The Parent Trap: Wading Through Your Parent Guilt

1137 days into the parenthood experience and I still face the persistent internal battle of "Parent Guilt".  Before becoming a parent myself, I had always somehow attributed that term to neglectful or distracted parents.  Because after all, isn't that what the mind does to avoid pain- put things into neat categories.  Little did I know how universal it was until eight weeks after returning to work from paternity leave, when I began to feel this indescribable gnawing feeling in my gut.  Immediately, I felt like work was splitting my attention from being the best father I could be, truly being there for my son.   I felt it intensify when my wife went back to work at 6 months, after a maternity leave quite a bit longer than many working moms, as we added childcare into the mix.  Leaving our child in the hands of daycare providers for the first time was heart breaking- and yes I was one of those crazy dads that called the daycare twice/ day for the first week to see if my son was "okay".  They were gracious and humored me with the reassurance I needed just to get through my day. The kid was fine.

Then, when our second child was born, both my wife and I found ourselves even deeper in the "parent trap". Now not only was I split between running a full-time private practice and managing our mental health clinic, but I was often split between a crying newborn and a 3 year old demanding my attention, saying "Daddy-will you play with me?" in his sweet way.  I quite often find myself not knowing which way to turn.  At 41 years old, I can finally relate to the phrase "I feel like pulling my hair out".  This kind of guilt that I have experienced along with many other parents is called "irrational guilt". It serves no rational purpose, there is not a behavior to be fixed, it's just a feeling we have despite what we know. There is no evidence that supports that sending your child to to daycare or both parents working outside the home interferes with childhood development.  However, this being said, it still doesn't take away from this icky feeling inside.

Three and a half months into having two, I don't feel any less torn between them, but I have created some strategies for self soothing. Here are 7 self-compassionate strategies parents can use to help lift them out of this trap:

  1. Be honest with yourself and your partner about your strengths and  insecurities in parenting.  Let this be a 'brand new" start of role modeling honesty and authenticity- for yourself, your partner and your children.
  2. Give yourself space and permission for your emotions:  Allowing yourself to grieve and suffer sadness and emptiness and fear of loss of control during times of transition such as leaving your child for the first time.
  3. Ask for help:  Set up your support systems and ask for help when you need it.  Being proud, repressing, or over-tolerating your needs for assistance with parenting is betraying yourself and fostering pain avoidance.  We want and teach our kids to ask for help but yet it is so hard for us to do.  One thing that has been a really helpful platform for both asking for help and talking about these issues for our family has been PEPS- Program for Early Parenting Support
  4. Be mindful of every moment! Be aware of your emotions and space at every moment with your child.  Acknowledge to yourself aloud when you are suffering from exhaustion, feeling a loss of control,  feeling like you haven't gotten enough rejuvenation for yourself,  or the division of labor is unfair, feeling anxious about being alone, feeling inadequate, or incompetent.
  5. Manage your expectations as a parent - and set reasonable goals that fit within your energy level, value system and your budget. If you find yourself striving to be everything, everywhere, all the time... take a minute to ask yourself what this Supermom or Superdad looks like. What would it be to be the "perfect parent"? 
  6. Prepare yourself and your child for struggle.  Our societal programming tells us to avoid pain at all costs.  With mindfulness and self-compassion, we learn to move toward struggle and model to our children that it is going to be in the fabric of our every day life.  If we normalize struggle, we are less likely to resist it and feel pain from not meeting unrealistic expectations.
  7. Finally - Always put yourself first.  It seems contradictory to what we've been taught.  Inevitably when I discuss self-compassion with my clients, they struggle with the idea that it is selfish.  I'm not saying to catch up on your "Days of Our Lives" or check your Status Updates before your child. But I am saying to constantly be evaluating your physical needs from your thirst to your hunger to your bladder needs.  When your needs are met you are putting yourself in the position to give and be your best.  A mother who is well hydrated and nourished is going to providing her child with the best breast milk. I am in the best shape to be compassionate to others when I am compassionate to myself. Make sure that you schedule time for yourself to exercise and rejuvenate, and space to appreciate all of your tremendous growth as a parent.

I'm just a dad like anyone else, and I know I will always have this feeling, as I am forced to make choices in life that won't always put my child's needs first. I practice these methods daily, as well as share them with my clients. They can relate to anything that is difficult to deal with in your daily life. I believe parenting is give and take, and that it gives me life and rejuvenation when I'm least expecting it, or deserving of it.

Derek Crain, MSW, LICSW is a Psychotherapist and the Executive Director of Mindful Therapy Group. He supports individuals, families and couples through the ups and downs of life, as well as complex mental health diagnoses. Contact us if you would like to schedule an appointment for therapy. 

Other Helpful Resources:

5 Tips for Dealing with Guilt

Are you a Guilty Parent?

Find parent support through PEPS

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