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“We Are Surrounded with Unrealistic Projections of Perfection”

7 MIN READ • 1st December 2021

Our columnist and founder of This Girl is on Fire, Andrea McLean, tells us how to deal with guilt as a parent

Mum guilt. These two words put together are enough to evoke a rise of emotion – stress, worry, comparison, exasperation, rage – none of them good!

On a biological level, these concerns are understandable. ‘Parent guilt’ is, in its rawest form, a way that our brain finds to make us focus on being the best parent we can be. This need has always been part of our psyche, but as society has evolved there have become more things to become aware of – it’s not simply a matter of keeping our infants alive and teaching them how to survive in the world. So, it’s important to find a way to re-frame the idea of parental guilt and see it as our brains merely nudging us to do the best we can.

Parental guilt takes on a particularly nasty form when opened up away from biology and into society, because we are surrounded with unrealistic and unachievable projections of perfection from all directions; social media, advertising, other parents, grandparents, friends and frenemies. How do these feelings of guilt usually manifest themselves in mums?

• Not spending enough time with your kids
• Not trying enough activities with them
• Comparing yourself to other parents
• Not being able to afford things for them
• Having to miss a school event
• Spending money on yourself
• Getting frustrated and not keeping your cool

So how can you step away from feeling guilty about your parenting? Grab a notebook and take a moment to write down your responses to these points. It will help you figure out why you are feeling the way you are and flesh out some options to make yourself feel better about yourself and how you’re doing.

  1. Ask yourself where your guilt is coming from

Write down where you think your feelings stem from. List them, and then ask yourself why. Are you being too hard on yourself because you want to be a ‘perfect parent’ like yours were, or you want to be the opposite of your own? Is this realistic, or even necessary?

If it’s coming from family; are they trying to help but it’s making you feel bad, and if so, how can you let them know? If it’s from your children, is there a way to talk to them and let them express what they are wanting from you and work out a way that they can get what they need in a way that works for all of you?

It’s not possible to be all things to all people, there has to be compromise. Does it come from comparing yourself to others? Are your comparisons justified, are you only seeing the shiny outward-facing manifestation of perfect parenting? If so, you’re not seeing the full picture, so you’re comparing your behind-thescenes bloopers to their final cut.

  1. Is it justified?

Could you do things differently in a way that allows you the time to do what you need for yourself, as well as catering to your child’s needs? Are you feeling guilty because you know you could do things a little differently? Not all judgement or criticism is wrong, even though our knee-jerk reaction is to reject and fight it. Look for a kernel of truth in your feelings – doing something about it will make you feel better. There‘s no shame in this; we all make mistakes.

  1. Have your actions been done with love?

If you are parenting with love to the best of your capability, then you have nothing to feel guilty about. That’s all that any of us can do, and we don’t always get it right. Learn, adapt and move on. You will be doing this millions of times throughout your parenting journey, so don’t let feelings of guilt pull you down.

  1. Are you solo parenting?

If you are, then remind yourself that you are having to be both parents, and that takes twice as much energy, so cut yourself some slack. If you are co-parenting, hand over the baton. Your partner is not ‘babysitting’, they are co-parenting. What can you do to make parenting a dual effort and not a solo one?

  1. Every child is different

You cannot and will not get every nuance of that right every time. What worked for you as a child will not work for your children. What worked for one of your children will not always work for the other. Understanding this will take the pressure off trying to get it right every time. You are dealing with individual human beings, not clones of yourself or your partner, and they will have their own unique take. Figuring out what your child needs is like trying to learn a foreign language with no guidebook. And just when you think you’ve mastered it, they change the language and you have to start all over again! Cut yourself some slack; it’s hard.

  1. Perspective.

You may feel that you’re not doing a good job as a parent, but have you checked that with your child? They may be more understanding that you realise, and you may be projecting what you needed as a child onto them. Talk to them. Let them see that you are trying your best. You may be stressing out over nothing.

  1. Quality not quantity

It’s about what you do when you are together, not the amount of time spent together. When can you set aside time to really be present with your children, away from your phone or work, so they feel you are really engaged? Even if it’s something as simple as watching a TV show together at the end of the day, going for a walk or eating together – if it’s a time where you are both engaged then that’s enough.

  1. You are getting it wrong and that’s ok

Even if you ticked every parenting box that you set for yourself and gave every second to your children from the moment they are born until the day you die, you will be getting some of it wrong. There is no such thing as 100 percent correct parenting and no guarantee you will have the relationship with your children that you want. Life isn’t like that.

  1. They are not an extension of you

No more than your partner is. They are their own people, and just because you felt a certain way as a child doesn’t mean they will.

  1. You are not alone

Even if you don’t have a circle of friends that you can talk to, it doesn’t mean you have to parent alone. Join forums – there are so many online spaces right now that give you the chance to chat with like-minded parents. Listen to podcasts, to learn and expand your mind to the different ideas around parenting – don’t simply follow what your parents did, or rebel against what your parents did. Don’t blindly follow the latest parenting fad. Find out how you parent, and build on that.

  1. Step away from anyone questioning your parenting abilities from a place of shame

Their intentions are not helpful to you, and neither is their advice. Step back and observe – how do I feel when this person gives me advice? Have I asked for it or is it unsolicited? Are they trying to help, or trying to make me feel bad about myself? Tell them with love that you appreciate their advice, but it makes you feel vulnerable or insecure when they tell you what to do, so with respect, you’d like them to hold back. They may not realise what they are doing and be horrified they have made you feel this way. Or they may be angry and feel called out. Neither of these responses is your responsibility; you are looking after your own needs and as long as you have spoken respectfully, they have no comeback. So don’t transfer your feelings of guilt onto this moment. Have it, and then move on.

  1. Your child will not appreciate what you do

They have no barometer of knowing the juggle it takes to parent until they have children of their own. Even then, their experience will be as unique as yours has been, because their children will have their own personalities, and their circumstances will be different to yours. Few of us fully appreciate our parents, and most people think that we will do things differently, even if we really love them. That’s human nature.

  1. Let it go

Whatever it is you are holding on to that is causing you pain. Let it go. Ask yourself what is inflicting you pain right now, and your thoughts on what you can do about that.

  1. You cannot pour from an empty cup

If you know that everything you are doing comes from love and with love, with a mindset of constant learning, even the bits that you could have done better, then you are an excellent parent. Remember that. Taking time to take care of your needs is part of that – whether that’s career fulfilment or self-care.

  1. Finally, there is no such thing as perfection

Just as you don’t broadcast what’s going on behind your closed doors, you don’t see the struggles other parents are facing, the insecurities they’re feeling, the challenges they are experiencing. Comparison is the thief of joy in every part of our lives, but most poignantly so with parenting. Don’t compare.

You can have the best intentions, do everything with love, make decisions based on the knowledge you have and still have no clue what the future holds. Our children are part of our lives forever, even if they leave us behind and we never see them again. Just as there is no love like a parent’s love, there is also no pain like a broken-hearted parent’s pain, when the dream you had for your relationship with your child does not work out as you assumed or hoped for. None of us knows how our relationship with our children will evolve. All we can do is the best we can, with love and hope for a future filled with happiness. If we have done that, to the best of our abilities, then guilt has no place in our heart.

This girl is on fire

It’s my life’s mission to help women feel better about themselves and that’s why I started I like to call it ‘a gym for the mind’. Since launching as a simple online blog in 2018, This Girl is on Fire has grown into an internationally loved personal growth brand with a simple but powerful premise: to help women think differently about themselves, their circumstances and their lives, giving them the mindset and tools to re-imagine their future. I know how it feels to be stuck, lost, afraid and broke. I know that making any kind of positive change to your life starts with the change you make to your mindset, and I want every woman to experience for themselves the emotional and financial freedom that I have found. That’s why I bring together the best mentors, life coaches and motivational speakers in the world to encourage my community to think differently. It’s why I promote the work of female entrepreneurs on my marketplace; to help them successfully build their brand and its awareness. It is my mission through the work we do at This Girl is on Fire and the ripple effect it has on our community, their families, friends and loved ones, to empower 100 million women and girls around the world…one girl on fire at a time.

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