Guilt, Shame, and Self-Esteem: A Guide for Parents

Hi all! Caitlin here on the blog this week to talk about a touchy subject: shame. More specifically, what is guilt, shame, and how we can build our self-esteem as parents.

Parent Shame in the Internet Age

Some might blame the age of social media, but I suspect parent shaming has existed a lot longer than that. There have always been mother-in-laws waiting with a “in my day we never ___” or a neighbor peeking through a fence with judge-y eyes.

But with so much of our lives moving online, it’s easy to feel like this is a whole new era of shame in parenting.

First, there’s the “Instagram vs Reality” effect. Where folks post only their most perfect pictures and give us a skewed version of what their lives are really like.

But the real problem lies not in the posts but in the comment sections.

Miscommunication and self-doubt lead to accusations and shaming. To understand how these problems arise, we first have to understand the difference between guilt and shame.

Guilt vs Shame

First, guilt and shame can be both feelings and actions. I can feel guilty or I can feel ashamed. I can also lay a guilt trip on someone, or shame a person. But there is a difference between the two.

When you feel guilty, you might think “I did a bad thing”. When you feel shame, the thought is “I am bad”. The difference between the two is important because guilt makes us feel bad about an action. Shame makes us feel badly about ourselves. In some ways, guilt can be positive and motivate us to not repeat mistakes. But I don’t believe shame is ever positive.

For example, if I forget my Dad’s birthday, I might feel guilty. And that guilt might motivate me to take extra care to not forget the next year. If I start to feel shame, however, and I start to believe that I am a bad person because I forgot his birthday, I’m more likely to isolate myself and it can actually end up negatively impacting our relationship.

Guilt & Shame in Parenting Groups and Comment Sections

Why is this difference important? Because I’m noticing a trend in the parenting groups I’m in. Often times we parents read something online that may make us feel guilty. We might think to ourselves “Oh, Susie doesn’t give her kids screen time. Maybe I shouldn’t either.” But instead of taking ownership of those feelings, we often get defensive and accuse the other person of shaming us.

Since Lil Helper is first and foremost a cloth diapering company, I’ll use this as my example.

Recently, in LilHelper: Unsnapped, I posted about how I couldn’t wait to be done with disposables. When my babies are small we always use disposables for a time, for a number of reasons. The newborn haze, the difficulty in getting a good fit on a tiny baby, to name a few. But I have always found I end up cleaning up way more “poo-namis” during the first month with my kids in disposables than the remaining two years they are in their cloth. I posted saying that I find cloth infinitely easier for these reasons and I don’t understand how cloth is not more mainstream.

I was accused very quickly of shaming other parents. Which again, by definition, means telling them “You are bad.” In this case, more specifically, “You are bad if you use disposables.” I was surprised. When my intentions were to say, “I don’t like disposables,” I found a bunch of people telling me I was saying, “I think you are bad if you do like disposables.” It made me start to wonder how this happened. Especially because I use 2-4 disposable diapers a day in my house! There is no judgment here.

I Choose My Thoughts & Feelings

Let's use another example, sleep training.

I do what I refer to as ‘gentle cry it out’ with my kids. It's a strategy that works for my family and results in happier kids and a healthier mom. But of course, this is a parenting choice that is often seen as controversial. I will often come across posts that speak to the importance of being super responsive to baby’s every cry. I can take these posts one of two ways.

1. I am a horrible mother for letting my child cry for a few minutes.

2. I am doing what works best for my family after a lot of research and thought, and folks who choose to co-sleep or reject CIO methods are doing the same.

The first choice is filled with shame. The second is an honest look at the facts.

When someone says “I choose to parent ‘x’ way” they are not inherently saying, “I think anyone who does it differently is trash”. But that seems to be how it is often interpreted.

This becomes a problem for a few reasons. First, we can end up feeling bad that we have hurt others, which leads to more guilt or shame. And, second, we can become so scared of ‘shaming’ others, that we are not authentic. All of this, when we are probably posting and reaching out in an effort to find connection and empathy with other parents.

Real Trolls Exist, But Not Everywhere All The Time

Perhaps it is because we have all experienced the genuine internet troll. The harasser. The shamer. Enough times that we have come to expect it. But what would happen if we assume the best of each other? If we take responsibility for our own thoughts and feelings and own our parenting choices.

Then we wouldn’t be so worried about guilt and shame – we could instead parent from a place of confidence.

The opposite of guilt and shame is self-esteem. Recognizing that you have worth and value and are enough for those tiny humans every day.

In fact, you make their world spin.

It is not your job to justify to the internet why you made your choices for your family. Whether that choice is related to what's on your baby’s bum, how they fall asleep, what they eat, or anything else. As long as your babe is safe and loved – who cares what anyone on the internet thinks?

Likewise, someone doing it differently than you is not wrong either.

And perhaps the next time you come across something on the internet that makes you feel guilt or shame, take the time to really read the words.

Sometimes there are truly mean people on the internet, who are accusatory and who put others down. But oftentimes these feelings actually come from our own interpretations. If there are no “You” statements (You are bad if you don’t do baby-led weaning) then perhaps your feelings are coming from somewhere else.

“I love baby-led weaning so far! I can’t believe I did purees before! I wish I did BLW with my first! Anyone have any more first food tips for me?”

You can choose:

“Some of us love purees so don’t shame us” or “I like purees. I’d guess the easy to mash foods would be your best bet? Avocado, banana, raspberries.”

The Golden Rule

The bottom line is we are all just trying to do our best. When you read something online you don’t agree with, remember to be kind or keep scrolling. And if you feel like someone else isn’t following this golden rule, take the time to be kind and think about your response carefully in return anyway.

If we are all a little more thoughtful online we can make the world a little brighter, one comment section at a time.

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