How to Cope With Mom Guilt
“I’m a horrible mom!” You’d be hard-pressed to find a mom who hasn’t said this once or twice (or maybe even a thousand times). The reality is that we all face negative thoughts about our parenting skills from time to time—it’s only natural. There’s pressure coming at us from every direction; it’s easy to feel like you’re not living up to expectations (even the glaringly unrealistic ones). Enter mom guilt, that nagging voice in your head that makes you feel inadequate. It’s a pretty universal experience among moms. But what causes this feeling and what can you do about it? Read on to learn how to deal with mom guilt in a healthy and productive way.
Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.
The mom guilt definition is fairly obvious. But it’s more than just a buzz phrase that can be explained, it’s an almost-universal gut emotion felt by moms across the board. It’s that pesky feeling of incompetency and unworthiness that can creep up at any moment during motherhood. It can manifest as the need for perfection or the sense that you’re not doing enough for your family. Mom guilt is an inherent part of our protective wiring, explains Prianca Naik, MD, host of the Empowering Working Moms podcast. “In the era of cavemen and hunting and gathering, moms were responsible for keeping their children safe; if they did not, their children could die,” Naik explains. “This neural wiring keeps us wanting to spend every second with our children even when they are safe.” We see our children as our top priority. If we behave otherwise—or put our own needs first—we feel guilty, despite the fact that it’s unwarranted.
Bryana Kappadakunnel, LMFT, a family therapist and CEO of Conscious Mommy, says that mom guilt contributes to unreasonable expectations and maternal dissatisfaction. It can also lead to poor coping strategies like overeating, indulging with alcohol or even doom-scrolling on TikTok. And these seemingly harmless responses can actually exacerbate stress and guilt.
Got a kid? Well, then you’ve got a reason to experience mom guilt. All sorts of big and small things can spark this not-so-great feeling.
Significant events, like returning to work after maternity leave, frequently provoke mom guilt, as do co-parenting struggles, work obligations or having little interest in certain child-rearing activities. All of this is entirely normal. Here are the most common reasons mom guilt may strike:
It can be incredibly daunting to learn how to raise a tiny human, and being a new parent comes with its fair share of expectations and pressure. The fourth trimester is a true roller coaster. Then there’s the added stress of breastfeeding—or choosing not to breastfeed. Valerie Hernandez, LMSW, a social worker and parenting coach, says “mothers are encouraged to pour incredible amounts of energy and worry around whether or not they can produce milk, the amount of milk they produce, choosing to formula-feed or pumping.” All of this while you’re experiencing major hormonal shifts.
If you work outside the home, you may feel guilty about leaving your children with a caregiver and seemingly prioritizing your career over your family. But all parents struggle with negative feelings at some point. Moms who stay home with their children may feel bad for wanting a break. “The work of a mother has historically been undervalued,” says Kappadakunnel. “It hasn’t been seen as the important and significant contribution to society that it is.”
Expectations of perfection
No one is perfect, yet there are so many expectations placed on parents to be the best, or to be “on” at all times. You’re told you must limit your child’s screen time, ensure they’re eating healthy and help them become emotionally secure and socially skilled. The list of weighty tasks is seemingly never-ending, and the goals are lofty to say the least; it’s easy to feel like you’re failing, if you’re not doing it all “right.” (And, spoiler alert, no one is!)
Losing your patience
Most of us lose our cool from time to time, and then we feel bad about it. Raising kids is stressful. On top of that, some of us struggle with mental health, and parenting can compound these challenges.
You’re just not that into it
Naik says that many moms feel guilty when they don’t want to actively play with their children, or if they get bored with the monotony of some activities. But it’s okay if you’re not keen on playing peekaboo at every waking moment. On the flip side, she says that striving to be a perfect parent can lead to overdoing, overscheduling and overstressing.
Stereotypical gender roles
“Moms often carry the emotional energy of the family,” says Kappadakunnel. They’re typically in charge of planning and organizing the home. “When moms believe they’re not living up to the societal pressures, duties and responsibilities—that are often unreasonable and imbalanced—mom guilt arises.”
Kappadakunnel adds that moms often feel to blame when there are problems. “Not only do they feel they’ve caused the problem, but they also feel it is their sole responsibility to fix it. Most moms I know carry this burden privately—or what we call the invisible mental load.”
Suffice it to say, moms get the brunt of the load. There’s a reason it’s not commonly referred to as “dad guilt” or “parental guilt.” Naik adds that moms are often the default parent. Additionally, those who had moms who were more present and involved during their childhoods had their idea of parenting shaped by this model.
Of course, this isn’t true of all families. Many dads are excellent partners and dedicated to their children. However, Kappadakunnel says that in her 11 years of clinical practice, she has yet to see a father talk about how they feel guilty over how they show up for their family. “Mothers report feeling bad for yelling at their kids; fathers often ask how to get their kids to listen without reflecting on how they feel about their own behavior,” she adds.
Mom guilt will happen—and you probably won’t be able to stop it entirely. That said, there are ways to reframe the negativity and retrain your reaction to this feeling.
Make yourself a priority
Take care of yourself, and show yourself grace and kindness. “Self-compassion and gentleness are two alternatives to guilt that will truly shift your perspective dramatically,” says Kappadakunnel.
Find your people
Connect with other moms in your area through community and school resources. Attend local events in person or online. Get support and share your experiences with others who are in a similar parenting season as you.
Increase your self-awareness
Your feelings are always valid. Hernandez suggests identifying your needs and considering how to meet those needs, including asking for help. In addition, recognize when your thoughts are beginning to spiral downward, and try to catch yourself before you get to the bottom. Reframe negative thoughts—so for example, instead of saying, “Work is so stressful, I barely have a moment for my child,” start time-blocking your work and your family time.
Talk with your partner
Open communication is key to any successful relationship, especially those involving kids. Healthy relationships are built on compromise and teamwork. Kappadakunnel suggests discussing family responsibilities and tasks associated with each. Assign duties and commit to following through without needing reminders.
Be mindful of social media
Unfollow or mute accounts that portray a picture-perfect family. Be intentional about your scrolling, and curate your feed with realistic displays of life as a mom. It’s okay to delete the apps too. Remember, there’s more to life than what’s online.
Set realistic expectations
Stop putting so much pressure on yourself. There’s no prize for the most creative Elf on a Shelf location. Being an average parent is highly underrated. “Chicken nuggets are still chicken,” says Kappadakunnel. Instead of striving for perfection, think about what’s important. Keep your children safe, fed, healthy and loved.
Focus on parenting
Whether you work outside of the home or not, remind yourself of why you’re doing it. You love your children, and want to build a good family life for them. Naik suggests creating special moments with your children, and try your best to be present for transitions. When you reconnect at the end of the day, ask specific and thoughtful questions. Moreover, limit your own screen time. Spending quality time with them allows you to connect, and this may ease your mom guilt.
Get help from a professional
If you start to experience consistent negative and intrusive thoughts or guilt that keep you from doing things you typically enjoy, seek counseling. “Things don’t have to get unbearable before you can ask for help. The existence of mom guilt at all is enough,” says Hernandez.
Mom guilt is part of the gig. Just remember: Your little one doesn’t care if you cut their sandwiches into cute dinosaur shapes, or if you don’t buy that stylish $50 onesie you saw on Instagram. They just want a happy parent that loves them unconditionally. And you’ve already got that second part covered.
Valerie Hernandez, LMSW, is a social worker, therapist and parenting coach.
Prianca Naik, MD, is a clinical physician, professional coach and the host of the Empowering Working Moms: Real Talk with Dr. Prianca Naik podcast. She earned her medical degree from Tulane University School of Medicine.
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