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“I’m a Bad Mother!”

This is a cry that I hear from literally hundreds of mothers, both in the course of my counseling experience and simply from comments dropped by friends, acquaintances and even complete strangers.

But it is a particularly poignant cry from mothers who are experiencing emotional upheaval, often chronic in nature, and who also have the added responsibility of caring for children as well as the minefield of mental illness.

No matter what the life experience of the mother, whether it be depression, post-partum depression, bipolar disorder, or an anxiety disorder, the concern is the same. “I’m not good enough!” or “I’m worried I’m hurting my children in some way” or “What if my illness is making them sick, too?” or “They’d be better off with a well mother”.

The last one is a particularly sad expression of guilt and remorse since it is so unwarranted. Having a mental illness does not make you a bad parent. This is where the stigma of mental illness is so debilitating across the board: It even encroaches on a parent’s self belief in themselves to offer love, the most important aspect of parenting. Being emotionally ill in no way detracts from a parent’s love for their offspring.

Whenever I come across a parent making any of these comments in therapy, I always offer the same piece of information. If you are worried that you are not a good mother then you ARE a good mother! At such times I impress upon the distraught mother that the very fact that they are thinking these thoughts and also expressing them to a third party means that they, as a parent, are aware of their shortcomings and therefore are not in denial and blind to the possible detrimental effects they may be having on their children. It is the so-called “normal” parent who lives their life largely for themselves, who blindly follows a career path or a social life oblivious to the effect it may be having on their children, who is failing as a parent.

So if you think that you are a bad parent, believe me, you are not. This also applies to parents who have let their children down, perhaps as a result of years of chronic alcoholism and have taken steps to change and have a long term history of wholesome living and recovery. They too consider that they have been bad parents, and in a way they have, but they have done something about it.

If you have never questioned your parenting skills, then it is perhaps time for a reality check, because any good parent is constantly monitoring the effects their behaviors are having on their child. If you worry, you’re fine! Or as we therapists say, you are a “good-enough” parent. And that is all a child needs.

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