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Parents: relax and let go of guilt

Father and daughter working at computer
Credit: iStock.com/Geber86

Just imagine if the word "should" was not a part of your vocabulary?

Seriously. Stop. Take a moment of pause. And really consider that.

Now think about all that is attached to that word. The expectation. The weight. The GUILT.

The word “should” has become an ingrained and insidious part of the parental vernacular.

And it is doing our heads in.     

"Guilt comes down to looking at your actual self and then comparing that to what you or society thinks you ought to be doing," says Impact Improvements organisational coach Tania Begg.

"It's about self-discrepancy: the actual versus the ideal.

"We take what society thinks is the norm, and what is considered acceptable, and then we see that our actual self is at odds with our ideal self.

"That's where the guilt lies. It's linked to anxiety and irritability and it's all about those things we would call the tribal norm; what's engrained in us"

Tania says it all comes back to that word, "should".

"It's the questioning and the doubt. It's the pressure from what society, or our families, friends, other mothers – and ourselves – all think is right or appropriate."

Psychologist and educator Collett Smart says as parents we are too hard on ourselves. 

“I think we often hide our true struggles. We might chat about a tough incident or two and then laugh it off, but I think we often hide the real struggles, because we’re afraid of looking like a failure or being judged,” she says.

“I believe that we are our own worst critics, and ‘should’ is the word our inner judge uses. i.e. You ‘should’ have done it better. You ‘should’ be more patient. You ‘should’ cook differently. Your child ‘should’ be walking/sleeping through/talking/ and so on. The word ‘should’ continues to point back to our own perceived failings.”

Collett says the pressure is both self-imposed and from external sources. 

She concedes that advice is fabulous and necessary at times, but that we need to use it as a guide for areas we want to improve on or need support in. Advice should not be used as a measuring stick to measure our failings. 

"It's the questioning and the doubt. It's the pressure from what society, or our families, friends, other mothers – and ourselves – all think is right or appropriate."
Improvements organisational coach Tania Begg

“There are some broad overarching ideas like children needing to feel safe and loved and helped to develop independence, while having boundaries – but these need to fit into our family values, our parenting style and our child’s personality. 

“All of these aspects combined create an interesting dynamic in a family, and so we need to be kind to ourselves as we implement these.”

Parents throughout the country have cited everything from taking time out, to not reading enough with children, too much time away from the kids at work, too much TV time as being just a few of the issues bringing the should-word to the tip of the tongue and conjuring up those heavy feelings of guilt.

"Parent guilt is always there," says one mother.

"Working parent / stay-at-home parent; am I disciplining them too hard … or not enough; am I feeding them the right foods…? 

"There is so much information out there these days (maybe too much?) on doing this or doing that with children's lunchboxes; Extra-curricular activities – do I have the time and can we afford it? The list could go on!"

It's the view of one, but reflective of millions of parents throughout the country grappling daily with the too-muches, too-littles, not good enoughs and coulda, shoulda, wouldas we impose on ourselves.

So what's the solution?

There is no point trying to deny guilt exists.

Instead, the best chance of getting past it is to own it and know where it comes from.

And (here's the clincher) trusting yourself.

“I believe that we are our own worst critics, and ‘should’ is the word our inner judge uses. i.e. You ‘should’ have done it better. You ‘should’ be more patient. You ‘should’ cook differently. Your child ‘should’ be walking/sleeping through/talking/ and so on. The word ‘should’ continues to point back to our own perceived failings.”
Psychologist and educator Collett Smart

Collett says women in particular feel like they need to ‘have it all’ at the moment. 

“They feel like they need to have a great fulfilling career - be an excellent, engaged parent – attend all your child’s activities – be a fabulous cook and so on. The pressure leaves women exhausted,” she says.

 “I think we need to practice self-compassion. By that I mean, being kind to yourself and forgiving yourself when you don’t meet your own too high standard.

“Take time out for yourself once a month, even for an hour. If you don’t have a family member to help with your children, swap kids with a friend once a month and give each other an hour or two rest time (to do whatever you feel like doing – even if it’s just napping. I LOVE nana naps!)

“Your child is not going to remember the occasional time you might have lost your cool or when you gave them cereal for dinner. 

“They will remember how they felt in their relationship with you in general. Look at your overall parenting – does your child feel loved, is he fed, does she feel safe and have generally consistent boundaries? If you answer yes to these, then you are doing a great job!”

And back to the S-word: Tania says if we could remove that one word from the parenting language, the guilt and unnecessary expectations would disappear.

"What we need is someone to stop and question that should," she says.

"We need to ask ourselves – and have others who can ask us – Why? Why should you? Why shouldn't you? Just, why?"

It's easier said than done. And habits are hard to break.

But just imagine if we could break that one bad habit of parenting.

And imagine what we could do with all that extra energy.

We really SHOULD try!

Tips on beating guilt

  • Ask yourself (or have someone who will ask you) why you should or shouldn't?
  • Know your body and intuition. Know when you feel something is right or something needs attention.
  • Listen to friends and professionals, take on board their views but trust your own instincts about what to believe and not believe.
  • Do what feels right.
  • Trust yourself.
     

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