Moms are easy targets for nearly all the psychological ailments that afflict their children … and our world for that matter. Consider for a moment, the troublesome members of our species who populate our planet. When it comes to assigning blame, doesn’t the finger get pointed at maternal rearing? So under the weight of such immense responsibility, why don’t mothers just hide out in a cave somewhere? Who could fault them?
In essence, hiding out in a cave is exactly what Denise—a mother of six—did for years.
She really didn’t have to. Why? Because perfection is impossible and therefore hardly necessary.
But because Denise never understood this, she would always steer clear of family gatherings that included her grown children. She found those visits almost unbearably wounding.
In our session, she expressed her anguish: “I just can’t bear hearing their stories about what I did wrong while they were growing up. I look forward to seeing everyone, but the next day I’m literally tortured by all the guilt!”
Denise knew they didn’t intend to hurt her. Their tone while telling the stories was always lighthearted, so she recognized their innocence. But knowing all of that didn’t ease her elephant-sized guilt.
And her suffering was only amplified when her birthdays were celebrated.
“If they give me cards and gifts, I feel uncomfortable,” she said, “like I don’t deserve them.”
Denise’s exaggerated guilt has its roots in her past. “I wanted to spare my children the hardship I endured … and obviously,” she said with tears welling up, “I didn’t do a very good job at that.”
Lowering her head, she continued.
“I have this picture of what a perfect mother is supposed to be and do, and I always fall short of that,” she said.
Such standards are unrealistic.
If we expect perfection from ourselves we’re headed for unavoidable disappointment and inevitable internal scorn. The simple recipe for over-the-top guilt is to have zero tolerance for our own imperfections.
Denise needed to ease up on herself. I pointed out that she’s overlooking a vital fact: Children have a marvelous capacity for bouncing back or rising above negative circumstances. It’s called resiliency—a quality innately cultivated in an environment saturated with love. That love and acceptance is sensed by the child even when parents are disappointed or annoyed with them.
Since Denise had informed me earlier that she is “proud of the people my children have become,” I was convinced her children had always sensed they were loved.
“Yes, you made some mistakes as a parent,” I said, “but it sounds to me like you parented with love as the constant backdrop.”
I conveyed to her that guilt is a clear sign that a parent has a caring heart. One father told me: “Those of us who care are distressed by the things we’ve done wrong as parents.”
Perfection is unobtainable. Things are always falling apart, getting dirty, disappearing, dissolving and running amok. We can’t get everything right even if we try–at least, not for long. We will have burnt toast, traffic delays, a losing score, and botched recipes.
Since imperfection seems to be built into the system, isn’t it possible that it might even have a purpose?
I try to keep in mind something that Joseph Campbell said: “Out of perfection nothing can be made.”
Perhaps we need bumpy roads, rained-out picnics, derailed plans, stubbed toes, and yes, even imperfect parenting. Let’s face it, if Mother Nature wanted perfection, we women would be having babies once we hit fifty-five and older–way into our wiser years.
Denise was laughing while I explained my theory. We both were.
“When I look back on it,” she said, breaking into a grin, “I have told them that I did take my vitamins and stopped smoking while I was pregnant, so at least I waited until they were born before I started messing them up!”
We laughed some more.
She went on: “The weight of the future rests on our shoulders, but we mothers can only do so much. And for all the power we supposedly have, we’re not even getting paid!”
Denise walked away from that session a thousand pounds lighter. Later she wrote to tell me what her new outlook did for her: “I was able to invite my children to my home and enjoy the experience. It was Mother’s Day and I felt such love for them, for myself, and for my mother who must be looking down from heaven and smiling.”
She ended her letter with this:
“I think being a mother is a most difficult job, for which we have no instruction manual. Wise people over the ages have said that pain is the path to spiritual strength. Today, I am feeling much less guilt about the pain I’ve caused my children, knowing they’re strong and they’ve survived my-less-than perfect parenting skills.”
Denise has left her cave of shame and pressure–hooray! Lucky for her, and lucky for her children, too.
Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.
(c) Salee Reese 2020