What does 'assuage' mean, and how can we apply it to our mama guilt?

It's a strange word, and a fairly uncommon one. Pippa Henderson ponders its meaning, and its place in a mother's world.

I’ve always found it fun to capture a word and fully consider it, to roll it off my tongue, over and over again, until I can taste it on my lips, feel the weight of its syllables. Familiar words, I find, disintegrate in the process – as I repeat them they become foreign, lose their meaning. New words, however, seem to settle in the process. As I speak them they journey through the labyrinth of my mind and settle amongst friends – rhyming words and synonyms – and soon I feel ready to attempt to place the word in a sentence.

Today the word is assuage. Assuage. Assuage. Assuage…

I would have mistakenly rhymed it with large, had I not been corrected. But it’s gentler than that, and not as posh. Said correctly, assuage has a sway in the middle: Assuage.

Google the meaning and you’ll learn assuage is a verb, and a beautiful one:

1. make (an unpleasant feeling) less intense

"the letter assuaged the fears of most members"

2. satisfy (an appetite or desire)

"an opportunity occurred to assuage her desire for knowledge"

Assuage is a verb, an action word, and oh how I’m in need of its activity, especially if I was to insert guilt into the brackets as the unpleasant feeling. And in this, I’m not alone. From the conversations I’ve had with other mothers it's fair to assume that mama guilt has been all too present, and ‘assuage’ has been far too inactive in hearts and minds in folks across the board. We all seem to be too quick to criticise our personal parenting ‘performance’, and at a loss to know how to file the sharp edges off the self-blame and condemnation that ensues.

So how do we get this assuage word active again? How do we quieten those negative thoughts and feelings that we’ve fallen desperately short? Let’s ease into some solutions with the simple joy of reading the list of synonyms for assuage. Google has obviously shepherded this wonderful flock of words together, and I found them strangely therapeutic:

relieve, ease, alleviate, soothe, mitigate, dampen, allay, calm, palliate, abate, lull, temper, suppress, smother, stifle, subdue, tranquillize, mollify, moderate, modify, tone down, attenuate, dilute, lessen, diminish, decrease, reduce, lower…

Great isn’t it? Now, a few more practical ways to keep that tenacious mama guilt under control:

1. Apologise

Guilt is a normal emotion experienced when we’ve failed to do our best. If it’s left undealt with it can turn to shame, a self-focussed dead-end alley that ultimately damages our self-esteem. But guilt can be a healthy, helpful thing if we let it instigate remorse, which is focussed instead on the ones we’ve let down. Go and make amends with your kids, assuming they’re the ones you’ve failed. Acknowledge your weakness, explain you’re still learning how to parent, and say sorry. It will be a relief to you and a relief to your kids, who’ll be learning the important art of forgiveness in the process. 

2.Principles not priorities

I really felt the frustration in the first few years of parenting, as everything, and everyone, seemed to be a priority. But you set yourself up for failure when everything is at the top of the list, and then guilt ensues. I decided instead to think in terms of general principles. One of the principles was ‘loving my neighbour as I loved myself’, and I learnt that I had nothing to give my neighbour if I hadn’t looked after myself. Another principle was honouring our marriage, as the foundation of our family. With that in mind, sometimes the best thing I could do for my children was to get a babysitter and go out on a date with my husband – guilt free!

3. Lower your expectations

Parenting is extremely demanding, especially when children are young. Are you expecting too much from yourself? Take an honest look at your to-do lists and calendar, and don’t commit to obligations you can’t fulfil, both within and outside of the home. We all know how easy it is to agree to things on the spur of the moment, but take a moment to consider. And then let your yes be yes, and your no be no.

4. Stop comparing

“Comparison,” Theodore Roosevelt wisely said, “is the thief of joy.” When you compare yourselves to others you’re inevitably going to fall short, because we all have our own strengths and weaknesses. What’s more, every household functions differently, and personalities and parenting styles vary vastly. Don’t be tempted to compare yourself to a perfect version of yourself you’ve conjured up in your head either. We’re all human, and we’re all learning.

5. Ask for help, physically

If you constantly feel like you’re falling short, it’s quite possible there’s simply too much on your plate. It really does take a village to raise a child. If there isn’t one forthcoming, create one with friends and neighbours. You’ll get by with a little help from your friends…

6. Ask for help, emotionally

Is this mama-guilt mild, or debilitating? Is it a conversation you have with yourself all-too-often, or in the dead of night? If so there may be a deeper root or cause, or unresolved issues from the past. Consider booking in some time with a counsellor, or pastor, or a wise friend you trust and respect.

We all need to take hold of our mama guilt from time to time – define it, discredit it, form some strategies to overcome it, and let it go. And you know the word for that now, so enjoy it. Assuage, assuage, assuage…