How to Overcome & Prevent Mommy Guilt

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One Monday last month started as one of those days you mentally file under “precious moments.” I signed my seven-year-old Sebastian up for Taekwondo, and his face glowed with excitement throughout the first class. He doesn’t get this from me, but he runs as fast as a bullet and kicks as high as Billy Blanks. I will take credit for the Billy Blanks thing; I’ve done every home DVD workout, including “Yoga Booty Ballet.”

Then we went to Chili’s to celebrate his new extracurricular. Or at least that’s what I told him. In truth, I secretly wanted to eat the White Spinach Queso dip. 334 days ago, I would have also ordered the Chocolate Chip Cookie Skillet (duh), but since I gave up sugar, I settled for queso.

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As we munched innocuously on tortilla chips, I explained to my kiddos that I would be leaving that week for four sleeps – the longest I had ever been away from them. To which my first-born turned to me and said, “Is that more important than being with your family?”

Deep breath. I proudly role modeled proper behavior by mentally counting to ten before the mommy guilt could completely drown me. I calmly informed Sebastian that it’s ok for Mommies and Daddies to take trips, that I would be inspired for my writing, and that Mommy always comes back. I looked at him expectantly, awaiting his judgment.

He said nothing. Nothing. He turned back to his corn on the cob, as if lightning hadn’t just zapped me. The moment was over. As he navigated eating the kernels with a loose front tooth, I had to put on my big girl pants and reassure myself that indeed, it is ok for me to attend the Rachel Hollis Rise Conference in Dallas.

I thought that story would be a perfect jumping off point to dive into all things mommy guilt. Shall we?

Our mission: Minimize the collateral damage

While I know intellectually it’s ok for us to pursue our greatness and embrace our power, I won’t pretend that it’s without sacrifice and occasional mommy guilt. Let’s face it. We are human. There is no such thing as perfection, and we won’t always meet our own expectations when it comes to parenting. We can’t escape mommy guilt 100% of the time, but let’s work to minimize how often it rears its head.

Checklist of reminders to talk us down:

Your thoughts are likely to be clouded the exact moment you are experiencing mommy guilt. You are in a heightened state of emotion, and the first goal should be to stabilize your thoughts. As it approached my two-year-old daughter, Julia’s, naptime last weekend, I gleefully considered what to work on first. Should I work on that week’s blogpost? Should I proofread my Morning Routine workbook? Maybe I should make a to-do list for next week’s launch of the testing group.

As I looked forward to an hour or two of work, my seven-year-old son, Sebastian, had different thoughts. As we approached Julia’s naptime, he hoped we could play together. Even though I had prepared him and told him ahead of time that I would be working during naptime, he still asked to play. And I immediately felt awful.

In less than two minutes, a flurry of thoughts flooded my brain. Am I being selfish for doing this now? I don’t get tons of individual time with him. What if nothing even comes of this, anyway? I could be wasting time that I could be spending with Sebastian.

Then I cut the spiral short. Nope. I’m not gonna do that. I can’t. I deserve to do something I enjoy for the single solitary reason that I enjoy it. When I looked over at him, he had already begun playing with his Legos. He was fine. We beat ourselves up SO much, but every single second can’t be for other people. We need some seconds for us.

In any crisis, responders don’t work to change long-term affects; they act to stop the immediate issue. The same thing applies here. When you are in the height of the guilt, ask yourself these quick questions to bring reality back:

  • Are the children still alive?
  • Are you still alive?
  • Are you providing adequate care for your kids right now? (Sometimes adequate needs to be the bar.)

Friend, if you answered yes to these questions, then you are meeting your requirements. I’m not saying “adequate” should be the go-to expectation, but sometimes IT’S OK. Our caregiving can’t be thought of in absolutes. We can’t always, 100% of the time feed our kids nutritious meals (what happens at Grandma’s, stays at Grandma’s), just like we can’t always, 100% of the time keep technology out of their hands. Once the crisis has been averted, you can more calmly reflect on the situation.

The big guns: Cognitive Behavior Therapy

Once your emotions have simmered, you can review the situation more clearly. In order to prevent future mommy guilt, it’s imperative to pause and consider your trigger and thought process regarding what just occurred. Dr. Aaron Beck introduced Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). It’s approach can help with everything from everyday faulty thinking to depression and eating disorders.

If utilized consistently, it can help us overcome mommy guilt. The premise is that we must be careful with what we think because our thoughts create our feelings, our feelings create our behavior, and then the behavior reinforces the thoughts. It’s can be a debilitating cycle that keeps us perpetually stuck in guiltdom. The graphic at the end of this article illustrates this pathway.

Let’s review an example. The other night I participated in a conference call from 7:30-9:00 pm. It happened to also be my son’s first day at second grade. While I was on the call, my husband helped Sebastian shower. I could tell they were having a serious talk in the bathroom while I was on the phone. Later that night my husband explained that Sebastian was upset about multiple embarrassing incidents from the day. Instead of stopping the spiral like the first example I shared, my thoughts went haywire.

Thoughts: My immediate thoughts were that I should have been there to talk to my son, that I had been preoccupied with my call, and hadn’t been there to comfort him.

Feelings: Total mommy guilt. I felt extra guilt because the conference call wasn’t related to my full-time high school counseling job; it was regarding growing Follow Your Spark. In effect, it wasn’t required. I felt bad about not being in the bathroom with him, but then felt doubly worse because I chose to do something extra. If I didn’t put so much time into my blog and business, then who knows what else I could be there for? In this case, I could’ve avoided this whole thing had I not been selfish and pursued something extra just because I enjoy it.

Behavior: I overate out of guilt and then didn’t work on Follow Your Spark for two days.

Thoughts →Feelings→Behavior

Whoa. That escalated quickly, right? You can see how our thoughts can lead us down a rabbit hole. The outcome of this situation didn’t help anyone. I punished myself and didn’t work on Follow Your Spark, which lights my heart on fire, and I still felt like a crappy mom.
Had I reviewed the checklist before letting my thoughts spiral, I could have prevented the cycle from perpetuating. Let’s review the checklist for this example:

  • Are the children still alive? →→→Yes, Sebastian was still alive.
  • Are you still alive? →→→Yep, still breathing.
  • Are you providing adequate care for your kids right now? (Sometimes adequate needs to be the
    bar.) →→→Here’s the kicker! My son was getting more than adequate care! My husband Kevin is an EXCELLENT father and handled the situation perfectly. He helped Sebastian calm down, listened to him and validated him, and the conversation ended in laughter. Sebastian didn’t need me in that moment. It was my ego that got in the way.

See how I punished myself and the whole situation blew completely out of proportion? Have you done this before? Of course, you have, you are normal. BUT the more we utilize this checklist, then further process with the CBT steps, the easier these situations will be. We won’t ever be completely free of mommy guilt, but like I said at the beginning, we want to minimize the collateral damage. We want to minimize the frequency.

Other ways to prevent mommy guilt:

Now that we know how to keep ourselves from spiraling, let’s discuss what we can do to prevent the thoughts in the first place. We all have 87,000 responsibilities on any given day, and the amount of time we have with our children with thusly vary. Therefore, we must make the most of the time we have.

Be present – I’m not going to sit here and pretend I’m perfect. While creating an outline for this article, I literally wrote “be present” while sitting next to my son eating dinner. We weren’t speaking. I just sat there writing. Ironic, right? I realized what I was doing and put the paper and pen down. We chatted and goofed around for the next half hour instead and genuinely enjoyed each other’s company.

I wasn’t being present by writing. That could have waited. I’m not saying we can never work when our children are home with us, but this was dinner time. I should have been more present for him, which is why I stopped writing and focused my attention on him. The more present we are while we are with them, the more confident we are in our interactions, thereby decreasing the likelihood of mommy guilt.

Be intentional – Plan out your time with the kids or go all in for thirty minutes. Commit 100%, provide positive, active eye contact (you know the difference), mirror their body language, and paraphrase their stories. You want them to know that you “get them.” All they want is our attention. Let’s have them get it for positive reasons.

Put the phone down! – I’m saying this to myself as much as I am to you. I’m guilty of wanting to check social media, emails, texts, and everything else that, if we’re honest, doesn’t matter as much as being present. Period.

That’s a wrap, folks! I hope you have learned what you can do to prevent mommy guilt, and how to work through it if you do experience it.

Now go enjoy your babies!

About the Author

Allison writes the Follow Your Spark blog to help women overcome their insecurities so they can pursue their dreams. She is an 11-year High School Counselor and lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband Kevin, son Sebastian, and daughter Julia.

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