Parent guilt and how to give your children the gift of self-realisation
Guilt and the feeling of not doing enough have come to be synonymous with motherhood for many parents. Fuelled by intense comparison and increased isolation, feelings of guilt and shame are rife in mums and dads of our time. I am a mother of three and many of my friends are parents too. I have experienced the feelings of not doing enough at home whilst trying to work. And the feelings of not doing enough at work whilst trying to be a mum. This inner conflict is what psychologists call cognitive dissonance – two opposing values operating inside one body.
As a therapist and coach, I see that inner conflict is the cause of much pain and difficulty in life. So I wanted to write about one of my perspectives on parent guilt, which I think helps with inner conflict.
That perspective is the idea of self-realisation. As parents, we have responsibility towards our children to provide. We provide safety, nutritious food, clothes in the right size, educational toys and play dates with lovely children. The list of ways to provide for children’s needs span the physical, spiritual, emotional, educational and relational. What I often come across in sessions with clients is the concept of providing for our children psychologically.
By this I mean whether we give our children a healthy or unhealthy psychology. Our concepts, worldview and model of masculinity and femininity become their ground of being. They build their lives on our psychological concepts, for good or bad. Many researchers link unhealthy, psychologically negative experiences in childhood to problems later in life including addictions, unemployment and crime, and it often takes numerous psychotherapy sessions to repair the damage. On the more positive side children of parents with high self-esteem tend to be confident and handle relationships well. Children of happily married parents tend to stay married for longer. I reflected on this fact just this last week when reflecting on my recently deceased grandmother and her 5 children; all of them have been married for 30 years or more. So effective was the psychological conditioning of their parent's marriage that all my uncles and aunts have stayed married to their original spouses.
Our psychological provision for our children usually happens without us realising it. We are constantly giving our children a model for life, just by the way we think, behave and relate to them. Whether we are aware of it or not, our children copy and then internalise the way we are as a reference point for everything in their worlds. When I stop and think about how I am doing that for my three children it is quite overwhelming and scary!
The way we think about ourselves is a classic form of psychological provision: a psychological model for our children to inherit. For example, if a mother thinks of herself as a socially responsible person, it is very likely that she will hand a model of social responsibility to her children. Most likely she will be unaware of this, but her children will have internalised her worldview as a socially responsible person. The children will be predisposed to volunteer for roles in the community and be naturally more law-abiding because of the psychological bias they were handed by their mother.
This is particularly effective with self-realisation. Self-realisation is a person’s ability to understand themselves and express themselves appropriately. A person with a lifelong ambition to fly planes would achieve self-realisation by acknowledging that ambition and giving it an outlet such as getting a pilot’s license. Therefore, it’s easy can see how our own self-realisation becomes a gift we give to our children. If I have the ability to realise my own dreams and ambitions, I unconsciously permit and encourage my children to do the same.
Carl Jung put it this way: “The most damaging thing in the life of a child is the unlived life of the parent”.
Parents fully expressed
On the topic of parent guilt, many parents I know (myself included) do not fully consider their own need for self-realisation. Nor do they consider the opportunity they have to give their children a model of a fully realised self. This provision is every bit as important as the kind of school their child goes to. In fact, it could be argued, far more important.
This comes into play most poignantly when a mother (or father) has the choice to return to work or stay at home with her children. This is a hotly debated topic in the media and of course, there are no right or wrongs here.
But suppose we encouraged parents to consider what self-realisation looks like for them as part of their decision-making process. Does returning to work realise her ambitions and desires, or is it better expressed in staying at home? When we seek to fulfil our own needs, we permission our children to do the same. The parent who decides to stay at home because he/she has always wanted to be a stay-at-home dad/mum gives her children a model of self-realisation. As does the mother who chooses to pick up her old job because she loves the work she does. Both of these parents are contributing to a healthy psychology of self-realisation. The children will internalise that model of life.
By the same measure, when a mother is forced to go back to work or forced to stay at home, her children will perceive her inner conflict on an intuitive, subconscious level and may well be limited in their own ability to fully realise themselves.
A client of mine recently reflected that her mother was made redundant in her 40s and struggled to get back to work. Her father suggested that her mother stay at home to look after the family instead, but my client always knew her mother resented her inability to find another job she enjoyed. She was beginning to see the correlation with her own struggles to pursue her vocation as a writer and balance the caregiving needs of her role as a mother.
We were able to help her resolve the internal conflict this had created. It was then easier for her to pursue whichever avenue felt most helpful to her. Internally she experiences more self-realisation and her children are better provided for psychologically.
While this is obviously relevant in the coaching or therapy setting, I would like to see more cultural understanding of healthy psychology. And there is no better place to begin than with healthy psychology in mothers.
The world happiness report of 2017 highlighted that maternal mental health was the single most important factor in long-term happiness. The psychological wellness of the mothers in our communities is of paramount interest to the wellbeing of our children. And by extension, the future of our society.
Let’s allow the conversation around parenthood to be informed by insights into psychological wellness. Let’s support parents to understand their own psychology and more fully realise themselves as a healthy individual. Perhaps that way we can consign the phrase ‘parent guilt’ to the past.