Guilt and Parenting

As per Amazon, the book, ’What to expect when you’re expecting’ is the “the single most influential pregnancy manual on the planet.” I have a suggestion to make to the editors. I wish to recommend the addition of a last chapter titled “Be Prepared to Handle Ever Increasing and Unending Guilt”. I am so sorry to put it this way but the more women I meet, the more I realize that guilt is an inseparable shadow trailing behind the modern, young mother today. You want to go out and work yet you feel bad about leaving the kids behind, you want the kids to be more independent yet you feel bad about sending them out on the road by themselves, you want them to eat their favourite food on their birthday yet you feel bad about them feeding them pizza and thus it goes, on and on and on. A classic case of this phenomenon is the working mother; the super woman; the woman for whom the consumer goods industry created a whole range of products – instant meals, magic mops and all kinds of appliances including the washing machine that has a mind of its own, miraculously cleaning the family’s laundry while she is busy in her meetings. In the days of the famous Lalita ji of Nirma, advertisers appealed to women to be “the smart homemaker” with their “accha bhi and sasta bhi” slogans and today, these same ads enable the woman to be “the ideal mother” with their “healthy bhi and tasty bhi” campaigns. It is a sign of times.


I don’t know how it was in our grandmother’s times but today I see that the monster of guilt starts laying its trap for a woman in her mid twenties; when she is ready to enter the professional world. Even if she can’t hear it so well, she is aware of the biological clock ticking away in the background and self doubt creeps in at some point when she thinks – “by not having kids in the prime of my reproductive age, am I being unfair to them in some way?” And this is just the beginning. As a woman begins the journey of pregnancy and parenting, the monster of guilt starts working overtime repeatedly raising its head with doubts like “should I have eaten that when pregnant?” or “did I yell too much?” or “too little?” or “was I encouraging enough?” or “did I criticize too much?” and so on and so forth.

If mental burden actually had physical weight, like a physical burden, it would not surprise me that collective guilt of all the parents in the world would dip the Earth by a few meters. May be that is what is causing climate change – all the parents feeling that they are not good enough or not doing enough for their child. 🙂

Indra Nooyi, the CEO of Pepsi Co was asked in an interview about work life balance and if she thought women could have it all (successful career, healthy happy family etc.) and she said very clearly that “I don’t think women can have it all. We pretend we can have it all.” She even made a statement saying “If you ask my daughters, I’m not sure they’ll say I’ve been a good mom. I’m not sure.” The interview is long and the bulk of it is about Pepsi Co’s strategy and the stuff that people typically ask CEOs but it’s the two work life balance questions that actually went viral, probably because her honesty struck a chord with most mothers. What a bold, clear and self assured woman!

If you look at it carefully, parenting guilt has nothing to do with being a working woman or being a non working woman. A working woman thinks “How I envy those moms who get to spend every moment of their day with their child!” and a stay at home mom thinks “How I envy those women who get to spend a few hours away from home every day!” This working non working divide is more about the grass being greener on the other side than about anything else. The weed of this parenting guilt has spread its roots on both sides of the fence and it may be more widely spread on the working parents’ side but it exists on the home side as well. Quitting your job and staying at home does not automatically qualify one to be a perfect parent; you still have to deal with the doubt of “Is it appropriate to be spying on my 16 year old’s Whatsapp chats?”

The root cause of this guilt is a simple case of mismatched expectations. You have certain conscious and unconscious expectations of what it means to be a responsible and good parent; the activities a parent should do with a child in summer, the amount of time a parent should spend with the child, the kind of diet a 5 year old should have etc. And when you find yourself falling short of these expectations you feel guilty.  These days, this phenomenon of falling short of own expectations applies to almost individuals in all areas and all stages of life and yet when it comes to a mother’s expectations regarding the upbringing of her own children the falling short is exceptionally magnified in her own mind – I should’ve been more careful, less strict, more attentive, more focused…. Why?

Even a super successful person as Indra Nooyi finds it challenging to deal with this parenting guilt. The reason I find her bold is not just because she is so successful in a man’s world but more so because look at how secure she is as an individual. She admits candidly in a global forum that we can’t have it all, we just pretend that we do. And she goes on to say that she is not sure that in the future her daughters would think that she has been a good mom. In the 26 minutes of that interview she spends a whole lot of time explaining market trends and why her strategy is good for PepsiCo in a confident and authoritative manner and yet in the 2 minutes of the work life balance questions, she drops her gaze and mumbles “I don’t know” a couple of times.

Observe how powerful the grip of the guilt monster is; it makes a super secure woman, a woman who has excelled in every field of her life doubt her parenting skills and think in terms of whether she has been a “good mom” or “bad mom.” What is it about parenting that makes us doubt ourselves so much?

My guess is that it is because parenting is a highly intuitive process. There are so many unique elements at play here; personalities, schedules, environment that one prescription, one book, one technique cannot apply to all. A parent has to rely a whole lot on their internal wisdom to become the best kind of parent for their child. And it is right there that we stumble. Not for the lack of inner wisdom – that is available in plenty but for our lack of trust in it. Especially when it comes to shaping the personality of someone as pure, innocent and precious as our child, we do not trust ourselves to do it right. We are always worried about “screwing it up.” In order to prevent screwing it up we rely on others – pediatricians, friends, neighbors, books, videos and Google. Of course it is great to consult experts; those experts could very well be our neighbors whose children are excelling in school or sports but it is equally important to realize that our children are little people in their own right; perfectly whole and complete as they are and that there is no need for us to force them to take piano or tennis lessons just to improve their “future” prospects. Have you observed that a lot of our parenting is structured around ‘doing’ – either we are encouraging them to do something – “let us play cricket” or we are cautioning them against failure – “if you don’t study you will fail!” Rarely do we allow ourselves or them, the luxury of just ‘being’ – to give them the space to be themselves without us peppering that space with our ideas of how things “should” be.

parenting tip 1

Parenting is like molding a piece of clay, when you are given a lump of clay, you can use your fingers to give it the shape you want or you can completely ignore it going on about your life and adding few drops of water here and there or you could just sit there, adding a touch here, a drop there, watching it intently, sensing intimately the shape that’s its taking. There is no right or wrong method; at different stages of our journey, we use different combinations of these styles – the problem arises only when we are not willing to accept the shape that’s getting formed. We have predetermined ideas of what success is and how if you follow a particular map you will eventually land on the square that says “SUCCESS!” or at least we think we know that the map will keep you away from the square that says “FAILURE.”

The promise that such a map exists is the guilt monster’s greatest illusion – there is no such map! 🙂

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