I peel open my eyes to check my watch. It’s 4:00am. I hear my one-year-old crying over the monitor—the kind of cry that I can’t just ignore or sleep through. It’s been a few minutes, and it sounds like she’s not going to calm down on her own. I guess it’s time for mama to go in. *sigh*
As I hold her in my arms rocking back and forth, back and forth, in that old familiar rocking chair, I try to get to the “why.” She was such a good sleeper for months, so why is she wide awake and crying in the middle of the night now? Why does she need so much support to fall asleep all of a sudden? Is she cold? Hungry? Teething? In need of a diaper change? Is it too dark in here? Does she miss me? Was bedtime too early today? Or too late? Do we have bad habits around her nighttime routine, the so-called “negative sleep associations”? Should I have just let her cry it out? I thought I knew what I was doing, but obviously something’s not right here. How many sleep regressions do babies go through, anyways?
A full two hours later, after doing all the things that could possibly help her get back to sleep, she’s in her crib again, resting soundly. Hallelujah! I’m free to return to my own bed. Maybe I’ll get another hour of sleep myself before she’s up for the day. I hope this doesn’t happen again tomorrow night. This process is exhausting!
Being a parent is, understandably, tough. I imagined it would be hard before I became a mom, but when you’re in the thick of it, and you’re running on less sleep than you need to function well, you see how challenging it can really be. I don’t always stay composed—sometimes I cry when my daughter is crying and, oftentimes, my mind is racing when something isn’t going right, and it can go to some dark places.
I have definitely experienced mom guilt, and I recognize I’m not the only person who has felt this way. Mom guilt isn’t a mental health challenge or diagnosable mental illness1, but rather a way of referring to the thoughts and feelings of guilt that can come with parenting that impact a mother’s mental health. Mom guilt is found in all the times I start a sentence with “I should…” or when I compare myself to another mom who seems to be doing it all. It’s when I feel shame for not meeting my ideal of being a perfect mother. I’m extra hard on myself when I make a mistake, and I worry about missing an opportunity as I parent my little one.
One thing to note is that although it is commonly referred to as “mom guilt,” these thoughts and feelings of guilt can also be experienced by numerous caregivers, including fathers, grandparents, adoptive and foster parents, and others tasked with raising children.
I realized recently that I have been saying some pretty harsh and negative things to myself, especially in those times when I’m sleep-deprived and my patience is wearing thin. Thoughts like: “You can’t do this. You messed that up. You don’t know what you’re doing. You should have done more research. You could be doing so much more for yourself and your child.” I would never say these kinds of things to another parent who is going through a hard time with their own kid(s). I think I would respond to them with more empathy and support.
The things we think and say to ourselves can really impact our attitudes, self-esteem, sense of worth, and overall mental health. If all we’re hearing is negative self-talk, that’s what we’re going to believe. These beliefs about ourselves can become so internalized that we look for ways to confirm them. If someone gives you a compliment on your parenting, you might not want to accept it, and instead quickly counter that praise with a doubt you have about your capabilities.
I need to be mindful of what I’m thinking about and saying to myself. I would love mothering to be a positive experience for myself and the rest of my family. And sometimes, it really is! It’s a joy to watch my little girl learn and grow, and it’s the sweetest thing when she finds comfort in mama’s arms. Instead of criticizing myself or getting stuck in a downward spiral of guilt, I’m instead trying this thing called self-compassion. It involves offering myself grace—the same grace I would more easily extend to others. As I acknowledge my own emotions, I can see them with kindness and understanding. I can bring some lightness to the tough times, and speak gently to myself with affirmations like: “You are a good mom. You are doing what you can. You are learning as you go. Your daughter loves you. You are not alone. You are doing a good job.”
Self-compassion is something I have learned more about as a mental health advocate and Sanctuary team member2. In the past few years I have grown more mindful of my own mental health experiences, learning what I need to take care of myself well as I have supported others in their mental health journeys. This growth and learning has prepared me for the particularly tiring and challenging season of parenting I am in, helping me acknowledge and recognize whenever I get into some unhealthy and damaging thought patterns.
We really can be our own harshest critics, and the way for it to change starts from within. At my core, I can know that I am valued, worthy, and loved because I am a child of God. He is the one who defines me, not how well I’m doing at reaching my own unrealistic expectations of parenting a toddler and being that “perfect mom”—which doesn’t really exist, by the way. I may make mistakes and worry that I’m doing things wrong. My child may throw tantrums and not listen to my directions. That’s what we do. We are both imperfect humans, but are deeply loved by our Heavenly Father. God knows us intimately, even when we were in our mother’s wombs (Psalms 139:13-15). Because God is our creator, we can praise and thank him for the things he has created—including our own selves!
Did you know that we are commanded to love ourselves (in Matthew 22:37-40)? I thought loving God and others were the priority, but loving ourselves is intricately connected to loving our neighbours. We are called to care for one another in the same way we care for ourselves. God made us, and we are designed in his own image. Truly loving ourselves is an important part of following God’s call for radical love. This means that being the best mom I can be to my little girl includes loving and caring for myself, too.
So, let’s live in love, grace, and gratitude that it’s okay to not have it all together. Fellow parents: if your kid gets more screen time than you originally envisioned, if all they ate for dinner were goldfish crackers, if their toys and dirty laundry are decorating the house, or if they go to sleep later than their scheduled bed time, it’s okay. Take a breath. Each morning is a new opportunity to accept God’s mercies. Let’s speak kindly to ourselves today, even if no one else hears it.
1. If you feel overwhelmed by similar experiences of guilt and shame as a parent and it is impacting your day-to-day functioning, we encourage you to get support. As well, if you think you might be experiencing postpartum anxiety or depression, we encourage you to seek professional help. A good place to start is with a primary care physician.
2. You can explore self-compassion more in The Sanctuary Course in Session 7 on Self-Care.
Maddie holds a Bachelor of Arts in Communications and has worked as a social media manager and digital marketer in ministry settings for over five years. In her Masters of Communications, Maddie researched marketing best practices for non-profit organizations with a special focus on campus ministries. Through her experience as an online mentor for teens and young adults, she learned the importance of loving others through listening.