When guilt is good
Just because guilt makes you feel bad doesn’t mean it always is bad. In fact, it can prompt you to act positively, according to Hardy. “Guilt is a motivator,” she says. “If a mother feels guilty that she’s not spending enough time with her child, she’ll make more time.” Feel guilty about missing your prenatal vitamin this morning? You’re unlikely to forget it tomorrow. Kicking yourself over your child’s first sunburn? Next time out, you’ll remember the sunscreen.
“Guilt is good when it’s due to something that you really are responsible for and can apologize for,” adds Stern. Perhaps you gave your toddler daughter a time-out for something it turns out she didn’t do, and you feel guilty about it. “You can say, ‘I made a mistake,’ and tell the child why it’s a mistake. This way, guilt can be used to show a child how to cope with fallibility.”
Of course, not every guilty moment can be used as a learning experience. In those cases, the anxiety that is provoked by the emotion is simply wasted energy. “Guilt is not good or useful when it doesn’t motivate positive behavior or when the source of the guilt is not under a mother’s control to begin with,” Hardy says. “So it doesn’t do any good to feel guilty about putting your child in day care if you simply have no other choice.”
Getting rid of guilt
Knowing that the guilt you feel is doing you no good is one thing; doing something about it is another. How can you sweep guilt out of your life? “If you can’t change the source of the guilt,” says Hardy, “then you need to work either on reframing the situation in your mind (‘I hate leaving my child in day care, but I’m providing food and shelter for her as well as a positive role model’) or on modifying your behavior in some way (‘I hate leaving my child in day care, so I’ll make sure to put aside some time at the end of the day just for him’).”
Moms who’ve been there have come up with different strategies for working through the self-blame cycle. Some women actually set aside one afternoon each week to mentally kick themselves for all the mistakes they’ve made; when a guilt-provoking situation comes up during the rest of the week, they simply file it away for later.
If that seems too contrived for you, you could always try the “bad daddy” test. “One thing I do when I get a ‘bad mommy’ attack is try to turn it around,” says Hilary Perkins of Webster Groves, Mo., mother to 3-year-old Maia Langdon. “For instance, my husband both picks up and drops Maia off at day care. I started to feel guilty, thinking they probably considered me a bad mommy because they rarely saw me. Then I thought, ‘There are probably tons of families where they see only the mother; does that make the dads ‘bad daddies’? Probably not. End of guilt.” Translation: Women need to stop being so hard on themselves.
“Kids are awfully resilient,” Hardy says. “Yelling at your child once or twice is not going to do lasting damage. Most of the good that a mother does far outweighs the bad, so mothers need to remind themselves of these good traits and behaviors whenever they get a case of the guilts.”
Banishing guilt is fundamentally a process of modifying your expectations of yourself, of understanding just what you can and cannot control. “We are not responsible for our children’s thoughts, personalities, vulnerabilities or strengths,” says Stern. “We are responsible for keeping them safe, for making them see the world as an interesting place, for encouraging them to explore. A parent’s task is not to drive children through life, but to teach them to drive so they can find their own way.”