I'm really good at the bad mother talk. You know what I'm talking about. Those little ways we knock ourselves down when we think we aren't making the "right" parenting choice. For example:
"I'm such a bad mother. I gave my daughters mac 'n cheese from the box three times last week."
"I'm such a bad mother. I let them watch an entire hour of Dora."
Other times, the bad mother talk is much darker and meaner. These are the conversations that usually take place in the privacy of our own mind. We judge ourselves so harshly for every real or perceived parenting infraction, from not bathing our children often enough (guilty!) to yelling at them (yup).
We tell ourselves that we're bad parents, and that a better parent (of which there are so many hypothetical examples) is more patient or calmer, reads to her children more often, cooks healthier meals, and keeps her house clean, all with a smile on her face and a song in her heart.
But we're not her, we tell ourselves every time we miss the mark. We're not good mothers. Or worse, we're bad mothers.
Here's what I've come to realize about the bad mother talk (even the sarcastic, I-don't-really-mean-it variety): It's not true, feels like crap, and is totally unproductive.
Every single bad mother comment I make is nothing more than a condemnation of myself, which leaves me feeling stuck and miserable. There's just no benefit. It might (emphasis on might) spur me to vow to improve my parenting next time, but in the long run, there's no room for improvement once I have already labeled myself "a bad mother."
So I've been trying to use some slightly different language when my parenting choices aren't everything I want them to be. Instead of resorting to the bad mother baloney, I've been thinking about whether my choices and behavior are "skillful" or "unskillful."
Those of you familiar with Buddhist psychology may recognize these particular words. The idea behind skillful and unskillful is that nothing we do is inherently good or bad. Rather, the question is, does it lead to the outcome we want?
Unskillful behaviors generally make me and my daughters feel more disconnected from each other and worse about ourselves, all the while not achieving whatever behavioral change I was aiming for. Skillful behaviors generally do the opposite: They help us all feel better about ourselves and closer to each other. They're also more likely to get the girls to share or stop fighting or whatever it is.
Yelling at my daughters: unskillful
Taking a deep breath (or 10) and responding calmly: skillful
Freaking out over yet another glass of spilled milk at dinner: unskillful
Realizing that my 3-year-old is exhausted and needs a sippy cup: skillful
What I have found as I have implemented this new approach is that when I try to understand my behaviors in this way, I don't feel as down on myself, and I'm able to improve my mood (and my parenting) much more quickly.
The reality is that we're all unskillful at certain things. It's not a moral judgment or a label. It's just an acknowledgment that there is room for improvement. By speaking to myself in a kind, honest, and shame-free tone, I'm not only creating the space and energy I need to make better choices, I'm also making it more likely that I'm going to speak to my daughters in that way and (bonus) setting an example for how they might speak to themselves.
That's a whole lot more skillful than beating myself up with bad mother talk.
A version of this article previously ran on PsychCentral and is reprinted here with permission from the author.