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A Mother's Guide to Dealing with Parental Guilt

By Susie Cortright

"Step on me, please."

When I was a teenager, my grandmother and I were on a family vacation in my parents’ RV. The quarters were close, the beds at a minimum. My grandmother insisted I take the couch and she take the floor. I objected to this arrangement, of course: "What if I accidentally step on you in the middle of the night?" She reiterated: "Step on me. Please."

“How absurd,” I thought. It wasn’t until I had my own child that I understood. To some degree, every mother wants her children to be perfectly comfortable, perfectly protected, perfectly happy -- no matter what sacrifices she might have to make. When we as mothers inevitably fall short of this ideal, guilt sets in.

The purpose of guilt
Is there a positive side to these feelings of guilt? There can be, says Lesley Spencer, founder and director of Home Based Working Moms (HBWM), an association that helps bring working moms closer to their children.

"Guilt keeps us in touch with our feelings," Spencer says. "If we are feeling guilty about something, there is probably an area in our life that needs addressing."

With the first pangs of guilt, ask yourself why you are feeling this way. Are there ways you can alleviate guilt by changing your priorities? Will this be a positive change? If so, make that change. If not, take steps to zap that unnecessary guilt.

A mother’s guilt stems from an inability to give more of herself, but Jane Adams, speaker, author and research psychologist, offers another perspective. "Guilt is an internal state that is self-defeating and also self-absorbing," she says. "Guilt is all about you, not the subject of your feelings."

Adams adds that she prefers the word “regret” because regret, she says, is "guilt without the neurosis. It is an expression of feeling that acknowledges the other person’s feelings, too."

Four tips for alleviating guilt

Re-examine your goals and priorities. Spencer offers sound advice. "If your guilt involves not spending quality and quantity time with your children, then the issue should be taken seriously," she says. "Decide your goals and where they are falling short. If you work at home to spend more time with your children, you’ll have to address the issue of a growing business that requires more time or growing children who require more time. Don’t hesitate to hire outside help to help you accomplish your goals."

Remember your role as a parent. Adams reminds us that it our duty to set limits. "Understand that setting priorities, limits and boundaries ... about time, money, gifts, etc., is part of being a parent and requires no apologies or guilty feelings," she says. "Don’t let yourself be run or controlled by these emotions, especially when it’s in the best interest of your child to stick to the limits or priorities you’ve set."

Learn from your mistakes.
Discuss the object of your guilt with people whose opinion you respect. Give yourself permission to make mistakes and vow to learn from them. Be honest and upfront with your children, if you determine you are at fault. Offer a sincere apology and explanation.

Change "guilt" to "regret." A simple semantics change could make a big difference. "Try substituting the world 'regret' for the feelings you now label 'guilt,'" Adams says. "Regret requires no expiation -- simply the realization that you did the best your could in the situation and that you're not going to let your child's reaction control your actions."

For more information

All Mother's Work
A guilt-free guide for the stay-at-home mom
Buy it Now

Goodbye to Guilt
Releasing fear through forgiveness
Buy it Now

Working Mothers 101
How to organize your life, your children and your career to stop feeling guilty and start enjoying it all
Buy it Now

© Susie Cortright

Susie Cortright publishes, a website devoted to helping busy women find balance. The site features resources for conscious living and soul-based parenting, including Susie's popular "Soul Snacks": creative ways we can nurture ourselves -- and others -- in 15 minutes or less. Susie is also the author of More Energy for Moms, a mind-body-soul fitness book, program and community, and Rekindling Your Romance After Kids. Susie lives in Breckenridge, Colorado, with her husband and three young children.

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