my recommendations for how to do that.
Separate guilt from other feelings
It’s never a good feeling, especially if it’s about circumstances that are out of your control. Feeling guilty isn’t going to help you one bit.
Be kinder to yourself
I constantly hear mothers comparing them- selves to other mothers. We all need to be less self-critical. It’s not possible for one mom’s life to be the same as another mom’s life. Start by accepting that you are doing the best you can right now, and avoid bashing yourself for not being perfect.
Identify what you can’t change–and what you can
Maybe you feel guilty because you aren’t home from your job by 6 p.m. But if your job lets out at 6, there’s no way you can be home at 6. So that’s not something you can change and therefore not something you should feel guilty about. On the other hand, maybe you do spend less time with your children than you would like. Instead of feeling guilty about it, ask yourself, “What can I do so the time I spend with them is great time?” You can put your cell phone down and really focus on your kids, for example, or establish weekly traditions that your kids will look forward to.
What can I do so the time I spend with them is great time?
Likewise, maybe you feel guilty because you yell too much. That’s something else you can change. You still shouldn’t feel guilty about it because that doesn’t improve the situation. In- stead, you could feel sad about it and then work on how to change it. You want to eradicate the guilt and instead focus on recognition and actionable change.
Set goals for yourself
Say you want to yell less. First you should assess how often you yell. Maybe it’s three times a day. Your goal could be to reduce that to once a day and then over time to once a week—by taking deep breaths, walking away from the situation when you’re upset, taking a parenting class, or finding other moms to support you in meeting your goal.
Sometimes women convince themselves that they feel guilty when they really don’t. They think they should feel bad that they work full-time outside the home, for example, when actually they feel satisfied with the work they do and proud of the income that helps support their family. Embrace that! The same goes for at-home moms who may say they feel guilty for not earning a paycheck, when actually they love what they’re doing and feel satisfied with the role they’re playing in their family. Embrace that, too!
Realize that it’s okay not to be perfect
There is no such thing as a perfect parent or a perfect person. There’s nothing wrong with yelling once in a while, and you don’t have to feel guilty about doing things you love that are not about your kids. It’s actually a valuable lesson for kids to feel they’re not the center of the universe—because in reality, they’re not. So go ahead and spend time with your spouse, your neighbors, your friends. And above all, abandon the guilt. Happy New Year!
Susan Bartell, Psy.D., a member of KIWI’s editorial advisory board, is a nationally recognized psychologist and an award-winning author. She treats children and families in her private practice in Port Washington, New York.