I’ll start this off with a confession: As I write this, I am suffering from a severe case of mom guilt. It involves an adorable little boy, a case of (according to him) incapacitating hiccups, and a running-late mommy without a lot of patience. (Cliffs notes: I snapped. He cried. I apologized when we arrived at school—late, of course—but I can’t stop replaying the scene in my head, inserting thousands of ways I could have handled it differently.)
The only thing that makes me feel slightly better is knowing I’m not alone. Mom guilt is an all-too-real thing for most women with children, whether those babies are 10 years or 10 days old. “Guilt is an unavoidable emotion that plagues the spirit of most conscientious moms,” shares Loren Buckner, LCSW, a psychotherapist and author of ParentWise: The Emotional Challenges of Family Life and How To Deal With Them. Its causes can range from a variety of different factors—from a short temper to a particularly peppy neighbor—and while it likely isn’t going to disappear from your life anytime soon, getting to the bottom of your emotions and learning to manage your guilt can make life a little more pleasant for everyone involved.
A mom’s world
Where does all this mom guilt come from? “Raising children is stressful, and not just the physical everyday stuff. As an individual, having children challenges a woman’s definition of herself, psychologically and emotionally,” notes Buckner. “There are so many demands on mothers. When they fall short of their own expectations, they feel guilty.” Here are just a few things we moms tend to guilt trip about.
As with my episode this morning, behaving less-than-gracefully under pressure causes many a mom to feel remorseful. “At the end of the day, I look at my precious sleeping son and think, Why did I yell at him for spilling his animal crackers? But in the heat of the day, all the little things just add up,” says mom of two Tracy Holt-Stippel of Gloucester, Virginia. Everyone has a bad day or moment now and then, but moms often have a harder time forgiving their natural responses when their children end up the bearers of their burdens.
Almost any mom you talk to will agree: There simply aren’t enough hours in the day. As much as we’d like to do nothing more than sit around and bond with our bundles of joy for hours on end, it just isn’t possible. At some point, the dishes must be done and, if you’re a working mom like me, a paycheck must be earned. Other time constraints factor in as well: “I feel guilty about not being able to spend the same amount of time with each of my children,” confesses Nicole Joslin of Quincy, Washington, mother of two. When you’re a busy mom (and what mom isn’t busy?), it’s almost a guarantee that you’ll end the day wondering where all your time went.
“We live in a society that is in constant comparison,” comments Liz Kingsley, a mom of three from Marinette, Wisconsin. “As a mom, I am always measuring myself against other parents.” While every mother is guilty of doing this at some point (particularly when she’s still finding her footing as a parent), keep in mind that even those who appear to be doing everything right probably have some dark secrets. “It’s not a good idea to compare our insides to other people’s outsides,” says Buckner.
And the list goes on …
Other frequently cited reasons for guilt include feelings of inadequacy (I have no idea how to take care of a baby!), errors in judgment (I can’t believe I didn’t call the doctor sooner!), a lack of energy (Is this day over yet?), and uncertain feelings about or toward your baby (Why is he the only kid at playgroup who can’t walk yet?).
The dark side
As you’re well aware, mothering isn’t all fun and games. These ups and downs we experience are perfectly normal. “There are darker emotions that come along with being a parent,” shares Buckner. “Sadness, disappointment, worry, anger, even hatred … these are normal parental emotions, but moms feel guilty for having these feelings. They think that somewhere out there are parents who always feel good about themselves and always adore their children.” Let me let you in on a little secret: Those parents don’t exist.
“The truth is, disturbing feelings are as much a part of family life as the happier times,” Buckner says. Everyone has bad days and bad moments. Since we all want our children to have the best of everything, we tend to beat ourselves up when we don’t do things perfectly. But setting realistic expectations for yourself (and those around you) is key in finding contentment. Buckner shares, “It’s important to keep in mind that feelings—even the painful ones—are not character flaws or signs of weakness; they are signs of life.”
Divide and conquer
Let’s tackle this guilt thing head-on, shall we? “The first thing a mom can do [to conquer guilt] is think more clearly about her emotions,” counsels Buckner. “Is your guilt the normal everyday kind that periodically comes up when you overreact or are running late, and are these feelings you eventually recover from? If so, welcome to parenthood!”
For some moms, though, the guilt might run a bit deeper. “Ask yourself, ‘Why do I feel so guilty?’ And then listen very carefully for an answer, even if it takes some time to find one. If the guilt is because you are actually behaving in a way that you disapprove of, then that guilt has a purpose. It can help you take stock and make meaningful changes,” advises Buckner. In some ways, guilt can be a good thing, since it allows us to objectively evaluate our behavior and find ways to better ourselves.
If your guilt is ongoing and self-punishing though, it might be time to find the root cause and deal with the problem. “For moms who suffer with persisting guilt, it’s often helpful to look back into your own childhood. When guilt permeates our sense of self, it’s important to understand why,” Buckner notes. If you find that you consistently treat yourself harshly or are plagued with continuous self-doubt, do a little soul-searching or set up an appointment with a counselor to help you overcome these emotions. Happy mamas make happy babies, and learning to move past the self-blame will make you a better parent.
The bottom line
As a mom, you’re going to make mistakes—you’re only human! “There’s no such thing as perfect parenting,” says Buckner. “All moms feel overwhelmed, lose their tempers, and say the wrong thing.” What’s important is using those mistakes to help you learn and grow, rather than allowing the guilt to consume you. “While guilt can sometimes seem overwhelming, I think it also helps us become better,” shares Holt-Stippel. As women and mothers, we’re constantly evolving and figuring things out, and assessing our guilt is a great way to spot changes that need to be made in our lives. So the next time mom guilt strikes, give it an honest look to see if you can learn anything from the situation—and if not, let it go. After all, if you don’t, you’ll only end up feeling guilty about it.