Many people would say that guilt and worry are the hallmarks of motherhood. We worry about our children, and we feel guilty about what we have done, what we haven’t done, what our children have done… you name it and we’ll feel guilty about it. Yesterday I met a mother who blamed herself that her 6 month old baby fell backwards and bumped his head when he was just learning to sit upright. When a child acts out we often look for a reason, blaming the parents. At the day’s end it’s easy to wallow in recrimination, thinking of all of the things we could have done differently. We worry about our childrens’ well-being: will they need therapy when they’re adults because of my bad parenting decisions? Will they be happy?
Philip Larkin, in his famous poem This Be the Verse, writes:
They fuck you up your mum and dad/They may not mean to, but they do/They fill you with the faults they had/And add some extra, just for you
Humorous, yes. True? Possibly. But this poem points to something else: we all want to blame the parents! So when something goes wrong or I don’t live up to my high expectations, I instantly blame myself.
There are several good reasons to break the habit of blaming ourselves, and in this post I am highlighting five.
1. Self-blame is a reductionist answer to a complex problem. When I make a decision that I regret (such as shouting at my child in anger) or if something happens to my child that I think I could have prevented, it’s grossly over-simplifying matters to say, “It was all my fault; I’m a bad mother.” It’s easy to blame myself, but what are the more complex issues here? Am I shouting because I am tired, feeling undervalued, stretched too thin? Usually, if we look at the situation with a compassionate gaze (the way someone who loves us would do), we see the situation differently– there’s more to it than just being a bad mother.
2. Self-blame is isolating. When we blame ourselves we set ourselves apart from other people. We isolate ourselves from the very people who can comfort us, bring us back to reality and encourage us. To lock ourselves away in a cell of self-blame is to turn ourselves into aggressor and victim. Self-blame may lead to anger with myself, but it also can give way to self-pity. Letting go of self-blame allows us to extend compassion towards ourselves, and importantly, lets other people reach out to us. When we move beyond self-blame and self-pity we move toward authentic connection with others. For our children’s sake we can model compassion by starting with self-compassion.
3. Self-blame prevents us from being individual, unique human beings. Children are human beings and so are we. Although attached to each other, we are separate people. Too many people these days see a child as a possession, a statement accessory that is a reflection on who they are. A child’s behaviour is interpreted as a reflection of the parents so when our children “misbehave” it’s easy to think of ourselves as a failure… when in actual fact our children are immature beings who are learning and growing and find out a great deal about the world through experimentation and making mistakes. Furthermore, expecting ourselves to parent perfectly is setting the bar too high– our beautiful but flawed humanity is stifled through the desire to fit a particular mould and to do everything ‘perfectly.’ To live authentically and be truly human, we must be willing to make mistakes.
4. Self-blame stifles creativity. All human beings are creative. Our brains are constantly trying to piece together solutions to problems: we love a puzzle. It’s an old saying that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’– when we need something done, we figure out a way to do it– and this takes creative thinking. Dwelling on my mistakes or regrets and settling on self-blame as an answer to problems in my family prevents my brain from working out another solution to the problems we are having. I am much more likely to think creatively about how to connect with my children if I have put aside bad feelings about myself and am able to see myself compassionately as an effective, loving, authentic parent.
5. Self-blame traps me in the past. Fair enough: when we have an argument or a crisis, we want to reflect on what happened and think about how we can prevent or resolve this problem in the future. But the arrows and daggers we sling at ourselves pin us well and truly to the past. We waste time re-playing situations in our minds, wishing we had done it differently; we worry about the effect of what we have done; we surround ourselves in negativity and talk ourselves down and down and down…. And while I am indulging this mental self-flagellation, what is happening in the here and now? Is my child here and ready for my attention? Is there a startling blue sky above me ready to be noticed? Is there fresh air around me ready to be inhaled? Do I wake up each day with a second, third and fourth chance to make a different decision? The answer is YES, and letting go of self-blame frees me to LIVE.
Let’s assume I have convinced you that it IS worthwhile to let go of self-blame (and I suspect if you are like me, you needed little convincing). Now the question is: HOW? Look out for some thoughts on this in the next post….