Heather MacFadyen: “Am I a Bad Mom?
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Heather MacFadyenHeather MacFadyen wrote online before Facebook existed. After years of blog entries, in 2013 she launched a trailblazing podcast called God Centered Mom. In 2018, the show rebranded to the Don’t Mom Alone podcast. With over fourteen million downloads, Heather’s weekly interviews have been listened to at least once in every country on the planet. When she’s not recording conversations in her messy closet, she’s driving in Dallas traffic, feeding four growing boy-men, or walking around the...more
Feeling like a bad mom? Author Heather MacFadyen explores motives & emotions fueling your actions & judgments so you can lean toward the mom you long to be.
Heather MacFadyen: “Am I a Bad Mom?
Ann: So recently, we were talking about being in a van/a minivan with our two grandchildren, who are three and one. Dave is up in the front with our son, and then my daughter[-in-law] and I are in the back, taking care of the kids. The one-year-old is screaming her head off—
Dave: Yes, she was screaming.
Ann: —for like an hour. The whole time—
Dave: It might have been three hours.
Ann: The whole time—
Heather: It probably felt longer. [Laughter]
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
My daughter-in-law is amazing: she’s feeding her; we’re making faces; we’re singing songs. Later that day, we’re walking. I could tell she was so frustrated; because she’s thinking, “Why wasn’t he back here?” He even had offered, “Do you want me to be in the back?” But as moms,—
Dave: —you say, “No,” every time.
Ann: —we feel guilty.
I said to her, as we were walking, “It’s the weirdest thing, because God has put it in us, as moms, we are connected to our children. And if we are all sitting in a room with the dads and the moms, the dads aren’t thinking about: ‘I better take care of the child.’ You automatically, as a mom, zero in on it; and you know, ‘I’m going to take care of them.’ But I found myself, when our kids were little, like, ‘Why doesn’t Dave take care of them?’ It was just always on my radar to care for them/to love them.”
Dave: Yes; and you can hear another guest in the studio—Heather is over there—[Laughter]—Heather MacFadyen is over there laughing; because you two moms are like, “Yes; yes; yes.” I mean, that’s your life; right?
Heather: I think about, even coming here, and all the effort and planning: I set a crockpot meal ready for the first night they are home; I’m making sure everyone gets picked up at the right time; my husband texted me while I’m here: “What is our carpool number?” [Laughter] It’s been the same for ten years. [Laughter]
But when he goes out of town, there is no prep on his end; he just goes out of town. I will say, I have friends in our life—and he is the stay-at-home dad; and he does those details, and the mom travels, and the mom is involved in a lot of other things—but that’s the rarity.
Ann: It’s interesting, too—even this week—we had our three-year-old grandson with us. He and I happened to be sitting out on this deck. He has this little camping chair—you know it’s/he just turned three—he says to me, “Nonie, didn’t you have a meeting two days ago?” I’m thinking, “How does he remember that?” I said, “I did.” He said, “Oh, how did it go?” I’m like, “What is happening right now? [Laughter] This is like the deepest conversation I’ve had.”
Dave: You were thinking, “My husband never asks me how it went.” [Laughter]
Ann: But there is this bond—that was like this bonding moment for me—and we long for that with our kids. That instant with that conversation that was maybe five minutes long, I felt so connected to him. Your book, Don’t Mom Alone: Growing the Relationships You Need to Be the Mom You Want to Be—we’ve talked about we need that relationship with Jesus, how we need the relationship with other moms; but you also talk about that connection with our kids.
Heather: Yes; I wasn’t going to have the last section be that: it was going to be advice for mentors—thinking friends/mentors—but then I realized, “Oh my goodness! So often, we are looking to mentors; reading all the books; listening to all the things so we can be amazing moms, and we’re leaving our kids behind. [Laughter]
Heather: “We’re trying so hard to be amazing parents that we forget to have the relationship: ‘Rules without relationship equals rebellion.’”
I think that concept, especially in the church, I think we wonder why so many older kids are leaving the church. I often think that it could be some of the parenting techniques that were handed down to that generation created a distance in relationship that prohibited them from wanting to have anything to do with the church. I don’t know if it’s true; I don’t have any data.
Dave: —but you have four boys.
Heather: I do have four boys.
Dave: And as a mom, you are trying to connect with them.
Dave: What does that look like? [Laughter]
Heather: In the pandemic, they all want to do boy things; you know?—watch Marvel movies.
Ann: Ooh, I like that.
Heather: I’ve had my meltdown moments, where I’m thinking, “I’m the only girl in this house!
Ann: Me, too, Heather.
Heather: “It’s like living in a frat house.”
Heather: It’s hard; but I do think—I’m a speech/language pathologist by trade—so communication is really important to me. I’ve always been able to talk with my boys about any topic; it’s just one of our high values in our family. So even if it is possibly a topic I don’t want to talk about—Minecraft or Fortnite or whatever the latest game is—[Laughter]—if it’s important to them, them coming to me, and me engaging in that—or whatever topic—I think is helpful.
But I mean there are a lot of missteps along the way. I’m not one of those moms, who is like: “I’ve got it all right,” and “Follow my plan.”
Ann: I don’t think there are any moms like that.
Heather: I want to be like the Titanic, like, “Avoid this iceberg ahead!” [Laughter]
Ann: I love that, at the beginning of each chapter, you have an isolating idea. Every single one of these—I could read them all to a mom; and she would be like, “Yes, yes,”—this one is:
- “I can’t stop yelling at my kids”; that’s the isolating idea.
- The connecting truth is: “I can identify anger triggers and use calming tools.”
Let’s talk about anger. I’m kind of excited about this, because I’m hoping—
Dave: That’s a way to connect with your kids—
Heather: Yes; anger is.
Dave: —through anger.
Heather: That’s right. I think I’ve learned a lot through counseling—through Celebrate Recovery and a lot of Townsend training—is to identify what I’m feeling.
I think, in the young-kid years, there is such a reactive time: everybody needs things; you are physically spent. I call it/it’s like a pinball machine, just bouncing from one need to another. So being aware of what I’m actually feeling happened zero times in a day.
Ann: I just asked one of my daughters-in-law, “How are you feeling?” She said, “I have no idea; I never think about myself.”
Heather: No; total self-forgetfulness. What happens then is: we are feeling—we are made in God’s image with emotions—we have them. You’re not being emotional if you have emotions—I hate that phrase—
Heather: —“Oh, she is so emotional.” No; we’re all human beings, who are emotional; and God has emotions. We are human beings, made in the image of God, who has emotions, who expresses love, and joy, and anger.
I was feeling so much guilt in those years with young boys. I did not want to be an angry mom—again, I read all the books; I had the master’s degree—the last thing I wanted to do was be an angry mom. But you get to the third boy/the fourth boy: no one does what I want when I want, and they are embarrassing me at every turn. So the only thing I can do is yell.
Anger is an energizing emotion. I was believing a lie, from our last conversation, about what lies I believed. I had a lie of weakness; I really did not feel strong or able. So being an energizing emotion, I thought, “This is where I’ll get my strength.” But I’m harming the relationships at every turn as I’m getting angry and, then, feeling guilty every night. Then shame on top of the guilt that—not only was it wrong that I yelled—feeling angry wasn’t wrong; yelling in anger was the problem—I’m feeling guilty for doing that; but then, I’m now feeling shame/mom shame that I am wrong.
Ann: Did you ever go in and apologize to your kids, even after they had gone—
Heather: I did repair.
Heather: I would tell myself, “That is beyond what I experienced—the repair, the apology—but it’s becoming a pattern.”
Ann: And you were saying, you not only did wrong; but now, you said, “I am wrong.”
Heather: “I am wrong. I’m a bad mom, because I yell at my kids.” So many moms are feeling this. I really want to help moms to really lean into what’s behind the anger, because it is a secondary emotion to something else. Mine was the fear that I was dealing with and that lie of weakness. That was the inner healing that I did to kind of realign what was true.
Instead of, in those moments of fear, feeling the anger and responding with anger, I could stop and pay attention and be like, “Okay, I’m feeling the energizing emotion; that’s anger.” Get curious: “What am I angry about? Okay, this child keeps asking for a cookie. I’ve already responded five times and told them we are about to have dinner, and he can’t have cookie right now,”—that’s a character flaw; that’s badgering—I don’t want him to be a badger-er the rest of his life.
Okay; I’m taking that knowledge about what I’m feeling and what’s going on that is causing me to feel that way. Let me address the badgering, and we can train that.” But all of that work—
Ann: So what did it look like?
Heather: In that situation, outside of the moment, I could bring up Wild Kratts; do you remember that show/that old show? They had an episode on badgers—the actual animal—with them clawing in the dirt with their long claws; and I could say, “When you ask a question, and I answer it; and then you ask the same question, and you ask the same question, that’s badgering. It hurts our relationship.”
Okay, he’s three years old—that’s pretty young—but I believe kids can learn a lot of stuff. So then, in the future, when I would notice him doing it, instead of reacting in anger and saying, “Stop it!”—which is what I wanted to do—I could even just do a symbol with my hands, digging in the ground; or say, “You are badgering.” It helped him. Now, he is one of my most persistent children still and is excelling in school because of that persistence.
Ann: Right; it is a gift from God—
Heather: It is a gift.
Ann: —in terms of we can see it as he is so annoying.
Heather: Raising leaders is exhausting.
Ann: Yes, I have one, too; it’s exhausting.
Heather: I’m thankful that I’d read the book, Good and Angry. It gave me the/it freed me from believing anger was wrong. I stopped fighting the anger and saying, “I’ve got to stop being angry,”—that only lasts like five minutes: to try to stop the emotion only lasts five minutes—but if you get curious about it, it moves you from an reactive part of your brain to a thinking part of your brain; and you can figure it out a little bit better.
I think/I’d love to encourage moms, if they have a pattern of anger, to start getting curious about what is going on at the moment. You will not be able to solve it in that moment, because anger happens so fast; but if you start to see patterns, you can start to look at: “What is behind it?” and do some work with God or with your kids.
Dave: I’ve always said—like with what you are saying: curious—when you find yourself triggered to anger, I call it back track: “Back track to the first emotion, because you skipped an emotion.”
Dave: When you said that “secondary emotion,” I had never heard that until decades ago. That was a revelation, like—because Ann had told me, “You’re angry man,”—I’m like, “No, I’m not!”—which is a great reaction—“What are you talking about?”—like Exhibit A.
But when I started to understand what you are saying—I guess calling it being curious—no, no, no; it’s kind of like an extension cord; it’s plugged into an emotion. I remember one time I was going to pick up our kids at a gymnastics/little practice. CJ, my oldest, was six—maybe, very young kids—maybe, eight. When I came in, CJ said, “Oh, I thought Mom was coming.” I’m like, “No, you’ve got Dad.” There was a lady there from our church—I’ll never forget—I’m the pastor of the church. We started—her kids were there—we were talking. CJ starts badgering me.
Heather: —and interrupting.
Dave: He says, “Can I get something out of the van?” I’m literally talking to this lady; and I remember saying, “Just hold on a second.” He kept doing it; so I turn, and I grab his arms, to go, “CJ, hold on a second.”
Well, I didn’t realize I squeezed so hard he started screaming. I mean, it was so bad he like jumps out of my arms. I remember this mom looks at me, like, “Dude, what was that about?!” Of course, I’m thinking I didn’t squeeze that hard; but I did. As we’re walking to the car—I literally, in my head, I went through what I always told people at our church—“You need to ABC your anger: Acknowledge it, Backtrack, Confess it.”
- So A was: “Was I angry?”—oh, yes.
- B: “What was the emotion I skipped?” Do you know what it was?
Dave: Yes; I was hurt. He wanted mom instead of dad. Of course, he is five, seven, eight years old; so of course, he does.
As we’re driving home—I’ll never forget this—I’ve got all three boys. My youngest is in a car seat; CJ was up in the front seat, and the other two—we’re in this little Honda Accord. I go, “Hey, guys, do you think Dad was angry back there?” Oh! Your kids see it like crazy; they are like, “Yes.” I go, “Do you know why?”
CJ goes, “Because I interrupted you; I kept pulling on your thing.” I go, “Yes, that was part of it.” I go, “You know the truth was? You wanted Mom; you didn’t want me. You know what? That’s totally normal. But I sorted of wanted you to want me.”
- Then, C was: Confess appropriately. I said, “You know what, guys? I am sorry. I shouldn’t have been angry. That’s great that you wanted Mom. Are we okay? Would you guys forgive me?”—immediate forgiveness.
Here is the best part of the story. I get home; 20 minutes later, I walk in the house. Guess what? I’m not yelling at my wife,—
Dave: —because I had dealt with the anger.
Dave: That’s what you are saying: you’ve got to be curious to go back and say, “Where is that coming from?” I’m guessing: “Moms, that is 50 times a day.”
Ann: Well, one of the things I’ve learned to do—I think bedtime, when we put our heads on the pillows—that’s when the battle begins.
Heather: Yes; 100 percent.
Ann: I start thinking: “I failed here,” “I should not have said this,” “Why did I say that?”—even with adult children—because I have no control now; whereas, I did a little bit then. I’ve started this practice of visualizing myself—I just did this two nights ago—visualizing myself with Jesus.
I tell Jesus the things that I’m carrying; I’m like, “Lord, here is what I’m carrying today,”—this is confession; it’s telling Him the truth—“I’m carrying that I shouldn’t have yelled,” “I’m carrying that I am worried my kids,” “I’m worried about this.” As I’m telling Him this, I see myself taking off baggage—I just visualize it—and I hand it to Jesus. I hand Him another one. It’s this time of purging, almost: “These are all the things that are weighing me down, Lord.”
Then I picture Jesus doing something with them. Every time, it is different. One time, I see Him throw it off a cliff. One time, just in my head, He is digging a hole and burying it. Then I’ll ask this question: “Lord, is there anything else that I need to give You that I’m carrying and that You want to carry for me?” That has been the most freeing—
Ann: —practice of just going to bed, letting Him have. Sometimes, there is an application of: “You need to apologize,” or “Go back to this son…” Even that part, of like, “Lord, I feel like I’m not…I’m failing this son,”—maybe, He’ll just/the Holy Spirit will whisper, “He needs you right now. You need to spend a little more time with him.”
Have you had any of those times?
Heather: No, I just think that is so great. I think what I’m hearing from both of you is: “Emotions are just these great tools to let us know that something else is going on that we can bring to Jesus. It’s not too much for Him.”
The rejection was behind the anger.
Heather: The beliefs and the weight that you were carrying was not yours to carry—that you could give to Him—for me, it was the fear that was behind the anger.
I think the gift—if we lean into it instead of feeling guilt and shame, which is where the enemy wants to keep us—that’s why moms reach out by the hundreds whenever someone, on Instagram® or Facebook®, says, “Oh, yes; I yelled at my kids today,” because it makes them feel like, “Oh, I’m not the only one!”
You are not the only one—the enemy wants you to believe that—but don’t use that as an excuse to just keep doing it. Do get curious; do dig into it because—yes; for me, I over and over again, kept bringing that fear: “Lord, what am I afraid of right now?” for the Holy Spirit to prompt me: “Oh, okay; help me to hand that over to You. Help me to believe truth—that’s not true” [what I’m believing]—whatever it is. Don’t sit in that anger, feeling guilty, and feeling shame, and isolating even further; bring it to God/bring it to your safe people we talked about.
Ann: What are other ways that you’ve connected to your kids/to your boys?
Shelby: You’re listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Heather MacFadyen on FamilyLife Today. We’re going to hear Heather’s response in just a minute; but first, if you want more people to experience great conversations like the one you are hearing today, you’re going to want to listen to this.
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Alright; now, back to Dave and Ann Wilson with Heather MacFadyen.
Heather: A little trick I learned from some mommy expert—and again, no formula; but this is a trick—if I talk to a mom with young kids, I tell her about it. To me, it really works, especially if you have several young children. It’s called Mommy Time. We would do it twice a day. I would do it mid-morning before lunch/before naps; and then after nap time before I would start cooking dinner, when I stayed home full-time. I would put their names in a hat, and we’d draw who would go first, second, third. They would get to pick what we did in our ten minutes.
I mean, moms will feel guilty, like, “Ten minutes; that’s not very much”; but really, when you have that many young children, and they all need you at once, the amount of one-on-one time they get with you is never. They knew they were going to get their Mommy Time; I would say, “I can’t wait until Mommy Time. What are we going to do at Mommy Time?” They would plan it out, whether it was chase around downstairs, playing Uno®.
The rules were you couldn’t interrupt another brother’s Mommy Time; or the time would start over for him. I mean, there were boundaries.
Ann: That is genius.
Heather: So in that time, they felt connected to me; they felt belonging. They knew they were going to get it; so they weren’t, in negative ways, trying to get my attention. It prepped us for a little bit smoother lunch and naptime. They weren’t begging to hang out with me. They would go down for nap, because we had had our Mommy Time. I would say, “I can’t wait for Mommy Time after your nap. Be thinking about what you want to do for Mommy Time.” Then the Mommy Time would happen, and I could cook dinner without all of the interruptions.
Now, is it seamless and perfect?—no; but was it better? Then I could go to bed, knowing that I had spent a couple times that day, one on one, with each of the boys. One summer, when I was feeling disconnected from my boys—and they were in their teens and middle school years—and we would play Uno or something—you would think: “Why would they still need Mommy Time?” But they really did.
Ann: They did.
Ann: I saw that with teenagers, too; they couldn’t even verbalize it.
Ann: They wouldn’t verbalize it actually; but I can remember saying to one our sons—I think he was 16—and he was really pulling away from me, which I realize was normal; but I said, “Hey, you know what I’m realizing? You are short and snappy because, probably, I’m short and snappy.
Ann: “I would love to just hang out with you for a little bit. So let’s schedule it; maybe, every couple of weeks or whatever, because I just want to know how you are doing and what’s going on in your life.” We did that all the time. I did that with all the boys. There was something about just saying, “How are you doing?” It was pretty incredible. My heart felt—here is what I felt like—“Now, I see you again.”
Ann: I would even end that time with: “You know what? This is why you need to do this when you get married”—
Heather: That’s good.
Ann: —“because your wife is going to need that time for you to look at her, and her to look at you, and to say, ‘How are you doing?’”
Dave: Yes; I’m listening to you two moms. I’m appreciating what you needed with your kids and what they want to connect with you; but I was listening, as a husband, going, “I think you need Wife-y Time, too,” which is go out with your husband and do the same thing.
Heather: I mention that in one of the chapters.
Ann: “I can give you ten minutes.” [Laughter]
Heather: These connection points that we—after we had a “Come-to-Jesus” [moment]—because you have the little kids; and you start playing man-to-man defense. It’s all about the kids, and you’re not getting time together.
Heather: We realized, after we get the kids to bed, we need to meet on the couch. Then, before they go off to school and he goes off to work, we meet in the kitchen. We pray over each other still, just so the boys can see we are making this a priority. We pray for one another. Sometimes, they will join in in the huddle. It’s not this lengthy prayer; I mean it’s, maybe, a couple minutes.
Heather: The biggest marriage gain we’ve seen is, when on Saturday mornings, we started walking the neighborhood. My mom was living with us for a time, so she would be home with the boys. By the time she moved out, the boys were old enough, really, to stay home. If your kids are a certain age, you can just walk right around in the back yard a few times; but that shoulder-to-shoulder walking the neighborhood—not spending any money; it’s not a date night that’s costly or babysitters—our marriage has grown, leaps and bounds, in that time.
I think it helps my husband to know he’s going to get that time; he knows what we’re going to talk about. I feel connected; I feel like he makes it a priority.
Ann: That’s really good.
Ann: I would say, too, to our listeners—
Dave: Oh, you’ve got to add another one. [Laughter]
Ann: No, I was piggybacking on that; because that’s easy to do. Before you leave in the morning—and maybe, you leave at separate times/maybe, you are both working at home—but for your kids just to see you connect a little bit and even kiss. I think it’s good for our kids to see that.
Heather, you have been a gift to us—
Dave: Oh, yes.
Ann: —such a gift, so thank you. I hope that our listeners will both buy your book and listen to your podcast.
Heather: I would love to connect with them. I like connection. [Laughter] Thanks for having me.
Shelby: That’s Dave and Ann Wilson talking with Heather MacFadyen on FamilyLife Today. You can get a copy of Heather’s book, Don’t Mom Alone, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can give us a call at 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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