Parenting Anxiety: How to End Guilty Thoughts, “Should” Statements, and Unhealthy Social Comparison Practices
Having (or expecting) a baby is one of the most exciting (albeit potentially stressful) times in any couple’s lives. Decorating a nursery, shopping for baby clothes, and thinking of the perfect name are just a few of the things that occupy our thoughts at this time. However, with every thought about snuggling your new baby and showering him in love and kisses comes a thought or image of the baby crying despite our best attempts to console him, or not being able to get the baby to sleep at night, or any of a number of other such anxiety-inducing thoughts. As if this weren’t bad enough, we tend to add fuel to the fire by drowning ourselves in “should” statements – “I should know how to soothe the baby”, “I should be able to get the baby to sleep”, or even “I should be able to handle X, Y, or Z.” Not only are such statements unhelpful but they also serve to make us more anxious and more worried about our child and our parenting abilities because they represent a distorted way of thinking about things. We call such ways of thinking cognitive distortions.
Simply put, a cognitive distortion is a term used to describe the way in which we frame an issue or stressor in our lives, and by their very nature a cognitive distortion represent a negative way of viewing things. For instance, when faced with a difficult situation, do we conceptualize it in a negative way such as jumping to conclusions and assuming the worst (e.g., “My baby will never sleep through the night and will have sleep problems her whole life!”), or do we conceptualize it as a challenge to be met and conquered? (e.g., “My baby isn’t sleeping through the night yet, but it’s something I can help her learn how to do”). Examples of common cognitive distortions include overgeneralizing (e.g., “I can never get the baby to sleep”), jumping to conclusions (e.g., “If the baby doesn’t finish each bottle/nurse a certain length of time at each feeding she will never grow properly’), catastrophizing (e.g., “My baby spit up after feeding – there must be something wrong!”), personalization (e.g., “I don’t know why the baby is crying – I must be a terrible mom if I can’t tell why she is upset!”), emotional reasoning (e.g., “The baby didn’t finish her bottle once today. I feel like something is wrong and therefore there must be something wrong”), or all-or-nothing thinking (e.g., “I didn’t realize the baby’s diaper was dirty so she sat in it for over an hour. I can’t do anything right and I’m a failure as a mother”). Generally speaking, cognitive distortions make us feel more anxious, more upset, and less in control of a situation because they focus on negative aspects of a situation and do not take into account any positive aspects of a situation (even if the situation is less than ideal). However, “should” statements not only increase our feelings of anxiety and upset, but they also add a layer of guilt by making us feel as though we are inadequate and incapable, which results in us being unable to manage situations because we are constantly doubting ourselves. After all, if we are beating ourselves up and making ourselves feel guilty due to negative and self-blaming thoughts, how can we possibly make good decisions or resolve situations? For example, consider how telling yourself the following statements would make you feel:
“The baby should be eating more”
“I should know more about babies”
“Shouldn’t the baby be sleeping through the night by now?”
In each case above, these statements only serve to make us feel more anxious and less adequate because they imply that something is wrong or that we are not doing something correctly. The implication of the thought “The baby should be eating more” is that “I’m not feeding her enough and therefore I am a terrible mother.” The statement “I should know more about babies” implies “I will never be a good mother if I don’t even know everything about babies”. Similarly, the statement “Shouldn’t the baby be sleeping through the night by now?” implies that there is something wrong with the baby or in your parenting technique.
Furthermore, we often make things worse by comparing our child (or our abilities) to those around us, or by comparing them to things we read in books or online as to what “should” happen at certain stages of our child’s development. Consider the following statements:
“My friend’s baby eats so much more than mine”
“My friends all had more experience with babies before becoming mothers than I do.”
“My brother’s child slept through the night by this age, so mine should too.”
The above statements are all examples of unhealthy social comparison practices. The biggest problem with such unhealthy social comparison practices is that, in addition to increasing our anxiety and guilt about our child and/or our parenting abilities, they also fail to take into account individual differences – the parts of each of us that make us unique individuals. These differences are apparent as early as in the womb and help make up our unique skills, abilities and personalities. For example, one baby might be very active in the womb and once born may continue to be an active infant and toddler who demonstrates independence and curiosity from an early age, whereas another baby may have a more relaxed personality who was less active in the womb and once born is calmer and more content to sit and watch the world go by. It would be a gross injustice to both children to compare them because they are inherently different and each has different needs, skills, interests and personalities. For instance, the statement, “My friend’s baby eats so much more than mine” implies not only that your child isn’t eating enough, but also that the amount of food your friend’s child eats is the right amount. Maybe that child is overeating, or has a higher metabolism, or is going through a growth spurt. It is also possible that your friend’s child is slightly larger than yours or more active and thus has higher caloric requirements. The statement, “My friends all had more experience with babies before becoming mothers than I do” ignores the fact that much of being a parent is learned “on the job” – each child is different and you’ll need many different skills which you’ll learn along the way. You and your baby will teach each other all the skills you need to know. Furthermore, there is no one right way to handle any given situation. The statement, “My brother’s child slept through the night by this age, so mine should too” doesn’t take into account individual differences in sleep patterns or reasons that your child may be waking more. For instance, are you a light sleeper, easily awakened by light or noises in the environment whereas your partner is a heavy sleeper oblivious to any and all disturbances (including your baby screaming in hunger at 3 am)? Babies are the same and some are more easily roused by noises, light, hunger, or a wet diaper. Do you constantly check on your baby throughout the night or when napping? If so, perhaps you are inadvertently waking your baby. If your baby is nursing, breast milk is digested much more easily and quickly than formula meaning that he may wake more frequently to eat.
The point is that each child is different and has different needs, preferences and a different personality. That is what makes your child unique and what makes it so unhealthy to constantly compare our children to others, to compare our skills as a parent to others, or to constantly drown ourselves in anxiety- and guilt-inducing “should” statements. Your most important job as a parent is to love your child for who he or she is, despite all the little quirks that may drive you nuts (“Why won’t he sleep?!?”; “Will she ever stop crying?!?”). After all, your baby will only be this age once, it flies by faster than you can imagine, and at the end of the day (as exhausting as that day might be), that’s what makes your child unique.
Take away points:
- Your child will go through many different phases as s/he continues to grow and develop. What works one day or what your child does one day may not work or happen the next day. This is normal and not cause for alarm. Just keep reminding yourself that this is just a phase and it too shall pass.
- Babies go through many periods of growth and development, both physically and cognitively. A baby going through a growth spurt will likely eat more and sleep more during a growth spurt to keep up with their developmental needs. However, especially during a cognitive growth spurt, some babies sleep less because they are too excited and want to practice their new developing skill(s), and they may eat less too (after all, who wants to waste time sleeping or eating when you could be practicing standing, climbing stairs, or saying a new word?!?)
- What works for one baby may not work for your baby (or at least not every time). As difficult as it may be at times, try not to compare your child to others because by doing so you will miss out on enjoying all the fun (and/or frustrating) little things that make your child special.
- Lastly, try not to “should” all over yourself. The only thing this will accomplish is increasing your level of anxiety and guilt about your adequacy as a parent and about the health and wellbeing of your child. No matter what his age, the thing your baby needs the most is a loving parent who is present and in the moment with him and not lost in guilty and anxious thinking. Doing so will deprive you of all the time you could be spending enjoying your baby and creating a strong, healthy and loving bond.