Why Mom (or Dad) Guilt Is a Thing — and What You Can Do to Stop Beating Yourself Up
As I write this very moment, my kids are watching “Peppa Pig” during their 10th day of coronavirus quarantine.
My neighbors are teaching homeschool lessons with puffy paint, sidewalk chalk, manipulatives, and sight words. Social media is flooded with a million educational lessons, healthy breakfast ideas, and other #momgoals posts.
But we are in survival mode, as we’ve been many times through my three sons’ five years of life.
This means some things fall to the wayside: Screen time isn’t really on a limit right now, they’re eating more Eggos than vegetables, and my 19-month-old is entertaining himself with — drumroll, please — a pack of baby wipes.
Mom guilt now, more than ever, is going strong, but it doesn’t have to be.
Related: Keeping your kids busy when you’re stuck at home
What is mom guilt?
Whether you’ve never heard of mom guilt or can’t escape its relentless grip, it simply means that pervasive feeling of not doing enough as a parent, not doing things right, or making decisions that may “mess up” your kids in the long run.
Mom (or dad) guilt may be temporary, like how I feel about my kids watching too much Peppa this week. Or it may be longer term, like whether we’ve enrolled them in enough activities over the past few years.
Some moms feel a dread or a weight on their shoulders (or chest, soul, etc.), and some feel panicky — like they need to fix the problem right now. Mom guilt is the shoulds, the supposed to’s, and the other moms are… clanking around in your head as you try to make it through the day.
Mom guilt has many origins, from personal insecurities to outside pressures from family, friends, social media, and other sources.
A quick scroll through Instagram will show hundreds of posts of what other moms seem to be doing so well, from educational activities to perfectly groomed toddlers posing sweetly. (Remember: Little do we know whether they were having a full-blown tantrum just seconds before or after that shot.)
Even formal recommendations, such as those from doctors and organizations, can create feelings of inadequacy.
Limit screen time, but show educational apps.
Let the kids get tons of exercise outside, but also keep a spotless house.
Take care of yourself, but not at the expense of getting on the floor with your kids to play.
The contradictions and expectations are limitless.
While both moms and dads can experience the characteristics of what’s come to be known as mom guilt, there may be some differences.
For example, based on one 2016 study of 255 parents, working moms may feel more guilt associated with work interfering with family than working dads do. Of course, each family’s experiences are unique.
Please take a quick 1 question survey
Your answers will help us improve our experience. You’re the best!
What can all this internalized guilt lead to?
There is a tiny dose of mom guilt that can be productive. If your child really is eating total junk all day every day, and you start to feel that little inkling or gut feeling, that it may not be the best choice, that can be something to pay attention to.
But when mom guilt starts to inform your decision that you previously thought to be correct — based on what’s right for your own child and family — it becomes harmful.
For example, say a working mom makes the decision to formula feed her infant from the get-go for a variety of personal — and valid — reasons. Then a well-meaning friend makes a social media post about the profound connection she has with her breastfeeding baby, complete with the extensive medical and emotional benefits of breastfeeding (and maybe a “brelfie,” or breastfeeding selfie).
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with sharing these types of personal triumphs, and the friend in this example isn’t trying to shame anyone.
But if the working mom is already just trying to do the best she can, and has some sadness to begin with about her decision to formula feed, posts like these can feel like an attack targeted specifically to her.
When these feelings pop up, it’s possible that mom guilt is becoming a more all-encompassing issue in your life that needs to be addressed.
Take care of you so you can take care of them
Sometimes mom guilt is so pervasive that it inhibits your ability to parent, or function. If you feel your mom guilt is creating high levels of anxiety, it’s worth bringing up to your doctor, as it may indicate a more serious mental health condition such as postpartum anxiety or depression.
For many moms, it’s a matter of stopping the subconscious comparisons and regaining confidence in your own decisions for your family.
Get Answers from a Doctor in Minutes, Anytime
Have medical questions? Connect with a board-certified, experienced doctor online or by phone. Pediatricians and other specialists available 24/7.
Overcoming mom guilt
Identify the sources of guilt
Dive into the true reasons you have guilt, and they may stem way back to your own childhood. The severity of your mom guilt can depend on any of the following:
if you’re trying to improve on a parenting strategy that you feel your parents didn’t do very well
if you’re parenting with obsessive-compulsive disorder or other mental health conditions
if you’ve had past trauma
Try journaling or making a quick note in your phone when you feel pangs of mom guilt, and over time themes may emerge.
Maybe, for example, you realize most of the guilt comes from involvement in activities: You feel it most when other parents talk about their kids’ adventures. Or perhaps most of it stems from feeding choices, or your child’s relationship to school and learning.
Once you can identify the areas causing the feeling, it’s easier to watch for these triggers. It’s also a great first step to make a simple change in the right direction rather than a complete lifestyle overhaul.
Know your truth
Having identified your past triggers and upbringing, you can move on to finding your personal truth as a mom or dad.
Some families make a mission statement. Others just inherently know their core values. Either way, it’s essential to use this statement as a measuring stick against which you can make decisions.
If it’s most crucial at certain times that your kids have fun, it’s may not be as important how much time they spend watching a great movie or having free play. If you value sleep and wellness the most, maybe you limit that TV time to ensure bedtime is at 8 p.m. Whatever you value, naming it and sticking to it will minimize mom guilt.
Spring clean your trusted circle
Are you surrounded with mostly like-minded people who appreciate your values? If you’re not, reevaluate your decision-making process to ensure you’re listening to valued sources of information.
If your know-it-all neighbor has advice on everything and leaves you feeling unsure about your own decisions, she may not be the best source to confide in.
Narrowing the group of people with whom you discuss important decisions can help reduce unsolicited input: Keep this group to your partner, a trusted family member, your pediatrician, and a judgment-free, trusted friend or small group of friends. If none of these people meet this description, it’s time to find an amazing therapist.
Listen to your children and your intuition
Mother’s intuition is not a myth, but rather a strong source of wisdom and decision-making power that we, and women through the ages, have used to keep our babies safe and healthy.
I notice it when I can tell if my 1-year-old is crying because he’s fussy or because his leg is actually stuck (intentionally) through the crib slats again. That discerning voice in my head is one that I’ve been working to hear, listen to, and trust to become a better parent.
Children are excellent sources of information on whether your decisions are working, and what areas you should and shouldn’t feel guilty about. If you have a child constantly begging you to make a puzzle with them while you’re working, you don’t need to feel guilty for working, but may need to schedule a playtime later that’s all about them.
Guard your truth against invaders
There will be invaders. It sounds dramatic, but it’s realistic to expect others to push against your beliefs and decisions.
Don’t be surprised when someone challenges your choice. Instead of second-guessing it, move away from defense and towards the expectation that it’s healthy and OK to disagree.
Even as a formerly breastfeeding mom, I got pushback on why I’d still be trying to do that when my baby was over a year old. The comments came, as I knew they would, but by the third child, they didn’t impact my choices — or emotions.
You can also guard your decisions by avoiding situations in which they’re constantly criticized. If your dear Aunt Sally can’t stop commenting on why your 4-year-old is in dance class (or pull ups) it may be time to briskly, but sweetly, say that it’s really not up to her, and that he’s enjoying himself.
Encourage your tribe
Where does mom guilt come from? Other moms. Don’t be that mom at the park needing to convince someone that pacifiers are the devil if you’re nursing (pssst… they’re not), or that a child raised on a daily diet of gluten-free, dairy-free kale salads has more focus than one who occasionally has ice cream and Doritos.
Take care when you yourself are making social media posts that could seem like bragging or pushing an agenda on other moms. We can dissolve mom guilt by not spreading it, and instead encourage each other to follow our own mom hearts. (At the same time, if you have a proud mom moment to share, share away.)
We may get to the end of motherhood and realize we missed so many sweet moments worrying about what we aren’t doing right. We may regret not listening to other women and supporters telling us we were doing a great job.
Most importantly, we may see how amazing our kids actually turned out and realize that the guilt didn’t contribute a single ounce to that person we raised, but rather just inhibited our ability to enjoy the process.
So love your kids — on your terms, in the amazing way we know you are — and don’t let what others are doing (or saying) put out your parenting fire.