First of all, I hope that everyone reading this knows that I am not being gender-biased when I use the term "mommy guilt". It can and does affect men as well as women. Actually, my husband was feeling pretty bad about himself Monday night, and that's what originally caught my attention regarding this topic.
We've all felt it at some point in our lives as parents. That awful feeling in the back of your head saying, "Am I screwing this all up?" The answer, my friends, is "Yes, you are."
The question should not be whether or not we are screwing up as parents, but we are doing to prevent the screw up the next time. We are all imperfect people in an imperfect world with (extremely?) imperfect children. So in those moments, when you've just yelled at your 2-year old for doing something completely normal for a 2-year old to do, or when you're frustrated with your 4-year old because of something you're trying to deal with on a phone call and he's just trying to get on his bike and ride around the corner, the mommy guilt starts to creep in.
I'm sure from my examples, you can tell that I'm talking about other people's children, right? Certainly not my own...
So what do you do with that guilt?
First, recognize that everyone messes up. The messing up is NOT what you should feel guilty about. Guilt is not a positive emotion. I'm not saying to ignore, but what I am saying is learn from it. If you have realized your mistake, and all you feel is guilt, then you need to take a few more steps down the road. You are imperfect, you have made a mistake, so what are you going to do about it?
Second, empathize with the person you've wronged. Maybe the person who's most wronged was a child, or maybe a neighbor, possibly even your husband (gasp!). So empathize with them first. Empathy is different than sympathy. You don't even have to be in the same room as the person you've wronged (yay for the introverts!). All you have to do is think about it from their perspective. Did my neighbor think I was being a jerk when I posted something on Facebook about my parenting style and totally lambasted their parenting style? Did my husband feel emasculated with I called him out in front of our kids or neighbors? Did my kids feel scared when I got a little out of control over a very 4-year old sized mess?
Empathy is not the same as guilt. What you really want to do is think about exactly what they are feeling and why. Especially with our children, they may not have the words to put to their emotions (my 4 year old has just started saying that "it hurts his feelings" when he's in trouble). So think about what it truly meant for this person that is so big in their lives to have a melt down over something they can't understand.
Next, consider your next steps. Sometimes, it may be better not to apologize (especially if the neighbor may not have even read your Facebook post). Are there ways to prevent the situation from happening in the future? Is there a trigger such as a phone call or not eating breakfast, or over scheduling your days? And if you did hurt your kids, please do apologize. When talking with someone about this situation, they told me it was the same thing that their father had reacted to them in that situation, only they never got an apology for it. Your kids will remember that apology (or lack thereof).
There are many steps you can take to prevent behavior, but try to come up with just one at a time. Once you've reached your conclusion, take action. Make the apology (if necessary), eat something (if you're just hangry), put the phone away, clear the calendar, and do whatever you need to do.
One final note, the best prevention for those mommy guilt situations, in my opinion, is to have reasonable expectations. If I know that Mondays are tough, then I can try to expect that beforehand, and not get overwrought at my children's poor behavior. If I know late naps make then cranky, I can plan around their nap schedule or wake them up earlier or later. If I know the weather will be bad, I can try to plan our schedule around it as much as possible.
And finally, give someone a hug or a friendly compliment. You never know what someone else is going through. Rather than judging that stranger at the park, ask them if you can help. Rather than posting on Facebook about something, tell your neighbor that you admire their differences. Rather than yelling at your kids, start the day with some snuggles and reading a good book. It won't be long before they don't want to snuggle anymore (or so I've heard).