'Guilt, shame, a failure': Mums open up about their biggest parenting 'mistakes'

Photo: Writer Pip Lincolne and her son, Max. Supplied.
Photo: Writer Pip Lincolne and her son, Max. Supplied. 

When my youngest child was about two-years-old, we stood on the side of the road, waiting to cross.

On the other side was a toy shop. My mother was standing in front of the shop, getting ready to treat her grandkids. Suddenly, my little guy bolted. Across the road. Into traffic. Busting to get to the other side and the Lego or plastic binoculars or miniature dinosaur that no doubt waited.

Thankfully the incoming driver was paying attention and had the wherewithal to brake. Hugs and apologies abounded, and we bustled into the shop, my face hot with fear and shame.

Photo: Pip has written a beautiful new book to help mums find the joy in motherhood. Supplied
Photo: Pip has written a beautiful new book to help mums find the joy in motherhood. Supplied 

I still think about it to this day. Why did I loosen my grip? Why didn't I see what was happening? Why were my reflexes not quick enough to stop him doing a potentially lethal runner? I shudder each and every time this incident pops into my head. Then I tell myself it was an accident, a lapse, a mistake.

Mistakes like this are part of the fabric of parenting life, but you'd be forgiven for thinking they weren't.

We may (regrettably) slap our children in a fit of frustration or say things that are mean or hurtful.

Babies get dropped. Toddlers do run away. Preschoolers suddenly have holes in their teeth. Schoolkids are forgotten at pick-up time. You've called your teenager 'lazy', the word slipping from your mouth before you could stop it.

It's important to remember that when stuff-ups happen, we are in good company. Parents can't have it together all the time. Especially if they're overwhelmed, overscheduled and under-slept.

I spoke to some mums I know about their own parenting mistakes, asking them how they felt in the wake of their missteps.

Advertisement

Perhaps, when you are navigating your next mum muck-up, you can find solace in the knowledge that others have gone before you and felt the things you are feeling. And that you will not always be juggling these feelings.

'Yelling. Shouting. Anger. Frustration. I was young and emotionally underdeveloped when I had my babies. I had no idea how to manage these emotions. I felt/feel so sad, guilty and confused. I loved/love them so much.' – Michele

'I felt guilt, shame, a failure, not good enough … every negative feeling in the book.' – Janina

'Number one feeling: guilt. I feel the enormity of shaping young people with my words and actions. I know that I remember vividly most of the parenting slipups my own parents made and I really want to limit them myself. So I feel guilty when I make one myself.' – Kylie

I felt completely awful. Really sad and disappointed in myself. I cry a little but then apologise and keep on trying.' – Lily

'In the hazy new baby days, I looked at my phone – for a stupid work email – and she fell off the bed. I'll never forget it. I can still hear the fall, and the cry. Plus I still check her head, five years later.' – Jenny

The feelings parents experience after making a parenting mistake can be horribly all-consuming.

But let's remember that it's what you do in response to the 'mistake' that can make all the difference.

Sometimes getting some extra help from a counsellor or psychologist can help you to work through the complicated feelings that some mistakes spark. Don't hesitate to do this.

In the case of parenting mistakes, shame is rampant. It's a good idea to remind yourself that deep- diving into that self-focused shame is not going to help you or your child.

In fact, it's likely to stop you from responding to your child's needs compassionately and constructively.

Also, it's important to model a constructive and compassionate response to your child. Shame is not that. Try 'I made a mistake' instead of 'I am my mistake'.

  • Accept and apologise
    Accept wholeheartedly that you have made a mistake. Be open about it with yourself and your family, and especially with your child. Put your child first in this 'accept and apologise' response. It's important that they know you regret your actions and that their feelings are the priority here (not yours!).
  • Talk it out
    Talking through what has happened with someone you trust can really help. It can provide perspective and remind you of who you were before this error and that you are strong and resilient enough to push through this hard adjustment.
  • Tap out of shame
    Separate yourself from your mistake. Yes, you made a mistake, but YOU are not your mistake. Your mistakes do not define your character, so try hard not to absorb the error you made as an intrinsic part of yourself.
  • Make amends
    When things have calmed down, make amends for your mistake. This means speaking to your child honestly and sincerely, and letting your child know how you hope to avoid this ever happening again. Make a plan together so that your child can make their feelings known and feel reassured and safe.
  • Make it a lesson
    There are lessons to be found in hard times and our response to them tells us important things about ourselves. Think about how you reacted, what led up to this event and how you could respond more constructively if the situation was to crop up again.
  • Return with kindness
    Continue to be open about what happened when appropriate, again with your child's wellbeing front and centre of any chatter. Be kind, show remorse and give your child lots of demonstrative love. Reaffirm that you are sorry and that you're learning how to do better next time.
  • Maintain perspective
    This has happened. You can't undo it. But what you can do is use this challenge as an opportunity to understand yourself and your child better. If you're reading this and it's YOU that's made a parenting mistake, know this: You are in good company. There are millions of us dotted about the globe. And that mistake you made? That is an absolute hallmark of being a parent in the trenches. Go well.

Note: If you feel like you're losing control regularly – if you are harming your children or putting them in danger – then it's important to get help from a doctor or mental health professional

Pip Lincolne is a writer and best known for her blog, Meet me at Mikes. She has just released a new book Days Like These - an uplifting guide for mums to help manage mental health, mum guilt and find joy in the life-changing magic of being a mum.