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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

Did I Damage You?

I am well aware that many in my generation feel guilt about some things they didn’t do well as parents. We were mostly flying blind, but this generation gets to read blogs about mothering every single day—that is a recipe for guilt isn’t it?

As I tell my story about how mothering affected me, I can sense that I am adding to this problem of guilt. Sometimes my friends actually say, “Yes, I wasn’t always the best mother.” Guilt. Shame. I am causing more guilt and shame? Well, UGH! That is not what I want. Yet, I understand that at a basic level, it has to happen if we want to help the next generation.

When I became fully aware of what I had been dealing with as a result of my trauma and inadequate attachment, it made me doubt my own parenting ability while raising my children. To my credit, I knew something was wrong and I studied psychology and child development in college and then raised my children with my textbooks beside me. Still when I came face-to-face with the depth of my psychological issues (quite well hidden), my immediate thought was, “What did I do to my children?”

It is mother guilt. No mother is perfect even in the best-case scenario. If, in the worst case, we experienced and lived with the results of childhood trauma and we want to help the next generation we need to accept the possibility that it affected our parenting. Unfortunately guilt and shame stand in the way. The fear of not being the best mother is HUGE! Guess what? Our children are completely aware of our failings. We are only fooling ourselves.

I was told a story recently about a mother who had some epic mother failures but when her adult son tried to talk about it, she locked her self in her bedroom and refused to talk—and then she died. Our shame of being exposed as the imperfect mother can have tragic results.

Shame is the feeling of being completely exposed and found inadequate. Repeated shaming internalizes this. Our reaction to exposure is often anger to the one doing the exposing or shaming. What we are really trying to do is protect ourselves from our own feelings of inadequacy. “How dare you expose me to myself!”

To have our children point out our inadequacies and accept it with grace is probably the hardest, bravest, and most helpful thing we could ever do. Maybe we might even go sit in therapy together and get help in working it out. Even if we don’t feel they are completely right, it is their perception—and perception is everything.

I ask my friends, “Did you do your best as a mother? Did you try to be a better mother than your mother?” If so, I tell them, “Be proud of it!”

Many who did not have the benefit of having a loving and effective mother are very hard on themselves as mothers. It is as if their fear of being like their mother actually makes it worse. They often hide their own stories from their children to ‘protect them’ but their stories told at appropriate ages could actually give the children insights into the parent’s reactions and behaviors. Generational patterns are fueled by the secrets we keep and the shame that surrounds them.

Then those who had great mothers feel like they aren’t doing as good a job. This is a no-win situation, right? Remember, there is no such thing as a perfect mother. What there is though is communication that begins when our children are small and continues until they are adults. It requires us to be honest about our failings. It is not worth going to the grave holding onto our fear of being exposed as imperfect. We aren’t.

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