At a speaking event last month, I asked the audience if they’d ever felt like a bad mom.
One guess as to how many raised their hands.
Calling yourself a bad mom is obviously a negative thing (unless you’re Kristin Bell — then it’s a highly profitable thing). But the opposite, so-called positive “Good Mom” label? That might be worse.
Come with me down memory lane to teacher college, and I’ll explain. (Bonus: this “growth mindset” thing totally applies to your kids and the way you offer them feedback.)
First things first: what is mindset? And isn’t it enough to just “be positive?”
Your mindset is what you believe about something, and those beliefs influence your decisions which in turn influence your outcomes.
Dr. Carol Dweck, an Ivy League researcher and professor, distinguishes between two types of mindset: fixed and growth. Someone with a fixed mindset believes character traits and qualities are inherent, consistent over time. You’re either smart — or not. Athletic — or not. A good mom — or not. Someone with a growth mindset believes that traits and qualities are fluid and can improve or change over time.
Most of us have fixed mindsets for certain traits and growth ones for others. For example, you may have a fixed mindset about being “a good artist” and a growth mindset about exercise. Just by recognizing a fixed mindset you hold can dramatically impact the way you approach a problem.
As a first grade teacher, most students entered my classroom believing they were A) a bad reader or B) a good reader. At first, identifying as a good reader seems like a positive thing — don’t we want our children to believe they’re good, smart, athletic? Shouldn’t we tell them so and raise their self esteem? Nope. Consider how both sets of students behaved around my teaching table.
At first, the “good” readers appeared just fine — until they came across a word they didn’t know or a story they didn’t comprehend. Suddenly, their identity as a “good reader” was in jeopardy; when this happened, most of my students either expressed extreme frustration or even lied. In my experience, this makes good readers (and “smart” students) less likely to take positive risks, such as choosing a more challenging book or sharing an answer they’re less certain of.
While students held either a positive or negative fixed mindset, it was difficult to make progress. Neither group was motivated to push themselves, and unmotivated students do not learn as well. As a result, we spent the first weeks of school shifting from a fixed mindset to a growth one. We did activities that proved every child in the room could already read. (And they could — “reading” is just applying meaning to symbols; my three-year-old does that every time we drive past McDonald’s.) I modeled language that focused on improving my reading skills. As adults, we sometimes forget that “learning to read” isn’t the end. As the students began to adopt the growth mindset “I’m learning to be a better reader,” they became more engaged and eager to challenge themselves. Mistakes were okay, because they were expected and accepted. More than okay, because they were opportunities for growth.
Take that whole last section — you can sub “mom” for “reader” and it pretty much holds true.
That was a long explanation, but we moms tend to be more willing to read about how we can help our kids rather than how we can help ourselves. Stick with me, because this next part blows the lid on so-called mom guilt.
Has something like this happened to you?
You’re at the park, and your child scrapes her knee. You clean her up, kiss the boo boo, and send her off to play. Someone compliments you by saying, “Oh, you’re such a good mom!” but instead of thinking “Why yes, I am a good mom,” your thoughts are more along the lines of “If you only knew…”
The Bad Mom mindset sucks because every time you make a mistake, your brain says, “See, it’s because you’re a Bad Mom.” And when you do something well, it refuses to acknowledge.
And the Good Mom mindset isn’t much better, because every time something goes wrong, your brain feels threatened — “Maybe I’m not a Good Mom after all.” You blame your kids or spouse, get angry, feel ashamed.
The Good Mom/Bad Mom dichotomy is dangerous because it’s “fixed,” when in reality parenting requires us to continuously learn and evolve in order to keep our kids alive. Think about it: the skills you needed to care for your newborn are different than the ones that’ll help her navigate varsity soccer. When you brought your newborn home from the hospital, you learned how to soothe her, bathe her, nourish her. That can be a steep learning curve, but it’s only the beginning: every age and stage (and kid) requires you to level up. Mothering a newborn, preschooler, high schooler all look different — and it doesn’t end when your kids grow up. My own mom is still navigating how to parent to her adult daughters as we enter new phases of life.
Just like my students, we moms need to embrace a growth mindset when it comes to motherhood: we’re always learning to be better moms.
You weren’t born knowing how to change a diaper or how to register your kid for kindergarten. You figure it out as you go — likely someone shows you, teaches you. You practice, you make mistakes, you learn. You get better.
Shifting towards a growth mindset creates space for you to make mistakes, to give yourself the grace you deserve so you can learn. Momming is hard; you’re going to mess up. Instead of wrapping yourself in a useless blanket of mom guilt and shame, reframe those experiences as learning opportunities and move on.
I’d bet my Keurig you’re a better mom now than you were a year ago, and if you’re “doing it right” you’ll keep getting better. The next time your brain starts that negative self-talk crap, calmly tell it to STFU for a second. Take a breath and remind yourself you’re learning; quite frankly, engaging with your errors is the most efficient way to improve.
So the next time you leave the house without the diaper bag and your toddler has a blowout, give yourself a pat on the back. You’re just mom-leveling up.