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Book Excerpt - Chapter 3

(Book excerpt)

Chapter 3
The Seven Principles of the Mommy Guilt-Free Philosophy 

1. You must be willing to let some things go. 

2. Parenting is not a competitive sport. 

3. Look toward the future and at the big picture. Don't become overly hung up on the here and now. 

4. Learn when and how to live in the moment. 

5. Get used to saying yes more often and being able to defend your no. 

6. Laugh a lot, especially with your children. 

7. Make sure you set aside specific time to have fun as a family. 

Mommy Guilt-Free Principle No. 1: You must be willing to let some things go 

By the time we bring home the bacon and fry it, clean the kitchen, put away the laundry, help with homework, and tuck the kids in, all most moms want to do is crawl into bed alone—to sleep. Let's not forget the bills, the miscellaneous phone calls, and, of course, our spouses. Reading about it is exhausting, let alone accomplishing all these things. Human beings were not designed to toil endlessly. We eventually become sloppy, inefficient, and grouchy. This is why so many of us continually make that oh-so-short leap from asking our children to do something to screaming at them—and from screaming to a nice bout of Mommy Guilt. Yelling at the children was named by two-thirds of Mommy Guilt survey respondents as a prime cause of regular guilt. While no mother is so perfect that the occasional tantrum never bubbles up from her soul, it is possible to eliminate yelling entirely as a parenting style. (We'll show you how in Part 2 of this book.) 

The point is this, if you found out you had only six months to live, would you spend that time defending the carpet against spots? Or would you spend it enjoying your family? We'd guess that filling your ears with the laughter of your children would take priority over rubbing out the chocolate stain on the living room carpet. Still, a serious illness notwithstanding, it is never easy to prioritize things in your life. After all, if everything on your list weren't already some kind of a priority, it wouldn't be on your list at all. Yet mastering the "letting go of things" is one of your premier tools for fending off Mommy Guilt. This alone can lead to such contentment with your parenting work that you float through most of your days feeling like you're doing a darn good job of it all. Furthermore, this feeling can be used as a flotation device to help everyone in the family feel happier and more content. 

The safety guidepost: You, as a parent, are responsible for providing a safe environment in which your child can grow and learn. The first trick to helping you prioritize is to ask yourself this question, "In what way would my child be harmed if I didn't do this task right now?" If the answer is, "not much to not at all," you've just found an item that can easily be dropped down the priority totem pole. 

Housework is an ideal example. In our survey for this book, 59 percent of participants reported feelings of guilt over not keeping up with the housework. So please, hear this: It is perfectly fine for your house to look as though children live in it—even when guests drop by! You can have toys on the floor, snacks out on the table, and shoes piled up near the door. While we've got loads of advice in Chapter 8 on managing specific housework tasks, for the sake of example, let's use a housework situation to show Mommy Guilt-Free Principle No. 1 by applying the safety guidepost. 

Mommy Guilt Scenario for Mommy Guilt-Free Principle No. 1

You had completed a top-to-bottom cleaning of your family room last night at 11 P.M. It is now 7 A.M. and in the twenty minutes your children have been awake, they have had ample time to destroy the room. You see empty food containers on the couch. They dragged a box of toys up from the basement and dumped its contents on the floor, thereby mixing up several box games. Something brown and sticky is now on the wall (chocolate?). To complicate matters, friends are dropping by later this morning, something that both you and your children have been looking forward to for days. You had planned on using your time in the morning to prepare a picnic meal. 
You flash back to the night before, where you braved exhaustion and gave up your precious before-bed reading time to clean this room. The kids hardly notice you standing there, ears red from anger, as they watch cartoons and walk past the mess to grab more food from the pantry. You begin to yell. You tell the oldest to start picking up the toys, making sure to put all the pieces back in the proper boxes. He starts to comply but then pouts and stops. Meanwhile, you begin frantically scrubbing the wall and picking up food containers, grumbling as you clean. The kids have moved from passive resistance to arguing with each other and with you. They soon dissolve into tears. By the time your friends arrive, you are frazzled—and although you feel justified—you also feel guilty for yelling. 

Mommy Guilt-Free Scenario for Mommy Guilt-Free Principle No. 1 
After dinner the night before, you reminded your kids that in order to have a play date, they promised to help you clean the family room. You had given each kid an age-appropriate task, along with clear instructions on what they were to do. While the group of you cleaned the room, you excitedly talked about how much fun the play date would be. Your kids, of course, got constantly distracted from their tasks and needed your help to complete their cleaning portions, but eventually they succeeded and you could do your task, which was vacuuming. In the end, they felt proud of their work on the room and you heaped praise upon them. 

All of that pride was forgotten by the morning. It is now 7 A.M. and in the twenty minutes your children have been awake, they had ample time to destroy the room. You see empty food containers on the couch. They dumped the toy box on the floor, and you spot a brown sticky mess on the wall. You are tempted to start yelling, but instead you take three deep breaths to calm yourself. You make a mental note that next time they have a play date, you will set up activities for them to do that will help ease them through their excited waiting period without digressing into destruction. You would like to make the kids clean the room again, so that your friends don't think you live like pigs, but you realize that yesterday's cleaning took a couple hours and if you don't get cracking on making the food, you won't have a picnic to take with you. 

So, you ask yourself, is any of this mess harmful? The brown goo seems iffy so you prioritize cleaning that yourself. The toys are not in the walking path, so you opt to let them stay out—they'll be dumped out as soon as your guests arrive anyway. Your kids can certainly carry their own food containers to the dishwasher. Game plan in place, you step in front of the TV, turn it off and say, "Remember how nice this room looked last night? We need to fix some things before our guests arrive." 

Mommy Guilt-Free Principle No. 2: Parenting is not a competitive sport 

Ever been to the park with your child where all the parents are sitting around telling each other when their kids started walking, or talking, or when they got their first tooth? Who cares! It is human nature to want to compare and contrast but please don't do it over the developmental milestones of your kids. If your child is happy and your healthcare professional has no concerns, great! Take the pressure off yourself and, more important, off your children to hit their developmental milestones as if they were speed trials. Faster truly isn't better. Take it from us. Among our seven offspring, we've covered the full developmental spectrum: eleven-month-old first talker and eighteen-month-old first talker, nine-month-old walker and nineteen-month-old walker, first teeth at four months and first teeth at thirteen months. You know what? All seven kids are perfectly healthy, happy, productive members of society. 

It doesn't serve your family's best interest to use peer pressure on your children in an attempt to speed their development only to try and ban peer pressure from their lives when they are teenagers. If you have any concerns about your child's development, ask your pediatrician, your child's teacher, or consider using one of the resources for developmental screenings referred to in the Emergency Guilt-Relief Guide (Appendix C). Should your child be a late bloomer, we ask you to consider these astute words of wisdom, "So what?" No matter the circumstance, from genius to struggling, your children will find their own developmental pace and you will go along with them. 

Now, we don't want to minimize the emotional difficulties of parenting a child who needs extra assistance—in fact, we've dedicated Chapter 15 to the topic. But all children—in fact, all people—face difficulties. All of us have areas where we excel and where we don't. Unless you're parenting an alien child from the planet Orak, there will always be a kid in this world who has achieved something faster, higher, bigger, whatever—and one who hasn't. As one wise Mommy Guilt survey respondent put it: Don't get caught up in the competition with other parents. That's really the source of so much guilt. Enjoy your children and let them be individuals. Childhood shouldn't be a race. The parent who succeeds is the one who has the happy child. 

The germination of this area of parental angst begins during the baby months when parents are eagerly looking for any sign that they've given birth to the next Einstein. Walking is the classic example. Let us clue you in on a little secret—walking is not the sign of intelligence you're searching for. A child who walks at nine months isn't necessarily a genius or a future Olympian. Let's take a look at Mommy Guilt-Free Principle No. 2, from both the Mommy Guilt and Mommy Guilt-Free perspectives, using walking as our example. 

Mommy Guilt Scenario for Mommy Guilt-Free Principle No. 2 
When Ariel joins her weekly mom-and-baby play group, she sees her friend's daughter, Gabby, taking her first toddling steps. Gabby is only ten months old and her mother is jubilantly showing off Gabby's newfound ability. The child is enjoying the extra attention, but soon grows tired of the effort of walking and begins to cling to her mother. Ariel sets her own thirteen-month-old daughter, Annie, on her feet. She holds onto Annie's hands and walks with her. Annie is the only baby in the group not taking steps on her own. The other mothers offer advice—one insists that the exerciser she bought is why her baby started so young, another says that she spent extra time in the evenings helping her baby learn to walk. Ariel feels guilty—she's been using a playpen, not an exerciser, and she hasn't particularly made an effort to help "train" Annie to walk. At home the next few nights, Ariel works with her daughter, spending extra time holding her up and walking her around, and starts to feel disappointed that Annie plops right down on her diapered bottom whenever Ariel isn't walking with her. She begins poring over her catalog of parenting books looking for more advice. The next week, she skips play group, not able to face all those other mothers. 

Mommy Guilt-Free Scenario for Mommy Guilt-Free Principle No. 2 
When Ariel joins her weekly mom-and-baby play group, she sees her friend's daughter, Gabby, taking her first toddling steps. She joins the crowd oohing and aahing over Gabby's accomplishment. She places Annie next to her favorite set of blocks and finds a cozy spot to chat with the mothers. The mothers are all gushing over the magical moments of watching their children take their first steps. Annie hasn't been particularly interested in walking, being an expert crawler, and after Ariel contributes that one tidbit to the conversation, she has nothing left to say, so she goes and sits by Annie and helps her build a giant block tower. That night, she calls her sister—who has four kids and is a stockpile of common sense. Ariel wants to make sure she shouldn't be worried that Annie isn't walking yet. Her sister tells her what all the parenting books say—some kids walk young, some don't. "If you've mentioned it to your pediatrician and she isn't worried, you shouldn't be either," the sister says. Relieved, Ariel spends the evening on the floor with Annie, playing favorite games like peek-a-boo and thinking that soon, after Annie starts walking, these quiet play sessions on the carpet will be only memories. 

Mommy Guilt-Free Principle No. 3: Look toward the future and at the big picture 

All of us want the best for our children—to raise smart, kind-hearted, responsible, loving, hardworking, independent people. These are all desirable attributes, so how do we go about instilling them in our children? We do it by keeping these goals in front of us through years of parenting decisions and by the choices we make in modeling these behaviors ourselves. Simply put, when we look at the future and the big picture, we see this type of person. In every critical situation, ask yourself one question, "How will this help guide my child to become that wonderful person I foresee?" 

By the same token, looking toward the future also includes you. Parenting is just one of your roles. As your kids grow older, parenting will vary in its consumption of your time. By having a passion in your life beyond your family, you can increase the joy in your life, generally, and your enjoyment of your family, specifically. We are programmed these days to think the reverse—that time spent away from the family is stolen time and that we should feel guilty about it. But you are your children's primary role model. It is important for kids to learn that to live happy lives, people must regularly engage in activities that make them happy. Children must see that different people enjoy doing different things. If they see you doing something you love, they too are likely to find a beloved hobby, sport, or other activity for themselves. You've now demonstrated for your family an ethic that life is to be enjoyed. Let's illustrate Mommy Guilt-Free Principle No. 3 with a story that is easy for busy parents to relate to. 

Mommy Guilt-Free Scenario for Mommy Guilt-Free Principle No. 3 
Renee was driving in her car on a sunny Saturday in April, heading out of town to pick up some hard-to-find art supplies. Knowing her plans would not be fun for her family, she arranged for her five-year-old to go hiking with his pals, her nine-year-old to go fossil exploring with his pals, and gave her husband the nod to go mountain biking with his buddies. She was happily driving along, when WHAM! Guilt struck. "I should be spending this great day with my kids," she thought. Busy schedules had prevented them from having a family day in weeks. Although tempted to turn back, she didn't, and at the end of the day, learned Mommy Guilt-Free Principle No. 3 in a big way. 
The five-year-old came home bursting with tales from the trail, the nine-year-old had a pocket full of fossils, the dad was happily showing off a few new mountain-biking scrapes, and she had made a great start on a new painting. Sure, the family missed a nice Saturday together, but when she applied Mommy Guilt-Free Principle No. 3 and looked toward the future and at the big picture, she realized that her long-term goal wasn't just a high-volume parenting experience. Renee wanted a family that values its companionship. To do that, each needed to spend time apart from the family. Plus, she wanted her children to explore and discover themselves as individuals. So, she also had to apply Mommy Guilt-Free Principle No. 1, and be willing to let go of some togetherness time, even during a period where there's been precious little of it. 

Mommy Guilt-Free Principle No. 4: Learn when and how to live in the moment, rather than in the future 

Contrary to being the opposite of Mommy Guilt-Free Principle No. 3, this is its complement. This is the concept of being able to put aside all those to-do lists, stop rushing about, and just be with your children in the here and now. This is especially important because kids themselves live in the here and now. Only adults sit and plan their next meal while eating the current one. Our children give us the best reason in the world to forget about all the grown-up complications in our lives and enjoy the moment. Get on that swing at the park! Go ride the mini-train with your toddler! Play a board game with your preteen. Once you have "let go" of the unfolded laundry waiting in the dryer, you can fully engage with your child while playing. The clothes will wait quietly and patiently until you can get to them. 

The here-and-now principle is one that takes a lot of practice. How often do you find yourself thinking about your to-do list while taking care of the kids' needs (getting them dressed, spooning out their macaroni-and-cheese)? Or maybe you find yourself trying to finish a task while your child is chasing you around the house, screaming for you, or attached to your leg? Chances are good that if you just give your child your total, complete, undivided attention—that is, stop what you're doing for ten minutes—he will move onto his separate pursuits with a smile on his face. Our kids really don't need us for very long in a day or, sadly, for very many years in a lifetime. Put down the telephone, laundry, or car keys and play for a little while. Listen to their favorite story for the hundredth time. Play with their dolls. Sing them a song. We guarantee that you will both feel better in a few minutes, your child will stop whining, you will get everything done, and, quite probably, you will have engaged in the best moment of your entire day. 

Mommy Guilt Scenario for Mommy Guilt-Free Principle No. 4 
As you tuck your son in at night, you feel like you haven't seen him in days. You get a bout of guilt and wish you could bail out of your obligations to have more time to spend with your kids. But that's not possible. You already rearranged your schedule to drive your son to a series of rehearsals for a play he is in. You barely had time to cook and eat dinner before he went to bed. And during dinner, you had to quiz him on spelling words, just to fit it in. Next week, you'll have a hoard of life's duties to make up for, and he's got more rehearsals—no way to schedule some time together then. You sigh—fun time will just have to wait. You wish these moments when you feel like he's slipping away didn't occur so frequently. You feel so guilty over them—are you just clinging? After all, as he grows you'll have to get used to not being the center of his life. You shake your head, and then sadly head back to the kitchen to finish cleaning up. 

Mommy Guilt-Free Scenario for Mommy Guilt-Free Principle No. 4 
You pick your son up from rehearsal for a play he's in, but before you turn the car on, you turn around and look at him in the backseat. You know if you ask him how it went, he'll answer "fine," but you want to share this experience with him a little more than that. You carefully select a phrase that you know will get him talking, "So, tell me about the scene you blocked today." He gives you the lowdown on that and the rest of the rehearsal as you begin to drive home. While you are driving, you leave the radio off and continue to talk. Later that evening, you call him into the kitchen to set the table. He hums a song from the play and he shows you the dance steps while putting the place mats out. He teaches you the song's words while you make the salad. You sing it together over dinner, sometimes getting up from the table to dance the steps, and then you use the tune to help him cram for his spelling test. The dinner table is the only time he's had to study. As you tuck him into bed that night, you sing one of his spelling words and make him laugh. You've got a new inside joke, you think, as you head off to the kitchen, not even minding that you still have to clean it. 

Mommy Guilt-Free Principle No. 5: Get used to saying yes more often and being able to defend your no 
As parents, we will have lots of opportunity for confrontation with our kids. We must learn to choose our battles carefully or we will spend the majority of our time fighting. Go back to the second part of Mommy Guilt-Free Principle No. 1: safety should always be your primary concern. This is an easy-to-follow family "rule-making" guidepost since you will automatically be consistent with it, because you will never suddenly bend on a safety rule and allow your child to ride without a seat belt, for instance. Think seriously before responding no to anything else, or creating some new overarching rule for behavior. Is there some reason why they can't leave the table before eating all their vegetables? Can they be allowed to wear mismatched socks to school? If they would rather have the pogo stick than the scooter you came to the store to buy, does it really matter? Your time together as a family will be much more relaxed if everyone makes an effort to give a yes answer first. 

I began testing myself, my husband, and my older children. If "no" was given as an answer, the person who said it (self included) had to come up with why. Oftentimes, we found that "no" was being used as a quick, yet unjustified, answer. When everyone saw how ridiculous this was, we all began to say yes more often. We also began to enjoy each other's company more.

Some say that if you give your kids everything they want you will create spoiled kids. The Mommy Guilt-Free Philosophy maintains it's really not that easy to spoil your kids. We believe that if a child grows up in a world full of "yes," confidence will be the outcome. Spoiling—or teaching your children to be selfish—has as much to do with the methods you choose for discipline as it does with allowing your children to occasionally eat popsicles for an after-school snack. If you find that after a day full of hearing "yes," your children throw a tantrum at the one item to which you have said "no," then you may need to institute some sort of system where they earn more instances of hearing yes. But, even when that happens (as it will), you need not automatically revert back to a knee-jerk "no" person. We discuss discipline options in greater detail in Chapter 6. 

Mommy Guilt Scenario for Mommy Guilt-Free Principle No. 5 
The neighborhood kids are over at your house, so you have six children running around. They decide that they want to do a craft project and ask you if they can paint for a while. You look at the children, envision the mess, and tell them no—you want them to go outside and play in the yard. They balk, beg to know why, start arguing. You remind them that no means no, that you don't have to give them a reason, and after a few more minutes of arguing with you, the friends get sent home, the children get sent to their rooms, and you are alone, still angry. You are also feeling guilty because, now that you've stopped to think about it, you really wouldn't have minded if they used up some of the old art supplies you have stacked in baskets in the playroom. 

Mommy Guilt-Free Scenario for Mommy Guilt-Free Principle No. 5 
The neighborhood kids are over at your house, so you've got six children running around. They decide that they want to do a craft project and ask you if they can paint for a while. You look at the children, envision the mess, and make them promise to clean up. They pinky swear to you that they will, but you are still worried about the mess. So, you tell them they must work on the driveway. You help them drag the baskets of art supplies from the playroom to the garage, help them get set up with rocks on their papers to thwart the wind, and you sit in the sun overlooking the driveway, reading your book while they work. No arguing, controlled mess, and, best of all, a few uninterrupted moments of reading time for you. 

Mommy Guilt-Free Principle No. 6: Laugh a lot, especially with your children 
A sense of humor is not necessarily something we are born with, and for some parents, you may have to work at being funny and seeing the world as fun. Tell jokes with your kids. Laugh with them as they begin their awkward attempts at telling jokes. Even if you are feeling stressed out, you can break your own tension and theirs simply by smiling at them, even when you don't feel like smiling. 

Be careful to learn the difference between laughing with them and laughing at them. Laughing when a child misspeaks a word and makes a funny sound, for instance, can be wonderful as long as the child is laughing, too. However, if your child doesn't think it's funny, then it's not funny. Children can't tolerate being teased very well and sometimes parents have a hard time stopping once they begin teasing because they miss the cues that tell them the fun is over. While we must teach our children how to find the funny side of life, we have to show them good-natured humor that doesn't make another person the butt of the joke. If you don't find yourself laughing daily with your kids (though most Mommy Guilt survey participants report that they do), you need to work on Mommy Guilt-Free Principle No. 6 a bit. Many arguments can be squelched with laughter. 

My girls were in a lot of trouble for fighting with each other for about the hundredth time that day. I had them both sitting on the couch listening to my lecture about sisters getting along when my toddler son decided to join us. As I finished talking with one of the girls, he chimed in by repeating what I had just said. It sounded so funny out of his little two-year-old mouth that we all began to laugh. The horror of the moment was over and we all learned something from him. Laughter can be a great cure for a wide variety of ailments. Let's see how you can put Mommy Guilt-Free Principle No. 6 to work for you with this common morning-time story: 

Mommy Guilt Scenario for Mommy Guilt-Free Principle No. 6 
Your kids wake up late on a school day. The older one is yelling at the younger one for taking too long in the bathroom. You are rushing about the house making lunches and shouting out how many more minutes until they miss the bus. The kids are wasting even more time arguing with each other over everything—they are tense over being late and are taking it out on each other. You sigh, intervene for the hundredth time, and are ready to collapse from stress by the time they leave. It's only 8 A.M. 

Mommy Guilt-Free Scenario for Mommy Guilt-Free Principle No. 6 
Your kids wake up late for school. They are tense over being late and are taking it out on each other by arguing. When the older one starts yelling at the younger one for having music on, you start belting out a Broadway show tune that glorifies the joys of music. You ham it up. It becomes a game. They try stumping you with words and you keep coming up with songs, while you help find shoes, brush hair, pour cereal, and pack the lunch box. Then they're gone on the bus. It's 8 A.M. and your day is already humming along. 

Mommy Guilt-Free Principle No. 7: Set aside time to have fun as a family 

Having fun as a family is more than just laughing together. It's playing together, eating together, doing planned activities together—enjoying each other's company in a variety of ways. Sometimes, it's the one thing we look forward to all week long. 

Life is busy these days, no matter who you are and what you do. We work longer hours than ever before. We have hundreds of choices of things to do with our so-called free time. If we don't plan family time together, chances are pretty good that we won't get that time. It doesn't need to be elaborate. Have dinner together at least twice a week. Plan a monthly family outing—anything from a picnic in your own backyard to a family weekend away. Follow your children's lead on this one. They often have great ideas on fun and easy things to do together. Have a family card house–building night. Play board games. Turn your TV room into a mini theater; rent a favorite movie, make popcorn, and curl up together. The only guideline is to find an activity that all of you will enjoy doing and that won't be hard to do if you are following Mommy Guilt-Free Principles No. 6 and 7. Thanks to the interest of her daughter, the family of one of the authors of this book rock climbs together. 

It's a sport that all of us can do at our own level and still do it together. We take turns cheering each other on and challenging each other. We do it because it's fun, but it has also built a new trust among us. 

You now have seven practical principles to get you through the tough times. Using these principles as a baseline, you are ready to start tackling some of the specific situations that cause Mommy Guilt so that you and your family can enjoy the time you share together. 

Click here to read Sample Chapter 1 of Mommy Guilt.

© 2005 Julie Bort, Aviva Pflock, and Devra Renner.

Excerpt from Mommy Guilt: Learn to Worry Less, Focus on What Matters Most, and Raise Happier Kids (AMACOM Books, April 2005), Julie Bort, Aviva Pflock, Devra Renner. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.


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