Mom guilt. It’s that voice that follows me around like a whiny toddler, constantly talking. You could do better. Why did you handle it that way? Shouldn’t he be reading more? Aren’t they on screens too much? Then the boss statement: You’re a bad mom. It’s your fault.
I’ve struggled with guilt for as long as I can remember. As a child, a minor mistake would lead to beating myself up for weeks. My parents never made me feel this way; maybe I was born with an overactive conscience, stoked by my old-fashioned fire and brimstone Catholic Church and school. I’ve worked on (and am currently working on) guilt with a therapist. According to her, I am an empath. I have an excess of empathy, and while a good quality, having a lot of empathy can lead to being taken advantage of and feeling guilty when you can’t meet the needs of others.
Now that I’m a parent, the guilt has adopted an edge of urgency and linked up with preexisting anxiety. After all, what has higher stakes than having responsibility for another human being’s life, upbringing, well-being, and future? What if I’m screwing up my children’s lives? If I listed all the reasons I feel guilty in parenting, this would be a novel instead of a blog post. I am a special needs parent, which (and I can only speak for myself) brings the guilt to a whole new level. The six-year journey to find an accurate diagnosis and treatment for my oldest son filled me with self-doubt and self-blame. As it turned out it was a medical problem rather than a behavioral one. I learned from this experience to trust my own instincts and most importantly, trust God. This is a lesson I’m still learning, though.
In addition to two kids with special needs, I also have my own set of mental and physical health problems, leaving me feeling like I’m slogging through Jell-o while the rest of the world is running a marathon. Some days, I’m stuck in bed and the kids spend most of their day playing video games. They’re interacting, playing online with their friends, and being creative, I reason. Still, I lay there with the guilt heavier than my weighted blanket. I make the most of the good days – I clean, I play, I homeschool – but I don’t often give myself credit for these things. While I’m lesson planning and teaching my kids, the questions run in my mind. Am I teaching them enough? Am I teaching them what they should be learning? Why aren’t my kids motivated in school? Will they develop a strong work ethic, and if not, is it my fault? When I’m playing, I feel guilty for not enjoying it. Now that my eight-year-old is moving away from pretend play, I feel guilty that he’s following his brother’s obsession with video games. If I didn’t force them outside for walks and the trampoline, they would play all day every day. I was the mom who was going to have a firm handle on screen time. Since the pandemic I feel like the term “screen time limit” is rather loose in our house. Excessive screen time for them leads to excessive guilt for me. Of course, there’s also the questions that come with having children with special needs. Is it wrong to medicate? What will people think? Should we have medicated sooner? Is he getting enough therapy? Too much? Is it my fault is behind in reading? Is it my fault?
I had a conversation with my youngest son’s therapist around Christmas time. After discussing E’s ups and downs, she asked, “How are you doing?” She knows I struggle with depression and she’s well aware of the extra stress special needs parenting (parenting in general, really) bestows. I told her a little about the parenting guilt weighing me down. I’ll never forget what she said.
“Just because your children have struggles doesn’t mean you’re a bad mom, and just because you’re telling yourself you’re a bad mom doesn’t make it true. I want you to change the narrative on this. You’re telling yourself it’s your fault, and it’s not your fault, Kat. It’s not your fault.”
I was glad we were on the phone so she couldn’t see my eyes tear up. I needed to hear those words. You see, in the past I’ve felt blame directed at me by previous therapists.
“Do you display a lot of anxiety? Do the kids hear you sort of fretting? Kids can pick up on the anxiety temperature in the room even when it’s subtle,” one therapist told me. What I heard was, “It’s your fault.”
“Is there a lot of talk about depression in your house?” another asked me. “Like, does he pick up on it a lot?”
These are just two examples. My conversation with E’s therapist that day reminded me of the time A’s current therapist told me, “In my experience, the parents who’s fault it is are not the parents who bring their kids to therapy.”
I’d like to tell you than the words, “It’s not your fault, Kat”, a salve to my psyche, corrected my thinking and sent guilt packing. Of course, it’s not that easy, but I do recall those words when I need to, keeping them tucked in my arsenal to battle the guilt. Chances are, I’ll never stop wrestling with guilt. It’s not all bad; guilt can nudge us in the right direction when we’ve slipped up. But excessive guilt only tears us down, makes us feel inadequate, and tempts us to give up. After all, if we suck that badly, why even try to do better? What I’m learning is to give myself more grace than criticism. I am not a perfect parent. I make mistakes, fall short some days, and don’t always handle things the right way. But I’m still trying. I’m still showing up.
If you’re a special needs parent and even if you’re not, if no one has told you, I want you to know it’s not your fault. Some days your best will be a clean house, a home cooked meal, and a family game night. Some days your best will be a Minecraft marathon and meals out of a box. It’s all okay. At the end of the day, if you love and care about your kids and make the best decisions that you can with the information that you have, you’re a good parent. You’re a good person. If your kids struggle – with mental health issues, behavioral problems, or regular life stuff, please know that you’re doing the best you can. You’re not alone and it’s not your fault.