The Scrupulous Mother: Symptoms and Suggestions

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Do you obsessively worry about your parenting prowess? Do you constantly second-guess your decisions? Do you envy others in their “chill” approach to parenting? Do you wish you weren’t plagued by so many doubts and compulsive attempts to be the perfect parent?

If so, you might be experiencing scrupulosity. Welcome to the club!

What is a scruple? St. Alphonsus Liguori explains in his book Moral Theology that a conscience is scrupulous when, for a frivolous reason and without rational basis, there is a frequent fear of sin even though in reality there is no sin at all.

A scruple is a defective understanding of something. A scruple is when you look at your actions and think:

“That’s sinful. Was I sinful in doing that? Should I confess it? I think it must be mortal sin! What would Dr. Guru do? Or the other Dr. Guru? Maybe I should sign Junior up for Underwater Ballet lessons—that would make everything better…”

…whereas other people think:

“That’s not a sin! You’re exaggerating its significance! It’s morally neutral! You’re doing the best you can, honey! Let up on yourself! Your kid is going to be fine. Bless your heart, but you need to look up the definition of mortal sin again.”

Photo via Shutterstock, standard license.

Photo via Shutterstock, standard license.

We scrupulous people are overly sensitive about the minutiae of both religious practice and a broad spectrum of issues that are not explicitly religious, such as parenting. Scrupulous people tend to blow minor, everyday occurrences way out of proportion. We also often do not find reassurance through normal means, such as the Sacraments. It’s as though a veneer of guilt overlays our every thought, word, and action.

Sometimes scruples occur as a byproduct of a conversion experience or a when we experience something that makes us more deeply aware of our faith. Becoming a parent would be one of these experiences.

At other times, people experience scruples when they are part of a faith community or social group where a strong message of fear and perfectionism is conveyed, consciously or not.

And sometimes, in more extreme cases, scrupulosity is a manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Those whose experience of life is one of constant worry, doubt, and fear very often have an underlying mental health issue and should seek professional help.

Given how near and dear our mothering vocation is to us, it’s not surprising that we might experience scruples about our parenting. That we’re too often afraid of messing up our children, that we obsess about being a perfect mother, that we rarely feel peace in our parenting—these are signs of scrupulosity.

Symptoms might include:

  • Obsessive worry that something wasn’t done right: for example, checking and rechecking (and rechecking) to make sure your kids are buckled into their car seats, or having your child go through his homework multiple times to make sure every answer is correct.
  • Obsessive worry about cleanliness. This could include compulsive cleaning, compulsive hand washing, or unnecessarily keeping your kids home from school or playdates when there’s a slight risk of them catching an illness.
  • Obsessive slowness: taking an excessive amount of time for routine tasks because of worry that they’re not done correctly. You might do this when preparing meals, cleaning house, fixing your child’s hair, etc.
  • Obsessive worry about sinning and/or “messing up” through acts of commission or omission. Related behaviors could include compulsive apologizing to your spouse or children for minor peccadilloes, apologizing to a child for punishing her (even when justified), or feeling guilty that you’ve neglected a child due to day-to-day distractions and then trying to make up for this seeming neglect by hovering.
  • Obsessive rumination: when worries, guilt, doubt, and horrible thoughts roll over and over in your mind.
  • Obstinacy of judgment and/or frequent changes in judgment for frivolous reasons. With regards parenting, sometimes we see obstinacy of judgment when, despite others’ advice and warning, we hold to some parenting ideal or method even though it’s causing harm to the child.  Waffling, on the other hand, can happen when we seek parenting advice from anyone and everyone and then cannot make a decision because we’re afraid or overwhelmed by the sheer number of options.

Remedies for these behaviors, following St. Alphonsus Liguori’s advice:

    • Get help. Scruples are a sign that you’re not seeing things clearly. You need someone outside your head and situation to help you make solid parenting decisions and have peace in them, whether or not they are the “perfect” decision. See your parenting scruples as an opportunity to grow in humility and seek help from spiritual directors, regular confessors, and mental health professionals.
    • Avoid reading books that provoke scruples. If you were St. Alphonsus Liguori’s spiritual directee, he’d give you this directive right off the bat. Feel free to read humor books and books that encourage you, but avoid any and all Parent My Way Or Else manifestos like you would the plague.
    • Avoid the company of other scrupulous or perfectionistic people; seek out friends with a positive view of parenting. This directive is difficult to follow because it may mean stepping away from friendships, church groups, or online communities. But when you’re a person who struggles with scruples, you need friends who can encourage you—not friends who make you feel even more doubtful about yourself and your parenting.
    • Keep your examination of conscience short.
    • Fill your head with good things. It’s important to avoid idleness of mind in order to not give way to worthless fears. Personally, I find certain chores—washing dishes, weeding—to be times when my thoughts can turn to pot. (The AA folks call this “stinkin’ thinkin’.”) The more I fill my head ahead of time with good things to think about, the less my thoughts wander into the danger zone. I suggest cultivating your talents and interests: if you like history, for example, read a new book or listen to a podcast.
    • Recommend yourself to the Mother of God. Now, don’t try to “be” as “perfect” a mother as Mary was—we can’t white-knuckle ourselves into parenting perfection, and Mary’s example shouldn’t inspire us to feelings of inadequacy and self-hatred. Rather, allow Mary to love you in your mothering. Maybe imagine with her arm around you, giving you an encouraging hug as you attend to laundry or diaper changing. Try to see her not as a judge of your parenting but as a compassionate friend.
  • Cultivate trust in God “vehemently.” St. Alphonsus says this is the most important thing to do in this situation. Meditate frequently on God’s love and promise of redemption (my Scripture for the Scrupulous guided meditations are one resource) and entrust yourself to God through the person of your spiritual director.
  • Remember that gentleness is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (cf. Galatians 5:22-23). Learning to be gentle with yourself as well as others is a virtue. Leaning entirely on God’s mercy is what makes us holy, not our perfect performance and unreasonable expectations. Let us be gentle with ourselves as He is gentle with us.

God loves you and believes in you. He believes in you so much, in fact, that he gave you children! He knows we can’t do everything perfectly. He knows we’ll make mistakes. He knows our limits better than we do ourselves. This is where grace comes in—God can write straight with crooked lines, right?

Be at peace. He’s in charge, loving our children (and us) beyond our imagining.

Copyright 2016 Rhonda Ortiz

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About Author

Rhonda Ortiz writes on topics of faith, culture, and family across the web. She also writes Scripture for the Scrupulous, a weekly newsletter providing guided meditations for battling the "pious problems" of scruples, perfectionism, and anxiety in the spiritual life. Follow her work at www.rhondaortiz.com.

10 Comments

  1. Hi Rhonda! I really needed to read this, in fact I need to print this out. My dearest friend and mentor just pointed out to me recently, that she believes I have some scrupulosity! I was stunned, as I believed that was for people who are always questioning their relationship with their Faith and practice of the Sacraments.
    I am VERY scrupulous about my relationships!! I never realized that before. I really struggled with my oldest child, and still feel lots of guilt, over and over at my mistakes trying to raise him.
    I really do obsess over my relationships, worrying about saying the right things, not causing accidental harm, especially with my Grandchildren, and trying not to accidentally get in the way of my Children’s parenting their Kids.
    My parents were not nice people, and I could never be good enough for them. Now that I realize that, I can give it up to God, and ask Him to help me to live in the present moment, and take each day a little at a time. Start each day with a clean slate.
    Thankyou so much for this. God bless you.

    • Claire, I am SO glad that you found this helpful! And I’ll be praying for you—it’s so hard to find peace when battling scruples, no matter what kind they are. But God is good! 🙂 Prayers!

  2. This is definitely a keeper. While certain aspects of scrupulosity are advantages in my line of work and in caring for my child with diabetes, they’re NOT advantages in other aspects of family life–or life in general. Thank you for the encouragement and the helpful suggestions!

    • I agree, Barb. There’s a difference between being prudent and careful and letting fear govern our lives. Ultimately, scrupulosity is what one psychologist called “the doubting disease”—an indication of anxiety. It’s a hard balance to find, especially when we *do* have situations where we have to be vigilant, as you do.

  3. Thankyou for your prayers, Rhonda. Weekly Adoration and daily Mass are tremendously helpful. Plus I am greatly comforted by the Divine Mercy Diary of St. Faustina. It’s impossible not to feel greatly loved by God reading and meditating on that book, and remembering His loving gift of Himself in the Holy Eucharist. What joy!! And those radiate through is then through our relationships. What Grace!! Thanks again. O

  4. Maribel Nova on

    Thank you, Rhonda for the practical suggestions and helpful summary of such a common trap for us mamas! Ever since my childhood I have heard references to the “worry gene” that apparently runs in my mother’s family. As a mother of four young children, I definitely fall victim to moments of overwhelming myself with parenting advice and doubting my own maternal heart when making decisions. I love your quote about allowing Mary to love me in my mothering. Sometimes, in the midst of turmoil about a decision, I just sit with Mary and ask her for a mother’s “hug.” Your message of trusting Jesus is also so helpful. When worries large or small sprout in my mind, I repeat the prayer, “Jesus, I trust in you” for as long as necessary to calm the storm of worry.

    • “Jesus, I trust in you” – what a wonderful prayer for this Year of Mercy, right? And welcoming that mercy into our parenting—what a great application. Thank you for sharing, Maribel.

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