As mothers, we have all experienced it — that unsettling feeling that creeps up soon after we feel like we have made a solid parenting decision and possibly even felt good about it. It can happen when you are firm and finally decide to put your foot down with your misbehaving child. Or when you decide to take a solo weekend getaway away from the family to unwind and decompress, when you finally decide to put yourself first so that you can continue to better serve your family. Or when there is too much going on, internally and externally, so you lose your temper. Mom guilt. It creeps up later at night when you’re alone with your thoughts, evaluating how the day went and all of the things you could have done better. A long list emerges.
I should not have spoken to my child so harshly.
I’m selfish for choosing to be away from my kids when they may need me.
I’m not a patient mother.
My daughter, who is a strong-willed and vivacious 16-month- old, is the type of child that can never be coaxed into doing something she has set her will against. I love her for that, and when I was expecting, I prayed that my baby girl would embody exactly this trait. I hoped that I would have a daughter who was so self-confident and comfortable with her own self that she would always be able to voice her opinions and speak her mind. Little did I realize that this would manifest so early in her life, before she had even learnt to speak, and that I would have trouble digesting it when I’m on the other end of her strong opposing will.
My most recent bout of mom-guilt that left me aching for hours later happened on a particularly difficult night for my daughter. We have had an on and off relationship with sleep training for about a year, with several weeks of smooth bedtime routines disrupted by her utter refusal to go down without being rocked and nursed to sleep, a process that can take up to an hour (read: eternity) every night. Being the astute individual that she is, she has somehow learnt that sticking her fingers in her mouth would cause her to vomit, which often leads to getting her way — freedom. This was a huge trigger for me. Bedtime was supposed to be a calm conclusion to a day full of chaos, a time where we can settle cozily into books and cuddles and drift off into dreams. What an “expectation vs. reality” moment! Not only could I not bear to tolerate her incessant wails for being held unjustly behind the bars of her crib, but seeing her cries leading to an epic vomit mess that I would have to clean up in order to re-start the arduous bedtime routine was the tipping point. I lost my temper. I got angry. I was harsh.
When we analyze a situation retrospectively, we often resort to the “blame” and “victim” cards. I could have blamed my angry outburst on being exhausted from “momming” all day, or on being a “stay-at-home order” mom losing her cool every so often as a result of having a truly abnormal parenting experience during the pandemic in endless lockdown. Whichever way I chose to see it, the reality was that I acted on anger, and in the end, my daughter was rocked and nursed to a peaceful and innocent slumber anyway. The night was calm again, at least from the outside. Inside, I was ravaging through a storm. The emotional price that I paid was just not worth it. I was in tears for not being the “mindful” and “compassionate” mother that I envisioned myself to be (which, of course, was an unrealistic expectation for myself). More than one year into motherhood, I still felt as though I had not yet grasped how to be patient with her, to show empathy during her struggles, and to be the calm to her rage.
The biggest lesson that motherhood is teaching me every single day, that no other life experience compares to simply because motherhood is so all-encompassing and in-your-face and, yes, unavoidable, is that there will be many messy, unpleasant, uncomfortable feelings. The guilt, the anger, the frustration, the feelings of inadequacy, the doubt — they all come in waves. It can be easy to drown in them. But they can also be strong motivators. When we experience negative emotions often enough or strongly enough, they can bring us to a crossroads – will we wallow and bathe in the negative emotions, or will we work towards understanding the source of these emotions and take control over ourselves again? I no longer wanted to be weighed down by the burden that guilt placed in my mind. I no longer wanted to feel as though I was making choices simply to avoid experiencing those heavy negative emotions, instead of acting from a place of positivity.
The irony is that my daughter and I both had tantrums that night. The difference is that I expected to control her behaviour, while she was expected to comply. When the storm within subsided, I was able to remind myself that I am still navigating this journey of motherhood with my tantrums – the adult version – so it’s not reasonable or fair to expect her, who is still learning about her world, to champion her tantrums. We are both still very new at this lifelong relationship. This realization allowed me to learn compassion, not only with her, but also with myself.
In much the same way that I am teaching my daughter how to process her emotions and manage her behaviour during challenging situations, I am also learning how to process and manage mine. I am noticing that the way I feel and experience things internally plays an immense role in the way that situations will unfold externally. When I am compassionate with myself for my shortcomings, that is the only way that I can truly show my daughter compassion during her struggles. When we have a power struggle and can’t seem to understand each other in the moment, when tempers rise and tantrums flair, I know that the mom-guilt will start to creep in again. But instead of bathing in it and pulling out the “victim” and “blame” cards again, I will remind myself that we are both learning and doing our best every day. At the end of the night, my daughter and I always come to a truce and peace is restored. So why not begin with a truce with myself? In order to create peace around me, I can work towards embodying it within.