Every Mother’s Day, articles pop up about what women really want, and the answers tend to be almost depressingly simple. A morning off. Someone to actually take a photo of women with their children. A meal cooked by anyone else. (Or my personal favorite: for someone to “brunch me in the f*cking face.”)
But as a worn-out mom of two who just spent the morning being mean to my 6-year-old as he had a meltdown over what to wear to his kindergarten pajama day celebration, I’d like to suggest another idea: that this year, we moms focus on giving ourselves the gift of self-compassion. It’s a concept HuffPost Parents has advocated for repeatedly throughout the pandemic, but it’s easier said than done.
Because, over the past year, my home ― like many of yours ― has been full of small, tough moments like the pajama-day debacle as my husband and I juggled full-time work and full-time child care. I have yelled more. I’ve planted my children in front of screens for hours on end, then given myself fully over to panic spirals about how they’re falling behind. I’ve been short with them and annoyed by their regressions, even though I am one of the very lucky parents who managed to keep my (flexible!) job this whole time, and who has not had any immediate family members come down with COVID-19. I spend a lot of time mentally beating myself up about all of this.
And I’m not alone. Surveys taken over the past year indicate that parental guilt — usually high to begin with — has increased as parents stressed over how their kids were coping with pandemic life. Parental burnout has soared, particularly among mothers who were more likely to have lost their jobs during the pandemic and also more likely to have taken the lead on remote learning.
It’s hard to feel like a good mom when you’re bouncing between exhaustion, fear and guilt, with little help during a global pandemic that laid bare just how little support most American parents have these days. As Jennifer Senior wrote over the winter The New York Times: “Why is it that so many moms I know feel like failures at this moment?” Intellectually, we may know we should cut ourselves some slack, but actually doing it is harder.
One simple way to get started, according to Claire Nicogossian, a clinical psychologist and author of “Mama, You Are Enough: How to Create Calm, Joy and Confidence Within the Chaos of Motherhood,” is to do a bit of perspective-taking by imagining you’re talking to a really close friend who is struggling with mom guilt.
“Your friend comes to you and wants some perspective. What would you say to her about the situation and feeling guilt?” Nicogossian said. “Chances are you’d support and offer reassurance and wise perspective, or join her and acknowledge you’ve felt the same way too, and show compassion. In motherhood, we judge ourselves more harshly than anyone else.”
Another strategy is to simply commit to getting curious about feelings of guilt if and when they arise. Don’t try to vanquish them. Just ask questions.
“If you experience persistent feelings of guilt, start by asking yourself, ‘What am I feeling guilty about? Am I taking blame or accountability for something I have no control over? Am I labeling this situation accurately, or am I being harsh and generalizing this experience too broadly to other parts of my life?’” Nicogossian said.
Remember, what it truly means to be a “good” parent may not be what you think about when you’re caught in a guilt spiral, according to Peg Streep, author of “Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.” Her book centers around women who have, as she told HuffPost, “failed at the task of parenting in demonstrable ways.”
And what Streep has found in her work is that being a good mom “doesn’t mean raising perfect, high-achieving children. It doesn’t mean being a constant source of entertainment, an antidote to boredom,” she said. “What you want to be is present when your child or children need something real — when they are stressed, frightened, or in need of reassurance. You want to be the safe haven where they see love isn’t a transaction and support is always on tap.”
And this past year, we moms have been really present (perhaps too present) with our kids, which means we have gotten to know our kids more deeply than before in many ways — even amid some yelling. We’ve been there for small moments we’d have otherwise missed. There is some silver lining in all of this.
Perhaps that’s even more reason why, on this Mother’s Day, we should all go right ahead and turn on the screens again. Or yes, insist that someone else get up early with the kids or make a meal. Let’s promise to remind ourselves that we’re doing our very best during a truly unprecedented moment in parenting — and that’s truly all that matters after all.