The problem for those of us who are mothers, however, is that we are failing to acknowledge shame where it exists. Oh, we talk a lot about mommy guilt. We feel bad about missing soccer practice or giving up on breastfeeding or feeding our kids non-organic bananas. But when we express our mommy guilt over our day-to-day failures, I believe we are trying to express much, much more.
Is it really about the non-organic bananas? Or is it that we feel we are failing, not measuring up, unworthy of love and unworthy of the most precious — and crazy-making — little ones entrusted to our care?
If you can honestly say that you feel guilty about the banana issue, congratulations. That’s mommy guilt, and you’ll survive it until you serve your child non-organic bean sprouts tomorrow.
If your feelings more closely resemble the second sentiment, in which you question your very worth, you are facing mommy shame. It permeates every moment of the day. It causes you to pull back, rather than step into, those relationships you most want to develop. It is paralyzing, isolating and can cause mothers to dread the messy work of parenting, since the messy work of parenting provides ample opportunity to fail, over and over again. More failure creates more shame, and thereby more isolation and more dread of parenting.
But here’s the thing: No one talks about mommy shame. It’s not a great conversation to have at the playground. I’m convinced that most of us mommies smile and chitchat at the park, while we sport a dark cloud of mommy shame over our heads. If only she knew that I yelled at my kid yesterday. If only she knew about my resentments, about how I don’t even know how to cope with two little ones in diapers, about how I haven’t had sex with my husband in three months. If only she knew, we wouldn’t be talking right now.
According to shame researcher Dr. Brené Brown, we all feel shame and we all hesitate to express it. “Shame derives its power from being unspeakable,” Brown writes. “Shame hates it when we reach out and tell our story. Shame loves secrecy.”
But there’s good news, too. You don’t have to lose your heart and the best parts of motherhood to a pervasive sense of shame. According to Brown, shame hates having words wrapped around it. “It can’t survive being shared,” she says. In the presence of vulnerability and empathy, shame melts away. It doesn’t have to write the story of your motherhood.
Are you tired of your mommy shame? Who will you choose to share it with today?