3 Options For Guilty Parents

Until Cathy was pregnant we didn’t realise quite how many different opinions are out there on parenting.

The Plight Of The New Parent

Take just one area of a newborn’s life as an example – how they are fed milk. You’ll find that there are not just two approaches (formula or breast milk), but stacks of them: on demand; attachment parenting; strict routine; tandem feeding; political agenda… the list goes on! I
mean really, how much is there to say on the topic of feeding a baby? Loads, it turns out.

Breastfeeding GuiltBecoming a new parent is daunting – it’s not only the countless number of decisions you have to make on behalf of your little dependent, but add to that the criticism and comments of people around you about those decisions and it’s enough to make anyone nervous. These comments aren’t usually meant to be unkind, but nevertheless they can hurt. It turns out that this isn’t restricted to when you first become a parent. The decisions go on way beyond that. So it’s fair to say that the opinions of others and the pressure to get this parenting malarkey right can induce a fair amount of guilt.

  • “Oh no, I forgot to brush his teeth/wash his hands/comb his hair!”
  • “Okay poppet, we’re just heading for tea (at McDonald’s) again
  • “Time for cartoons on the iPad lovely, while I just…”

As we say these things, we feel the pang of guilt that we’ve failed to live up to our own expectations for our child’s development/diet/hygiene etc, never mind anyone else’s! We haven’t even mentioned the times that we snap at our child in anger, are inconsistent with him out of laziness, or are grumpy with each other after a hard day. Parenting really is a minefield!

Options For Dealing With Parenting Guilt

So what do we do when the inevitable happens and we cannot meet the parenting standards we feel we should reach? There are three possible options:

  • Option 1: Beat ourselves up – “I’m a really rubbish parent.”
  • Option 2: Excuse ourselves and compare ourselves to others who are doing a worse job – “All of us do it, but at least I’m not as bad as X.”
  • Option 3: The gospel

Let’s explore this further.

Let’s Not Be So Hard On Ourselves?

Recently we were reading a facebook status that the “Part-Time Working Mummy” (a writer) posted. It was a sentiment that some of our facebook friends had liked, shared, and generally felt comforted by. What she has to say is clearly appreciated by a lot of people – at the time of writing she had 44,508 likes on her Facebook Page (versus our 130!). Here’s the quote – please note that it had some explicit language so we’ve toned it down a bit and picked out some excerpts:

“So we are only into day 3 of ‘back to school’ and I’ve been a ‘[rubbish] mum’ repeatedly since Monday.

This weeks epic [mess] ups have included:

Leaving 2 coats worth £60 on the pavement because I was too busy trying to convince a 2 year old it’s ok to [wee] in a bush before we got back in the car […]

I gave Betsy no dinner money then remembered at 2pm when I was gorging on my own lunch at my desk so I had a melt down that she would either starve to death or be bullied for being poor.

Felt extra punctual and got the kids to school nice and early today – to remember on arriving I’d totally forgotten to collect my nephew on the way as promised.

I’ve done my usual – felt guilt, a load of rage and the usual feeling of being a totally [rubbish] parent; but then I thought…

A [rubbish] parent doesn’t feel like they’re failing because they’ve not read their child’s school book every night of the week or practised their spellings and there’s a chance they could have done better in that test if you had of.

A [rubbish] parent doesn’t sit in a meeting with a lump in their throat because they just couldn’t get the time off work to wear a high vis vest and help on the school trip to the zoo.

[Rubbish] parents don’t feel shame because their kids have eaten macdonalds more than twice in a week because they were just too exhausted to even think of what to cook for tea let alone make it.

All these things that make you feel like you’re being a [rubbish] parent actually means you’re an amazing parent – because you’re doubting yourself.
[Rubbish] parents don’t doubt themselves[…]

Instead of losing my [mind] which I was on the verge of doing I just thought [stuff] it – and took my babies to the park then we ate massive Ice creams just before tea.

As I sat there with my double honeycombe sugar waffle beast with a flake I decided […] so what that it’s been another week of kid drama – as long as our babies are fed, clean, loved, happy & not the spawn of Satan most of the time we must be doing something right – let’s not be so hard on ourselves.”

Comfort For Guilt

As you read that, no doubt many of the examples will have been a bit close to the bone – they were for us. So how do you comfort yourself when your parenting seems to go belly up?

Did you notice how this Mum comforted herself? It was using options 1 (feeling really guilty when confronted with her failings) and 2 (comparing herself to others as a remedy to feeling like a failure) from above.

Before you squirm in your seats and press the ‘X’ button on Scott and Cathy, the self-righteous and judgmental blog post writers, let us reassure you that this is a case study of our hearts too. We find it all too easy to comfort ourselves in exactly the same way – wallowing in guilt or comparing ourselves to others – often we do one immediately after the other! Condemnation and comparison comes too naturally to us, it’s the instinct of our hearts. But is there a better way?

The Battle All Christians Face

In Romans chapter 6, Paul describes the battle that goes on in the life of the Christian. Here’s the passage and we’ll comment on it below:

“5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with,[a] that we should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.

Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.

11 In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. 13 Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. 14 For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.”

It’s dense stuff isn’t it, but at the heart of it are some simple (and wonderful) truths. Here’s what he’s saying: we are united to Jesus. Our union with him is so tight that it means that what is true of him is true of us.

So Jesus died – we died with him. We could have a whole different blog exploring the implications of this. But in this section the implication is clear: “our old self was crucified with him so that… we should no longer be slaves to sin“. At the cross, Jesus dealt the killer blow to the mastery that sin has over us. We no longer have to give in to sin. We aren’t slaves to it. We have a new nature, and a new power – by the Holy Spirit living in us – to help us to stop sinning.

At this point you might be thinking “How is that good news? That just makes me feel even more guilty when I do mess up!”

Stick with us.

In Romans Paul is also very realistic about the Christian life. He makes it clear that while we are no longer slaves to sin, there is also a part of our hearts that still sends us towards sin’s cruel jaws. There’s a battle that goes on in the Christian heart that we don’t always win – sometimes we do give in to sin. That’s why Paul has to urge us to “count yourselves dead to sin”.  He wouldn’t have to remind us of this if the battle with sin was a foregone conclusion. So we have to reason with ourselves, and remind ourselves that we can live differently. He says “do not let sin reign in your mortal body” – implication: there’s a choice – the battle with sin is part of the normal Christian life.

So there’s two bits of good news to this. One is that the battle you face as you seek to parent in a gospel-centred way, aren’t unexpected. The times you mess up aren’t don’t mean you’re not a proper Christian. This is part of the reality of the Christian life.

But the second bit of good news is this: you can change. You’re union with Jesus means that sin no longer has mastery over you. Inadequacy as a parent can gradually change over time. Our old self was crucified with Jesus, we live with him – change really is possible! Cling to that as you bemoan the reality of your parenting today.

Good News For Failures

But what good news does the gospel speak to us when the guilt of not living up to expectations weighs on us?

The ‘Parenting Law’ that we fail to live up to will be different for each one of us. It is a system that we have each invented to measure ourselves against. The commandments include our preferences for the nutrition, development and behaviour of our children; they include other people’s expectations and opinions of us; they will include some godly morals; and most impossible of all – they include a desire to be self-sufficient and perfect in our own eyes.

We will fail to live up to it. Sometimes we’ll really be crushed by the fact – we wanted to keep the law! Other times we despise the law and want to throw it out the window – let’s eat a double honeycombe sugar waffle beast with a flake! We’ll grovel in self-pity, we’ll excuse and justify our actions, we’ll criticise others, and we’ll believe that doing these things will make us feel better. But they won’t.

It’s interesting that the “Part-time working mummy” felt the need to share her experience on social media. What we think she was looking for is for other people to acquit her of her guilt. For other people to tell her that her actions were justified, that she is a good mum, that she can still be accepted in the parenting world.

When we mess up, we crave acquittal. We want to be declared “not guilty.” We want to be loved and accepted again. But there’s only really one opinion of us that truly matters – and there’s only one acquittal which can truly make us feel clean, forgiven, accepted and loved unconditionally. It’s the opinion of God. Hundreds of likes for a status on facebook may feel comforting, but it doesn’t bring true and lasting comfort. But we have good news – God loves to declare people “not guilty.” There’s nothing that God loves more than a broken person coming to his son Jesus for forgiveness, and whoever comes to Jesus for forgiveness will always be given it. That’s where Paul’s line of reasoning gets to in Romans. In chapter 8 he says this:

“There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.” 

Romans 8v1 There is an alternative option to condemnation and comparison! There is a soothing balm for our soul when we’re bruised by our own sense of inadequacies. Jesus is our remedy!

As Christian’s we are free to own our sin. When we are confronted by our failings (whether superficial or major) we can own up to it. We don’t need to deny it.  We don’t need to be crushed by it. Not only is it an expected reality of the Christian life, but God sees it, justifies us in the midst of it and offers us grace and acceptance rather than condemnation. Then he slowly, by his Spirit, changes us.

We don’t need to shift the blame. We are sinners and we are broken.

But we have a saviour!

Jesus has delivered us. He has set us free from the law of sin and death. How? By living a perfect life in 100% obedience to God’s moral law, and dying in the place of messed up people, as our substitute.

Jesus received God’s judgement in our place and we go free.

We’re forgiven, but not just that, we are given all of Jesus’ perfection. When God looks at us, he doesn’t see sinful people – he sees people clothed in the perfection of his son. There is no condemnation for us – only love, acceptance, hope and freedom! What good news!

So, next time we feel the pang of guilt because we did something we’re ashamed of, let’s not feel condemned, let’s not excuse our behaviour in a comparison game, let’s run to Jesus.

15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

–  Hebrews 4:15-16



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