The Difference Between Mom Guilt & Shame: When We Fail To Love Our Children Well

I am an unraveling perfectionist. This means when I fall short, my human reaction is to wear a very heavy cloak of guilt and shame—I give myself very little grace; naturally, self-contempt has a loud voice within my soul.

What is guilt? Well, we feel guilty when we feel sorry for something we have done. Guilt is the ability to separate action from identity. Think guilty charges and the banging of a gavel. It is a clean, one time banging, the charges are read, and restitution is made at the reading of the verdict.

However, shame is deeper than guilt and ripples like a vibrating gong; there is no clean gavel banging when it comes to shame. Shame is believing that there is not only something wrong with what you have done—the ripple effects of shame infiltrate identity and guilty actions become tangled up in the way we see ourselves as people. Tangled up in shame, our guilty actions begin to define what kind of people we are—what kind of mothers we are.

Mom Fails, Mom Guilt, What Kind of Mother Are You?

One of my sweet children struggles in school. Truthfully, all of my children struggle with school in their own ways, but one of my children has a tougher time than the rest. He is a brilliant child, I have mature conversations with him on a daily basis. He is kind, he is helpful, he loves to chat with adults, he looks you right in the eyes when he speaks, and he loves to learn.

But almost each fall, when I attended his parent/teacher conferences, I would leave the school in tears. Sight words were a struggle, peer relationships were a struggle, spelling made me want to claw my eyes out, skill sheets took hours—my child constantly cried about school and about friends—I believe he was even depressed and struggled with shame attaching to his own identity.

His struggles in school became the way he saw himself. His actions rippled through him like a vibrating gong. He would say things like…

Why am I the worst? Everyone hates me because I am bad.

His bad actions easily turned into a tangled up identity. Guilt says: what I did was bad. Shame says, I am bad.

This breaks my heart, but caused me to take a long hard look in the mirror when it came to how I was dealing with my own mom fails and mom guilt. My personal actions easily become the vibrating gong of what-kind-of-mother-are-you self-contempt and tangle up my mom identity.

As mothers, if we let our shortcomings impact our mom identities, why wouldn’t our children do the same? Children are imitators. They do as you do, not as you say.

So Then, How Should We Live? 

There is hope in the story for that child who struggles a little more than my others in school. This year, my husband and I finally walked through the process of figuring out the missing pieces to the puzzle for our child. This was hard. So hard. But after several years, and trying everything else, we tested our son for ADHD and visual processing disorder.

And guess what? That sweet child of mine struggled with following multiple directions in school—every year, year after year—because his brain was unable to follow multiple directions in school. He is off the charts ADHD. And that same child doesn’t finish his work when copying from the board and struggles with sight words, reversals, and spelling because he has an identified visual processing disorder.

He has been taking a very small dose of methylphenidate at 7:15 every morning for two months. On the first school day he was on his medication he wrote me a note that said:

“Mom, I started my day at 8:10 and I finished my morning work by 8:30. Usually, my morning work sits on my desk unfinished all the way until lunch.” 

That note made me cry. My tears were mixed with happiness and sadness. Happiness for him, and sadness for him because he has struggled for so long.

His confidence is up. His grades are better. His handwriting is better. He seems to be doing better with peer interactions and homework no longer makes me want to claw my eyes out.

There are two personal threads I have needed to unravel from my what-kind-of-mother-are-you self-contempt. This feels like a double-edged mom fail.

One: it is easy for me to get tangled up in the lie that whispers “I am the one who caused this problem for my child.” Maybe, I didn’t breastfeed him long enough, maybe we watched too much television, maybe I didn’t read to him enough, or play with him enough because by the time he was four, he was an older brother to three other siblings. Maybe, I didn’t pray hard enough that his struggles would go away.

Two: The lies that whisper I wasn’t prompt enough in solving this problem. “If I could have just walked through this process when he was in kindergarten, then we would be in a better place academically, socially, and emotionally by now.” I am a trained educator, I should have recognized these signs sooner. I know my child, and I knew something was not right.

There is hope for mom guilt turning into mom shame too. The problem is my sin, the cure is the gospel. We all need the hope of the daily vitamin of the gospel, where we intentionally see ourselves as God sees us as mothers.

I have to be intentional to not let mom fails and mom guilt get tangled up in the way I see myself as a mother. Both of those tangled up lies are self-focused and fail to see the bigger picture of how God sees me, and how God sees my child. Both of those threads fail to see ourselves in light of God’s greater redemption story. Both of these threads look inward, and fail to see outward, onward, and upward.

So then, how should we live? We live by the one time banging of a gavel and not the vibrating sound of a gong. The sound of the gavel is clean and sharp, it may make us flinch, but it doesn’t ripple and infiltrate our identities or the kind of mothers we are.

We do fall short as mothers, (if you haven’t yet—you will) but if God doesn’t hold our shortcomings against us, why would we hold them against ourselves? Living by the one time banging of a gavel, our shortcomings unravel away through repenting (turning away from the action) and believing that God is working even when we don’t have it all figured out.

Don’t live by the gong. We are not are shortcomings. God doesn’t see us that way. If we trust in Jesus and his work on the cross, God sees us as perfect in his sight. We are stumbling on this side of heaven, but we are seen as perfectly loved sons and daughters.

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus we are given life and set free (Romans 8:1)

If we love our children so much we could burst in their stumbling, imagine how much more God loves us as we mother our children? We are free to stumble and seen as loved in Christ. The gavel sounded when we first trusted Christ, now we are free to waltz in the gospel and be unraveled from the shame that tangles us.

When we look outward, onward, and upward and live by the gavel and not the gong, we are really free! Mom fails, mom guilt, and mom shame cannot bind us if we are truly trusting in the daily vitamin of the gospel.

Our children will imitate us. Show them how to live by the gavel and not be tangled up by the gong.


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