A mother told me that she didn’t like the idea of good enough mothering. She doesn’t want to be just good enough – she wants to be perfect. Many mothers feel that way but wouldn’t say it that directly. If you ask a mother – or father – if they think they are perfect, they will say, “Of course not,” as if it is obvious that no one is perfect. Yet, in certain ways they act as if they really believe they should be.
Another mother was concerned about her younger son, who was showing considerable angry behavior recently toward his older brother and toward her. This morning he said to her accusingly, “You didn’t take me to the store yesterday as you had promised.” Mom responded by reminding him of all the other things she had done for him that he had wanted, in order to persuade him that that these made up for not having gone to the store.
Why did mom feel she had to justify her own behavior? Did she inwardly feel she had done a terrible thing and had to defend herself? That if she were a perfect mother she would not have broken her promise and disappointed her son? What she actually said was that she felt guilty about not “being there” for her younger son as she was for his brother, having returned to work after his birth while having been home with the first one.
A child’s reproach can feel like an attack. In reality, the reproach is an expression of the child’s feelings. This child was telling his mother he was disappointed, didn’t like it that she didn’t do what was promised and feels angry about it. But his mother heard it as “bad mommy,” as something about her rather than as something about himself. She was already feeling guilty and accusing herself of being a “bad mommy,” so she heard her son’s accusations as confirmation of those feelings.
In another example, a mother told of her son having a meltdown because his sister wanted to finish her puzzle when they were supposed to be leaving. Mom tried to justify waiting for his sister to finish by talking to him about fairness, about how if they had to wait for him to be ready they would wait, as they are now doing for his sister. When this didn’t work and he persisted in his protests, she “lost it” and became angry because she just wanted the behavior to stop.
Part of the problem here is the idea that when there is a conflict one person is right and the other one wrong. It leads to trying to resolve a conflict by proving that you are right. The children involved were expressing feelings, but in trying to justify their own behavior both mothers were telling their children that they shouldn’t feel the way they do – that their feelings were wrong.
We don’t want children to feel that we are “bad” mothers, which feeds into the feeling many mother have that maybe they are – not perfect. Mothers justify their own behavior in order to protest that message – but also because it may be difficult to deal with the behavior in which it is delivered.
To stop justifying our own wishes, or what we ask of our children, we have to keep in mind that children can learn to do what we ask even when they don’t like it. We don’t have to persuade them that we are right or that what we want is more important than what they want. As parents, we need to have confidence in our own judgment and not use our children’s expression of their feelings to tell us whether we are right or wrong.
You don’t have to take away your child’s feelings in order to justify your own.