The other night my husband and I sat with our children and watched home videos until long past bedtime. We laughed at how our youngest daughter used to be obsessed with hand sanitizer because of the glitter and how our oldest son’s curls used to hang over his eyes. We were reminded of God’s faithfulness to our family and, at the same time, experienced it once again. As the kids went to bed, one of my sons said, “That was great Mom, we have to do this again soon.”
You’d think I would be basking in the glow of a sweet family bonding time, but as I washed the dinner dishes, feelings of guilt were already engaged in hand to hand combat with the warm fuzzies. Guilt, as per usual, soon won out. “Those videos don’t show the whole picture. You may have looked like a fun mom playing hide and seek with your kids, but you know you didn’t play with them enough.” Or, “How could you have forgotten the day when all the hot air balloons raced over our house? You didn’t enjoy your children enough when they were little.” You should’ve. You didn’t. You failed.
How should we handle the unpleasant emotion of “mommy guilt”? There is much more to say than I can pack into a post, but here are a few thoughts that I hope prove helpful.
First, it seems to me that there are two main strains of “mommy guilt.” The first kind of mommy guilt isn’t really guilt at all. It’s an emotion we call “guilt,” but it’s usually a vague feeling of discouragement that points to some pride or approval-craving masquerading as “guilt.” We talk to a mom who believes her parenting method is the only way to go. Or we read the latest study that proves parents of really smart, successful children do x, y, and z—and we aren’t even doing x. Bring on the self-flagellation.
The problem with a lot of mommy guilt is that the law we have transgressed is not a biblical one but a cultural one. We have to watch out here: How much of our idea of what it takes to be a good mother is shaped by Scripture and how much is shaped by my friends who believe children should only eat, sleep, or learn in a particular way?
I’m not saying it doesn’t matter how we feed or educate our children. It matters a great deal! Motherhood is an intensely practical endeavor. But how we raise our children should flow from and run back to the one grand goal of mothering: to train up our children in the ways of the Lord (Prov. 22:6). When we start here, mothering gets a lot easier, a lot less burdensome, and a whole lot more fun. We will find a wide scope for our imagination, creativity, and gifting when we chuck the obligation to measure up to certain cultural standards. There is time enough to do what matters in mothering, but only if we do it for what really matters.
To deal with faux mommy guilt, we must learn all that we can from other moms, but preferably older, godly, women who have seen many mothering fads come and go, and have a sense of what matters for the long-term. But most importantly, we must evaluate all parenting advice in light of God’s Word. To borrow a John Piper image from another context, if training our children in the ways of the Lord is like the sun, then everything else such as feeding and sleeping and educating our children will, like the planets in their course, find their proper place. And we moms won’t feel guilty for things we shouldn’t feel guilty about.
The second kind of mommy guilt is the true kind. We are in such a hurry to outrun this unpleasant emotion that we forget it is a God-given feeling. I should feel guilty sometimes because I am a guilty mom. I have broken God’s laws, and I do so multiple times a day. I break God’s laws when I am impatient with my children or when I complain about an interruption. I break God’s law by things I do and things I don’t do. Far from being a negative emotion to avoid at all costs, I must ask God to help me feel the right kind of mommy guilt at the right time.
But true conviction from the Holy Spirit isn’t the vague sense of failure I had the other night. The way to deal with these feelings is to admit that yes, I am a guilty mom—guilty of many sins of commission and omission—but thanks be to God I have a Savior whose sacrifice on my behalf is sufficient to cover all my mommy guilt. He is at work to make this guilty, repentant mother fruitful in her home. That’s what I should have seen the other night when watching home videos: not only my failures but the amazing grace of God in spite of my failures.
Recently my dad sent me this quote from John Newton to encourage mothers who struggle with mommy guilt:
“You say you feel overwhelmed with guilt and a sense of unworthiness? Well, indeed you cannot be too aware of the evils inside yourself, but you may be, indeed you are, improperly controlled and affected by them. You say it is hard to understand how a holy God could accept such an awful person as yourself. You then express not only a low opinion of yourself, which is right, but also too low an opinion of the person, work, and promises of the Redeemer, which is wrong.”
Contrary to what our culture tells us, it is right and biblical to have a low opinion of ourselves. What’s wrong is to have too low an opinion of the person, work, and promises of the Redeemer.
So the next time we are struck with a case of mommy guilt, let’s ask: Do I feel guilty because I have broken one of God’s laws or one of my own “laws”? And if we have broken one of God’s laws, let us have a low opinion of ourselves. Let us admit our guilt and ask God (and our children, if appropriate) to forgive us. But let us have a high opinion of Christ. Instead of wallowing in “What a horrible mother I am” let us immediately turn to contemplating the person and work and promises of God. Let us thank him for his amazing grace revealed at the cross and at work in our mothering. And let us trust in his promise to help us in our time of need. This is the way to true freedom from mommy guilt.