Parents in general, but especially mothers, are saturated with an abundance of guilt. I hear it all the time from patients who feel that they’re not being mindful enough, attuned enough, or equipped enough to deal with the challenges presented by mothering their children.
As mothers, we’re always challenged with having to make decisions that directly and indirectly impact our children. Intrinsic to being a mother is a perpetual fear about our children’s well-being which we feel personally responsible for. When they suffer, we’re distressed alongside them and would do practically anything to secure their physical, emotional, and social health.
Recognizing that we can’t control all outcomes is painful, especially when our children are confronted with adversity and challenges. This is true through each developmental stage: The issues evolve and change but the feeling of wanting to manage, alleviate, and rescue our children is an ever-present constant.
Understanding the role that values play in our lives helps us to directly connect with why we’re in a perpetual state of guilt and how to reconcile it.
Values Are Personal
Values help us understand the choices we make and help us find a sense of purpose. They reflect driven actions whereby you are “living your truth.”[i] They set the stage for how we want to live and the direction we will take to do so. Values are emblematic of who we are, how we want to be, and what we choose to do virtually every moment of every day.
Important Aspects of Our Parenting Values
- In your pain you find values, and in your values, you find your pain.[ii] Because values are personal choices that hold great meaning, you may experience pain associated with them. For example, if you value connection as part of your parenting, and you get into an argument with your child, you will undoubtedly feel disappointed and sad by the current state of angst in your relationship.
- A failure to focus on a value doesn’t cancel it out. If you were otherwise occupied all day and didn’t have many connected moments with your child, it doesn’t mean that you don’t hold the value of parenting. You’ve just chosen not to exercise that value during that day or in a given moment. Nothing can take away your core values. They are present even if they are not directly acted upon at a given moment or situation.
- Values have no contingencies. They’re about taking action and striving to reach goals that direct us toward the value. Consider, for example, showing empathy for your child. If you were to fully engage in that value, you would aim to be empathic no matter what. If you were seething because your angry child responded to you disrespectfully, you would still be empathic and helpful if he fell and hurt himself. You may not feel especially connected to the action at that moment, but you’d show him empathy in the situation and not wait until he was respectful and likable.
Competing values often impinge on decision-making and stir up internal conflict which gives rise to guilt. Because you have a strong preference for one flavor more than another, deciding whether you want vanilla or chocolate ice cream is easy. If you must choose between a work event or your child’s soccer playoff game, you’re more than likely going to anguish over coming to a decision. That makes sense because “parenting” and “career” are both formative values for you.
Would you want to be okay with missing out on either? Obviously, you’d rather walk away absent of negative or uncomfortable feelings. But because you’re a conscientious parent as well as career-driven, you’re likely to get evoked emotionally. The reminder of how important both values are to you is something to consciously acknowledge and take pride in.
When we have competing higher-order values and need to compromise one over the other in our decision-making, it’s essential to pay homage to the value that’s being compromised. To effectively accomplish that you would note the value (e.g., being present at my child’s game and making my child feel considered and important to me), identify the feelings being evoked (e.g., guilt, sadness, disappointment, ineffectiveness, etc.), and take as much action possible to lean into it, despite not fully being able to participate in it (e.g., express your regret about not being able to make it, record pertinent plays which you watch together, and have a meaningful discussion about their performance and the game in general).
There’s a tendency to avoid the feelings and alternative actions that can be taken because the negative feelings are so pronounced and uncomfortable. This empowering approach allows you to rejoice over your core values and inhabit more self-compassion toward the circumstance and yourself.
Values Will Guide You into a Meaningful Life
Assess on a daily basis whether you’ve made a concerted effort to lean into your parenting values and identify what specific actions you took to carry them out. If you value attunement, behaving compassionately and empathetically, you may openly and curiously consider a variety of reasons why your child acted out, rather than automatically concluding that they’re “inconsiderate” or “selfish.”
Values affect what you want to do; not how you want to feel.[iii] To get to the value, ask yourself, “If I saw myself as a _________ (e.g., loving, caring, thoughtful, etc.) mother, what would I be doing differently?” The relevant value may be asking how you feel in given situations. Underlining questions like “How do I want to represent myself?” and “What do I want to be about?” transcend one distinct action but carry over to all you do as a parent, all day, every day. Make the commitment to consistently evaluate whether you’re aligning with your parenting values and are giving your children the best version of yourself.