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Family Matters

Mothering and Shame

March 15th, 2013

By: Heather Mackay


When my friend had the first baby in our peer group, she said, “I don’t want to be in the Mother Club. I just want to be a mother.” I didn’t understand what that meant. I thought, “Don’t you want to meet other moms and talk about the experience and struggles of being a new mom?”

A few years later I had three daughters of my own and I understood: she didn’t want to be part of a club that put women into an unspoken, but direct competition about who is at the top of the ‘perfect mother’ pecking order.   Is it the mother with the best-behaved children or the most laidback mother who keeps her cool no matter what her kids are doing? Is it the mom who does paid work to take her kids on vacation or the mom who stays home and cooks from scratch? It felt like there was a multitude of parenting debates lurking, ready to trip up the unsuspecting parent at every stage of child rearing! And sometimes it felt like everyone else had it figured out but me.

Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly is a shame and vulnerability researcher at the University of Houston. She defines shame in its simplest terms as the fear of disconnection. Humans are hard-wired for connection but often are unable to get past the fear of vulnerability in order to make authentic connections with people. Instead we protect ourselves with what she calls ‘vulnerability amour’.   

Shame is different from guilt. Guilt says:  I made a mistake. Shame says: I am a mistake. Guilt is productive and keeps our relationships in check. The message from shame is: ‘I’m not _________ enough’ (good, capable, rich, skinny). Nothing productive or useful comes from shame. It’s destructive and grows exponentially with silence and judgement.

Shame feels the same for men and women, but it is organized differently. For men, shame is about never showing weakness. For women shame is a web of conflicting, competing expectations. It is a sense of trying to be all things to all people at all times. This is an impossible place to be. The struggle to keep up the façade of doing it all perfectly, Brown refers to as “the hustle for worthiness.”

It’s from this place of hustling for worthiness that some mothers try to present their parenting values as the best, but most mothers are doing their best, struggling to live up to their own expectations, and often being triggered into shame. Mothering is a minefield of shame.

Imagine the scenario of trying to get your kids ready to leave the house. It’s not going well and you’re going to be late. Personally, I know too well the feeling of ‘not being able to do it all’ and then making it worse by yelling at my kids and having critical thoughts about myself. This is a shame-triggering moment. From here, I can call it quits and avoid the situation. I can continue to blame and shame my kids for ‘making us late,’ or I can do the more difficult thing of taking a moment to get out of shame and back to my own self.

I can choose to slow things down and give-up the expectation that I have to be on-time every time even though it’s important to me. Instead, I can show-up, far from perfect, and start conversations with other mothers from a place of vulnerability and authenticity. To share the uncertainties of mothering is an important first step.

The second step is to listen with empathy. Brown says that when we hear another mother tell her story of vulnerability, uncertainty and shame, it triggers in us a sense of the same. In order to listen to a story with empathy, we need to listen for the underlying emotion and convey a sense of understanding to her. We can only do that when we are comfortable with our own vulnerability.

Shame withers when it is spoken. It shrinks to nothing when it is met with empathy. As Brown says, there is nothing more powerful in combating shame than the words: “me too!” As mothers, all of us can benefit from sharing that kind of support.

Reference: Brene Brown (2012). Daring Greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead.  Gotham Books: New York.

Heather Mackay, MSW, RSW is a therapist in Edmonton and facilitates groups based on Brene Brown’s work. She can be contacted at

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