Expert Mamas: Our Wellness Contributor Natalie Clay on Guilt-free Parenting

Essay by: Natalie Clay

I have a clear memory of sitting in a yellow, warmly lit OBGYN office on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for the first appointment for my now 11-year old daughter, Mabel. I was beyond excited to be there. It had taken us two years to get pregnant and my husband and I were ecstatic to stop worrying about every possible reason why it wasn’t happening for us. 

As I waited for the doctor, I skimmed through the piles of parenting magazines and books on the waiting room table. All it took was reading a handful of headlines (one that stands out in my memory was “Teach Your Baby to Read”) to quickly feel overwhelmed by the impending responsibility of parenthood.

I decided to shut the reading down and instead sit and enjoy my afternoon’s dose of nausea.

There is an unlimited amount of “expert” information at our fingertips (so long, Dewey Decimal system!). This is, of course, a wonderful blessing, but a downside is that it can also bring a weight of expectation that’s difficult to shake. It’s not hard to imagine hordes of parenting experts shaking heads and wagging fingers at your every move.

But here’s the thing: No one else has ever been you and no one has parented your child. You are the expert for your child. Own it!

Consider three steps to guilt-free parenting: 

1. Ditch your parenting manual! 

I’m not talking about the kind of manual that tells you how to get that dang darling baby to sleep. Or the manual that tells you at what temperature you should begin to worry about your child’s fever (I’m still not totally sure what the answer is to that). I’m talking about the manual in your head that tells you how a parent should operate in order to be a “good” parent.

My manual contained things like, I should… be the one who gets up with the baby all night; I should… breastfeed the baby and continue doing so for at least a year; I should… get on the floor and play kids games at least every third time they ask me to. All of which should be a breeze if I was a “good” parent.

Enter mom-guilt.

As it turns out, having all these well-intended expectations for ourselves does little for our motivation. When we’re constantly comparing ourselves against an impossible standard, we will always view ourselves as failures. And I don’t know about you, but when I’m feeling like a failure, I’m not overwhelmed by the desire to get to work  improving myself. Nope, that’s the time I lay on the couch and scroll through Instagram until I work up an appetite for chocolate-covered almonds.

There isn’t one right way to raise a child well! Just be yourself. That’s the best thing you have to offer your child! Figure out what works for you and your baby and decide that’s exactly how it should be done.

2. Give yourself permission to do it “wrong”

Living in a city as dense as New York, you spend all day among strangers. I couldn’t count the number of times strangers offered me advice on how to stop my child’s crying. “She needs a pacifier.” “I think she’s hungry.” “Does she not like being held like that?”

My first instinct was to be irritated because I always assumed they were annoyed and thought I was doing things wrong. I jumped to this conclusion because I often worried that I was doing it wrong.

But why should we worry about this? Doing it wrong—repeatedly, often—is a fundamental part of the process! Whether it’s your first child or your tenth—since each child is a totally unique creature—you will do it wrong more often than right as you learn how things are going to work for you and your child. Cut yourself more than a little slack and enjoy this learning process!

3. Let your kids own their life’s results

The goal as parents cannot be to control the outcome of our children’s lives. Seeking control over a child’s path is the quickest, surest way to, at best, set yourself up for disappointment, or to, at worst, go insane.

There is one and only one effective tool we have in the parenting arsenal that might actually impact our children in a way we can get behind—love.

Our job is not to control. Our job is to love our kids and do our best to keep them alive. The end. 

When we try to control our children to do what we want—when we make their lives all about us—it does little to change them, but it is very effective in making our children extra-skilled at hiding themselves from us.

There is one and only one effective tool we have in the parenting arsenal that might actually impact our children in a way we can get behind—love. A question I like to ask myself is “What would love do in this situation?” 

What love would try extremely hard to avoid—no matter how many poor decisions a child makes—is becoming angry. It would avoid controlling or manipulating a child by making his or her behavior all about how it impacts me or how it makes me feel about my parenting. 

Whew.

Becoming a guilt-free parent takes effort! And can be a lengthy process. But embracing these three concepts is a great way to help us along the path!

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