In last week’s discussion about bedroom arrangements, Genevieve Kineke and I took our discussion from the comments section to a private email conversation. What resulted from our friendly exchange was an interesting disagreement on the related topic of “mother guilt.” For this week’s discussion, I asked Genevieve to sum up her thoughts on the matter. To these, I have added my own. We invite you to read on and join in.
In our discussion last week about bedroom arrangements for children, the term “mother guilt” turned up and Danielle firmly instructed the reader to dismiss it as unhelpful to the process of raising children. In all fairness, I think she is referring to the guilt trip that the world lays at our doorstep, insinuating that we often don’t love sincerely enough, give enough time and attention, etc. and run the risk of irreparable harms. To that, we must be dismissive because the world’s standards are not our own and are often quite harmful to our eternal souls.
That said, I am extremely uncomfortable with the suggestion that “mother guilt” is 99% unhelpful, because guilt has an extremely important place in living our faith. There is actual guilt, and there’s often a nagging feeling that accompanies it in order to get our attention. Surely, the world scrambles the message, but that doesn’t mean that guilty feelings are without substance. Rather than dismissing the guilty feelings, especially those attached to our primary vocation of motherhood, I think we should find a yardstick by which to assess our actions — an examination of conscience that is fair but firm — so that we can either shrug off the nagging doubts or adjust our course of actions. (The saints and good friends are key to this!)
Mothering is a critical and difficult task in a fallen world. Often our own wounds or shortcomings blind us, and the best of intentions become hijacked. I’ve found that the use of forgiveness provides the humility and clarity of judgment to help everyone find God’s holy will, and if mother — of all family members — is willing to parse her guilt and grow, then the children will learn from her how to judge all actions.
Perhaps all of this is simply a question of semantics, but I find “mother guilt” a valuable tool a gift for the benefit of all.
Perhaps this is a matter of semantics. I did in fact say that I think 99% of “mother guilt” is unhelpful and I do in fact believe that. But this is only if we are talking about the kind of senseless mother guilt that so many otherwise good mothers tend to burden themselves with. The kind that makes you lie awake at night wondering, “Do my kids eat too much dairy?” and “Do my kids not eat enough dairy?” at the very same time. The kind that makes you desperately look for some way to blame yourself for every last toddler tantrum. You know what I mean: He’s not getting enough attention. Or he’s getting too much attention. Or he’s not getting the right kind of attention. Or he’s getting the right kind of attention but at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons and I never should have made him give up a pacifier and he’s going to grow up detached and anti-social and maybe turn to drugs for fulfillment and it’s all my fault.
Perhaps my perspective on mother guilt also has something to do with the circles I run in. Most moms I know are doing their very best to love and care for their kids. They give generously of their time, talents, and attention — often at great personal cost — to ensure that their kids have the very best health, education, faith formation, and home life. More often than not, mother guilt among these folks is a distraction from their duties and sacrifices. I see it as a temptation toward despair. If we burden ourselves with enough senseless guilt in this way, if we refuse to have confidence in the choices we make for our families, it can be easy to despair. It can be easy, eventually, to think that whatever we do doesn’t really matter in the end. It’s all going to end badly and we’ll be to the ones to blame.
What do you think? Do you suffer mother guilt? Should we pay attention to it … or not?