Thoughts go through your mind all day, every day. Thoughts narrate our lives, and tell us stories about ourselves, other people, and the world. One narrative that I often hear from mothers is thinking or feeling they are being a bad mother, or that they are afraid of being a bad mother. You could call this ‘The Bad Mother Story’. I also hear The Bad Mother Story so often that I know you’re not alone in thinking this- but when you’re caught in these thoughts, it can seem like everyone else has it together much better than you. And I’ll be honest: my mind has also told me The Bad Mother Story more than once. What is important to bear in mind is that thoughts are just thoughts– they are words or images. It’s easy to confuse thoughts with facts, which have been proven to be true. The trap is that because you think you are a bad mother at one point in time, then you assume that it’s true that you’re a bad mother. Yet… thinking it doesn’t make it true.
The Bad Mother Story is really painful and distracting, and can interfere with enjoying motherhood or life in general. When you’re focused on how you’re failing as a parent, not good enough, or a bad mum, this leads to painful feelings. You can feel inadequate; hopeless; sad; guilty; ashamed; anxious; and more. And when you’re feeling awful, what happens to your behaviour? Are you:
- Parenting at your best?
- Connecting with other people in a meaningful way?
- Taking care of yourself?
- Performing well at work?
Or do these things deteriorate?
These thoughts about being a bad mother often make your life worse, or more painful, than it was already. And nobody wants things to be more difficult than they have to be. So what can be done about this story that makes you feel awful? A good first step is to try and stand back from The Bad Mother Story, rather than getting caught up in this narrative and its’ consequences. Some starting points to try and create distance from these thoughts include:
1. Remind yourself that thoughts aren’t facts- they aren’t necessarily true, or helpful.
2. Step back and observe the thoughts that come up for you, rather than just believing them. The aim is to create some distance. For example, when your mind says ‘I’m failing as a mother’, try noticing this as just a thought: ‘I’m having the thought that I’m failing as a mother’; or ‘I notice I’m having the thought that I’m a bad mother’. Say it aloud to see if your thoughts are less painful with ‘I notice I’m having the thought…’ or ‘I’m having the thought…’ in front. See what happens to how bad your thoughts feel when you simply notice and acknowledge them, rather than reacting to them- sometimes they can be a whole lot less painful.
3. Name these thoughts for what they are: a narrative or story about being a bad mother. When they appear, name it, and gently thank your mind for bringing it to your attention again. ‘Oh- this is the Bad Mother Story starting. Thank you, mind, for telling me this story.’ Do this over and over again. The aim is to build a neutral, curious, or even kind response to your difficult thoughts, and the more you practice this, the more you retrain yourself that this story is nothing to worry about; you’re essentially killing it with kindness, or neutrality.
4. Change the context of the story or thought- this can also create some distance, or even humour. For example: imagine a funny cartoon or movie character saying ‘I’m a horrible mother’; it’s a bit different when you hear Arnold Schwarzenegger or Donald Duck saying ‘I’m a horrible mother’, and it may even become funny! Or put it into a song that doesn’t match the thought content- like the Happy Birthday song, or an empowering song. What happens to the thought then?
5. Imagine that the ‘I’m a bad mother’ thought is in a thought or speech bubble. Notice where it is in relation to your head and face: Is it sitting so tightly around your face and eyes that it is all you can see? What colour is it? Is it see through, or blocking out your view of the room and world? Can you imagine lifting that speech or thought bubble higher away from your head, so it’s not in your face? Can you change the colour of the bubble so that it’s friendlier? And change the font, so it’s not as bold or threatening: what if the thought was written in cursive, and a pretty or neutral colour? What if the edges of the bubble were softer? Is the thought as consuming and awful when you change how you see it? Try playing around with the imagery of it to find something that makes it less threatening and more neutral to you.