Mothers Blaming Themselves

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were lying in bed talking about our day. I told him that the kids were just awful that day — never ending tantrums, whining, etc. His response was sweet as he gave me a hug, but I was a bit taken aback: “Don’t worry, Caroline. You’re still a good mom.”

Hmmmm…. apparently I missed the memo that I’m expected to blame myself for my kids’ awfulness. Until he said that, it actually hadn’t occurred to me at all to blame myself. I just attributed their bad behavior to them choosing to be uncooperative that day. (Besides, they are 5 and 2 — aren’t kids just randomly awful at that age, no matter the parenting skills of the mom?)

But then it got me wondering… maybe I should be blaming myself. Is that what other women do when their kids behave badly? What’s going on in my head that it didn’t occur to me that it was my fault? And is there something interesting going on here in terms of gender, a situation in which society expects women (in particular) to be hard on themselves because of the actions of their children?

So I’ve spent the last few weeks contemplating a bit about the appropriate level of blame mothers (and parents more generally) should direct toward themselves over their kids’ behavior. I suppose there are occasions when parents are totally negligent and make no effort to teach their kids well. But I honestly don’t see that very often. I guess I just naturally lean toward seeing kids as individual agents who inevitably make bad choices occasionally. It’s not like I don’t try to constantly teach my kids to be kind, be cooperative, and be good sharers.

I also couldn’t help relating this to some feminist ethics I’ve been recently reading. Sarah Hoagland argues that it’s important for women to see themselves as both related and separate. To see oneself only in terms of interconnectedness with others (husbands, kids, friends, etc.) can lead to a dangerous lack of boundaries, as one lives vicariously through others and deeply (unhealthily) internalizes those others’ successes and failures. And to see oneself as only autonomous and separate denies the importance of our relationships and the truth that we are people who live within webs of relationships and contexts that do affect our options and choices in life. But to see ourselves as both related and separate is to find a middle ground between the two.

As I mentioned above, I clearly don’t struggle much with seeing myself as separate from my kids and their choices. But what is the ideal balance? How much should mothers (parents) blame themselves for their kids’ choices? Is there a level of self- blame in that regard that is productive rather than harmful? If you have kids, do you blame yourself for their behavior?

Caroline

Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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32 Responses

  1. Your husband’s attempt to console you by his assurance that you’re still a good mother even if your kids are behaving badly is interesting.
    I can’t imagine a wife feeling the need to reassure her husband that he’s still a good dad if the kids were awful while he was caring for them.

    • Um, been there, was glad for the reassurance of the wife.

    • Miri says:

      I can, actually–but it might be reflective of the mother’s concern about herself. (I mean, if she thinks their bad behavior is her fault, then she probably thinks her husband will think it’s his fault, too.)

      I think the real question is, would a stay-at-home dad feel that way? It makes sense to me that a “babysitting” dad would wonder, because he probably feels a bit inept since it’s not his regular job. But what about a dad who is the primary caregiver? Is this blame something that we stick on women, or is it just a human-insecurity thing? It would be interesting to see.

    • Caroline says:

      When I told him I was going to do this post, my husband explained a bit more about why he said that. He apparently thought that I was hinting that I wanted reassurance about being a good mom, ergo his comment. But clearly we got our wires crossed. I don’t remember that desire for reassurance even crossing my mind.

      • Heidi says:

        You are very lucky/blessed to have a husband that is empathetic toward you. Who wouldn’t want that kind of loving support from their spouse! Not everyone has that in a partner. Sorry he used imperfect words. Hope he ”learned his lesson” …?

  2. Kristin says:

    When I was struggling with employees as the top administrator of a business, my husband would console me with, “you’re still a great boss.” It helped me gird up my loins and get back out there to do my best. I don’t see the difference between this and being a mom.

    As a mom or top administrator of a business – while children and employees have free agency and their own personality quirks – the mom (if she is the one in the home primarily) and the top administrator create the culture and the norms of acceptable behavior.

    I think the “deadly” term being used here is “blame”. That’s an ugly word, both to the mother to be blamed, and for the children who developing. Is a mother (and father) responsible for modeling good behavior, reinforcing good behavior and providing the physical and emotional necessities for a healthy child. YES! Does modeling good behavior, reinforcing good behavior and providing for the needs of a child contribute to their lifelong success. YES! Are children flawed human beings who are part of a developmental process, just as their parents are? YES!

    There is a huge difference between accepting the huge responsibility parenthood and “blaming” yourself for not having “perfect” children. What a horrible thing to place on a mother (or father) and the children. We’re human, we’re growing, and hopefully by working together we consistently improve.

  3. jks says:

    Very interesting. I think about this too. I’ve been a mother for 14! years now.
    The problem is that I am a really good mom and I really do feel like I make a difference in my children’s lives. For instance, without me my son with an LD wouldn’t be doing so well. I see what I difference I make in my children’s lives. A little micromanagement of their environment prevents some major problems and creates opportunity for learning and development and success.
    But even though I am certain that what I do makes a huge impact, I don’t want to be too wrapped up in the results and take ownership of their lives. I certainly don’t want to feel like a failure if my children don’t “turn out.” So I pretty much daily tell myself that I am training them to become independent adults so they can take care of themselves. And that I will let them grow up in stages so they can own their own mistakes, failures, successes and growth.
    But secretly even when my children have successes I see the work that I did in order to give them the opportunity for growth. For instance, my daughter has a part time job. She got it because I work hard at networking with other parents at schools (even though I am shy) and I told people about her being available and willing to work for low pay appropriate for her age and made it safe for them to ask her. I also thanked people for giving her the opportunity to work, and offered to bring her. Of course, once she is there it is almost all up to her. It is a hassle for me, but the opportunity for her is worth it.
    So I’m going to take the credit. So far, I’ve been able to get over the blame (try having a child with developmental issues and you have to deal with blame). I don’t blame anymore. That’s how I’ve used the atonement. I don’t have any big sins to repent of. But I do access the atonement by trusting that nothing I do will harm my children so much that the atonement can’t make up for it either in this life or the next.
    I think it helps to have watched my parents reel from the mess of a rebellious teen. They were awesome. Can’t blame them at all. So even when having kids, I didn’t imagine all happiness and joy. I knew. I know. You can’t control them. It’s up to them to choose how to react to all the parenting you do and I am determined to do my best and not worry about the rest.

  4. CatherineWO says:

    These are very important questions, Caroline. When my children were actually children, I had a very difficult time separating their behavior from my parenting. I saw them as extentions of myself, I think, and their behavior as a direct reflection of my own, good or bad. When our oldest was hospitalized for mental illness at the age of 22, I took a lot of the blame upon myself and much was directed at me by one doctor and by my son himself. It was a nurse in the psyche ward who helped me put it into balance. Though I would not wish that whole experience upon anyone, it was a turning point for me as a mother and forever changed the way I viewed my relationship with my children. Keeping the balance you seek is difficult, and it doesn’t get any easier as they become adults, but it is absolutely essential to try for it if you want to have good relationships with your children as they, and you, age. Of course, we have to take responsibility as parents, but we also have to let our children be themselves, making their own mistakes and dealing with their own consequences. If we get too caught up in self-blame, we become unable to truly help them when they need it and love them through it all. It becomes all about us and not about the child. One of the LDS doctrines that I most love is the idea that we were all equal, individual spirits in a pre-existance, and we came to this life with pre-existing strengths and weaknesses. Also, we are each born with a unique genetic code that, as in the case of my son, can predispose us to certain behaviors. I see my role as a mother as one to guide my children, not to mold them–and to love them, regardless of their behavior, or mine for that matter.

    • Caroline says:

      Catherine WO, I love the wisdom of your comment. And Kristen and JKS’s too. What good insight you all have about putting this all in perspective.

      I had grandparents who blamed themselves every day until they died in their 90’s about having a son who didn’t ever really get on his feet. They used to say, “if only we had let him have that paper route when he was 8, like he wanted. then maybe it would have turned out different.” What a burden to carry around all those years, and one that was unnecessary in so many ways.

  5. mraynes says:

    This is so timely for me, Caroline. Yesterday a facebook friend suggested that any kid that can’t spell his/her name by the age of 3 1/2 is the product of failed parenting. My 4 yr. old son can’t spell his name for a variety of reasons, none of which have to do with me being a bad parent. Nevertheless, that statement really hurt and it reduced me to tears. I do blame myself for his slow development and the sensory issues that contribute to it even though intellectually I know it isn’t my fault.

    I have been known to blame myself for any bad behavior that my kids exhibit. I think the amount of focus and pressure that our culture places on mothers it can be almost impossible to escape blaming yourself if your kids don’t turn out perfectly. But blame isn’t a very effective activity, it makes much more sense to learn from your mistakes and move on.

    Unfortunately, I don’t know what the correct balance is. I obviously haven’t found it. I spend so much time thinking I am a horrible mother that I wonder at times if it hasn’t become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Somehow I have bought into what our culture tells us good motherhood looks like and because I don’t fit that narrow definition I beat myself up over it. I think you’re approach is much healthier.

    • TopHat says:

      If it helps, mraynes, my 3.5 year old cannot spell her own name.

      • spunky says:

        … and because my typing skillz are lame and I am often in a hurry, I often misspell/mis-write my own name. And I am way older than 3.5. Yeah, I totally blame my mother for that.

        What a trite and rediculous statment that is! I would question the parenting/judgement skills of someone who assumes that a child spelling their name by 3.5 is a sign of good parenting!

      • Diane says:

        Spunky,

        You and me both, you would never, never know that I was an English major in college. I often make so many grammar and punctuation and spelling errors its disgusting. That’s because I’m far to interested in getting my point across to bother or care about the rest

    • Caroline says:

      hugs to you, mraynes.

  6. April says:

    Society at large blames mothers for children’s behavior; it’s not just the mothers themselves. I can’t count the number of times I sat at a lunch table with a number of (mostly childless) adults and heard someone gossip about how so-s0 “lets” their kid do this-and-that.

    • Diane says:

      i am one of those childless people that you speak of. I try not to do it, but, let’s put this into perspective can we? I live two doors down from drug dealers. And no I can not afford to move. There is a drug war going on between my street and another street 6 blocks away. Every time there is a shooting the police are running up and down my street. The parents who own the house. Older people(grandparents, are in fact responsible in my eyes because they allow their children (grown adults to engage in this behavior which puts everyone at risk.(I now post on my facebook page when I leave the house because I’m afraid of being shot.) Now, the grandparents are likeable people. I have at times gone up to him because his grandchildren all under the age of 6 are always outside unsupervised, and this wouldn’t be a problem per se, but, they tend to throw crap at me and my dog when I’m walking down the street, and the other day the seven year old ran right up behind me and was touching my butt, this is grossly inappropriate. It is quite clear they need adult supervision and with 8 adults in the house, there should be at least one who should be able to watch what these kids are doing, I fear one day they will run in the street and get hit by a car

      In fact one day two older children from the house 12/13 were horse playing in the middle of the street. The one boy was pretending to throw the other boy in the middle of the street while cars were coming. Apparently, all of the adults thought it was appropriate because this went on for quite a while, so, I yelled out the window for them to knock it off.

      • Cynthia V says:

        You are living in a miserable situation. I agree there is some negligent parenting going on, and this probably does fall on the side of the spectrum where accepting a little blame might help. If the parents/grandparents accepted their part of the problem, maybe they could begin to fix it. I once had a therapist tell me, when someone makes a comment about you. Think. Is what they say true? Is it more about them or more about you? If it is true, and if it is about you, then you should evaluate whether you can do anything about it. Otherwise ignore the statement. I think this applies to this whole question. We do certainly mold and support our children. We are therefore partly responsible for what they do. On the other hand, they are individuals with free agency who may choose to go against what we taught. (That can even be in a good way, for example when converts join the church or children do “better” than their parents.) So, when we start to feel guilty. Is it true? Does it say more about us or about our children? Can we do anything to change the situation?

        Now back to the grandparents in your story. Again, their children’s behavior is certainly not good. But DO the grandparents have any control over it. I have children who have abused drugs. I have to struggle all the time to remind myself that this is NOT what I taught them, it is NOT my fault and that I can NOT spend my life rescuing them. As someone recently said in a sacrament meeting talk that deeply touched me, “If we keep saving our children, we prevent the Savior from rescuing them through the atonement.” That isn’t quite what she said, but close. I don’t know the grandparents in this situation, so I may be being extremely charitable (which I probably couldn’t handle if I lived there.) But there was an earlier article about accepting people as they are. Here is a case where acceptance with an understanding of the need for change is an extremely difficult balance. May you be safe.

      • Diane says:

        Cynthia

        I agree with you 100% . I want to answer your question Do the grandparents have any control of the situation?

        You are correct in your assertion that children of a certain age have free agency and can choose their own behavior. That being said, when they choose the behavior, they shouldn’t keep receiving the same familial support(i.e) a place to live. If you know your son/ daughter has a drug problem and are bringing drugs/guns into your house why would you as the adult homeowner choose to allow them the luxury of living in the home. That becomes the grandparents responsibility. I really try not to be judgmental about this, really I do, but, I fear it will take a real tragedy before something is done. They’ve already buried two sons due to the drugs/guns, so, it will have to be something bigger before they sit up and notice

  7. LovelyLauren says:

    I’m not a parent, but for what it’s worth, I work at an after-school program at a charter school that caters to lower-income families (the before and after-school programs are free) and I see a huge difference in behavior between those kids who spend more time with their parents and the kids who are dropped off an hour before school starts and don’t go home until 6 o’clock.

    I don’t know that individual parenting strategies matter as much as the willingness to (for lack of a better term) invest time and effort into parenting. The kids who are kind, spunky, polite, and helpful have little in common except parents who have cultivated a positive relationship with them.

  8. jks says:

    Mraynes – It will get better! I highly recommend Motherstyles. Once I read that, I quit beating myself up over the things I didn’t do as a mom.
    Then, the atonement. Figuring out that whatever mistake I made or whatever bad thing happens to my child won’t make a difference to my child’s eternal potential.
    I think it pretty much took 7 or 8 years to have enough tough parenting experiences (and tears) that I learned from to get to the place of peace and no blame that I am still at now at 14 years. Experience is good and you’ll get there. But if you have a four year old with issues then you might still be grieving and you might still be in the midst of the burden that it is all on you to make everything better or manage it or whatever. I remember those days.

  9. aerin says:

    thanks for this post.

    mraynes, I have never heard that about three and a half year olds. My children are six and can write their names…but could not at three. Children need parents who care about them and take an interest. Meeting various arbitrary goals by certain ages is a recipe for disaster, for children and adults. I do hear parents and grandparents who kvetch about “teaching” their school age children (doing the teacher’s job). While everyone’s situation is different, I believe it is a mixture of parents, teachers and other adults that help children learn and grow.

    While children’s behavior does reflect on parents, children have bad days (just like adults). They have all the anger, fear and confusion that adults do, but much less knowledge and experience to understand and process those emotions. I’ve been told that tantrums and boundary testing are signs of intelligence, and I think it’s true.

    As the mom of twins, I see first hand just how different children can be, with the same parents and surroundings. It is a combination of genetics and social surroundings…not fully one or the other.

    While everyone can take continuous assessment, learn more about parenting…taking full responsibility for children’s personality is also a recipe for disaster. Take responsibility for what *you* as a mother or parent or interested person can do or change, and let the rest go.

  10. Whoa-man says:

    I love this thank you!!

  11. aerin says:

    PS. with all that said, when people compliment me on being a mom or being a good mom, it means a lot. When the compliment is well thought out of course, not just perfunctory. Often I think moms who are conscious of parenting and their kids usually are great moms.

    • spunky says:

      Your comment made me think, aerin… I have two very dear friends who at different times called because they were exhausted, frusterated, and concerned because their children were struggling and they were doing everything within their ability and means to help them (both are amazing women). It the organic course of the conversation I said at different points, “that is a sign that you are a good mother” or “that is because you are good parents- you work so hard for your children, I admire that!”…. both friends thanked me, both asked for reassurance that they really were good mothers, and one burst into tears.

      I think we all like to know that we are doing a good job and that someone notices. Parenting is particularly challenging and difficult, so in some situations, it is a benefit to express something positive. But as you said, perfunctory statements doled out mean nothing, and I wonder if the DH in the OP was just repeating a perfunctory statement that he heard his father (or priesthood leaders) say to his mother (or women in general).

      • Diane says:

        Spunky

        You and Aerin are correct, people can clearly see when someone is a good parent. The kids are happy, they don’t feel entitled, and most of all they are respectful to everyone around them.*not just to the adults that are around them.

        I had a problem with one of the parents in the ward because she would call me into to referee fights between her child and the foster children she was taking care of(the kids were ward members as well)She didn’t like the stance I took and then complained to the Bishop because I was hard on them. And because I wouldn’t apologize, he took my temple recommend away in front of them. Seriously, this really happened. Good parenting in my eyes means taking responsibility for your actions as the adult and not abdicating your responsibility to someone else and making them the scapegoat in your own life because its’ to hard and you want your kids to be your friend.

  12. Brooke says:

    When it came to the end of a hard day of mothering for me, I was usually not blaming myself for my children’s awful behavior, but for my responses to their behavior. Which is appropriate, I guess. But became an unhealthy thing for me after so many years of it.

    • Caroline says:

      Brooke, yes, responding to their behavior is a tricky one. When E pushes me beyond my limits, sometimes I lose it and yell. Other times I just decide to not deal and give myself a time out in another room. I’m sure neither of these methods would earn me a parenting award, but hey, I’m human. As are you. 🙂 And even though we might not always react optimally, I know we both also spend a lot of effort trying to explain and teach and model cooperative and kind behavior.

  13. Maureen says:

    This topic hits home and is very difficult for me. I hesitate to respond because I know my situation is not typical. I’m definitely coming at this from another direction.

    I know I’m a good person and I usually make good choices. I most certainly do not give my self-centered hedonistic abusive mother any credit for that. Do I blame her for the bad decisions I make? No, I take responsibility for those too. But I feel quite justified in holding her accountable for some of my mental and emotional condition and the great difficulty I have on a almost daily basis when it comes to being a mother myself. Therefore I feel obliged to hold myself to the same standard of accountability.

    You see, it’s not so easy as not laying a hand on my children, or not using foul language and calling them names. My mother’s abuse was in many ways “death by a thousand cuts”. A multiplicity of seemingly little psychological, emotional, and spiritual mistreatments throughout my life that make it that much harder to pin down just where and what the abuse was. All of which built up to a breaking point that I cannot choose to just get better from.

    I am dreadfully fearful of inflicting that kind of damage on my own kids. Since it was just a build up of “little cuts” I want to do all that I can to avoid ANY of those kinds of cuts (I know there will be things in life that they find painful and pleasant which will actually be good for them, I do not want to protect them from those kinds). I recognize that is a standard of perfection I cannot achieve, but it’s something I feel driven to strive for. The “blame” and responsibility for their mental and emotional conditions I’m willing to ascribe to myself is a great burden, but I don’t know how to be assured of their protection without that.

    And it concerns me when I see others’ kids getting hurt in these little ways, because I have often wondered where would I be if someone else had stepped in. But I worry that I’m just projecting, or maybe that is all they will ever suffer. Because little cuts if left alone will heal, it is the multiplicity and lack of healing environment that really do the damage. I still fear the parents that do not fear doing damage to their kids, aren’t willing to take on some blame or accountability (I’m not accusing anyone here), because subtly abusive behaviors are hard to see and easily passed on and can build over generations.

    • Caroline says:

      Maureen, thank you so much for sharing your story. I think your quote below is a very important word of caution we should all keep in mind.

      “I still fear the parents that do not fear doing damage to their kids, aren’t willing to take on some blame or accountability (I’m not accusing anyone here), because subtly abusive behaviors are hard to see and easily passed on and can build over generations.”

  14. Cynthia V says:

    Diane, I agree I thought of the parents responsibility to put their kids out later, and wished I had mentioned that.

  15. Corktree says:

    What a great post Caroline! I think I too missed the memo that I’m supposed to take responsibility for the actions of my children. I do think I’ve been guilty of worrying whether other people blamed me for something inappropriate my children did, but for the most part, I see them as individuals that are in need of influence and guidance, but not control. If I thought I could or should control them, then I suppose I would feel more responsible for the choices they make and the actions they choose.

    My hope as a parent is to demonstrate by my own actions and choices what I think is best and then allow them the freedom to choose it if it makes sense to them (along with appropriate explanation of why I do or choose something when possible), which I think goes along with how we may feel responsible for our reactions to them – though I think children watch and learn from our reactions to everything, not just their behavior.

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