Ask a middle-class mom if she’s feeling guilty, and chances are pretty good she'll say she is, about anything and everything: about not spending enough time with her kids; about spending the wrong kind of time with her kids; about being over-doting or under-doting; about caring too much what her kids eat or not caring enough; about signing her kids up for too many activities or signing them up for too few. Pry open the lid, and a vat of anxieties will freely pour out.
But here’s the thing about guilt: It’s supposed to be a constructive emotion. Useful. Adaptive. Improving, even. As the University of Houston researcher Brené Brown likes to point out, guilt is driven by the conscience. It’s the result of having done something we firmly believe to be wrong. Which means that feeling it is appropriate, and, ideally, coaxes us into better versions of ourselves: “I screwed up. I should make amends. I will not do that again.”
Yet most of the mothers I’ve spoken to over the last three years — and I’ve chatted with plenty — have not, as best as I can tell, been serially betraying their core values. In fact, most are just doing what all well-intentioned and overworked people do: trying as hard as they can. What they’re feeling, therefore, is not a constructive emotion at all, but a destructive one. What they’re feeling is shame.
It’s a semantic distinction worth noting. Shame, according to Brown, is a global feeling of unworthiness, not a targeted response to a behavior or choice we regret. It hobbles, rather than motivates. It says we don’t deserve fellowship. That if people knew how awful we were, they’d be appalled. Shame is a full-scale attack on ourselves.
Language is a powerful thing. Imagine what would happen if mothers stopped describing themselves as feeling “guilty” all the time and instead started saying they felt “ashamed” of their putative failures. Their husbands, their friends — everyone, most likely — would tell them to stop talking nonsense: Their parenting was nothing to be ashamed of.
Yet shame is what they feel. And this shame, I think, is what often explains a big gap between the parenting self-esteem mothers and that of fathers.
Three years ago, I spent some time interviewing a Minnesota couple named Angie and Clint. She worked evenings as a psychiatric nurse; he worked the morning shift at the local airport, managing one of the rental-car desks. Both were lovely parents — engaged, caring, patient, conscientious about making sure their kids were moral and productive.
But their self-images as parents were really quite different. There came a point when I asked Angie which environment she found more challenging: work or home. “Home,” she unequivocally answered. She felt more confident and competent in a setting where psychotic patients bit and hit and screamed at her than she did in her own kitchen. Angie knew she was a good nurse. But she didn’t know if she was a good mother. When I asked if she thought she might be, she pondered the question before finally answering: “Sometimes.”
And then there was a Clint. Clint’s job outside the home wasn’t nearly so psychologically grueling. He worked, primarily, at a desk. Yet when I asked him which environment he considered the most challenging, his answer, too, was unequivocal: work. He didn’t feel quite as self-assured over there. He felt much more competent and confident at home. I asked him why. “I had to learn how to be a manager,” he explained. “I’m held to someone else’s standard. Whereas here at home, I am the standard. I feel like I do it the way it should be done.”
That phrase has stuck with me ever since he said it. It’s hard to imagine most mothers uttering the phrase “I am the standard.” But they should.
It’s easy, if you’re a mother, to be tyrannized by an impossible set of standards, ones that can no more easily be reached than a kite can the sun. Standards that emanate from parenting books, often contradictory. (Let your kids cry it out; don’t let them cry it out. Stimulate them early and often; train them to entertain themselves. Only let your child play violin or piano; let your child follow his or her bliss.) Standards that emanate from parenting message boards. Standards that emanate from the television. (I’d love to be as good a mother as Tami Taylor on Friday Night Lights, but — and I often have to remind myself of this — she’s fictional.) Standards that mutely emanate from family photos on Facebook and in Christmas cards, though we all know they’ve been meticulously curated, giving no indication of what that family’s life is truly like.
So moms: You feel guilty. But do you feel ashamed? No? Good. Then guess what? You are the standard. Yes. You are. And odds are that standard is just fine.
Jennifer Senior is the author of All Joy and No Fun.