Mom Guilt: What It Is, Why It Happens, and How To Deal

By Published On: July 19th, 2023

This agonizing and all-to-familiar feeling is rooted in unrealistic expectations.

Medical Expert: Sarah Oreck, MD, MS

It started almost as soon as I learned I was pregnant with my first daughter. I was incredibly sick during the first trimester, to the point where even water would make me feel nauseous. I was constantly dehydrated and living on any food I could manage to keep down—which was nowhere near the balanced diet I knew I should maintain for my growing baby’s health. Despite the fact that she was developing right on schedule and my doctors had no concerns, I felt I would be responsible if anything went wrong.

As caregivers, we put so much pressure on ourselves to get things right and to live up to expectations that are, quite frankly, impossible to meet, and then we drown ourselves in guilt when we inevitably fall short in some way. Work outside the home? Feel guilty for sending your little one to daycare for eight hours a day. Stay-at-home mom? Feel guilty when you need a break or occasionally lack a sense of fulfillment. Taking some time for self-care? Feel guilty for leaving your partner to deal with the kids crying and screaming. Want to splurge on a non-essential purchase? Feel guilty because that money could go toward your child’s diapers, ear tube surgery, or dance classes. The guilt is constant. And it’s exhausting.

So, what are parents supposed to do when they’re experiencing “mom guilt”? Sarah Oreck, MD, MS, a reproductive psychiatrist working in Brentwood, California, and panel member at Perelel, says, “It’s important to hold the [self] judgment and just notice that you’re feeling [the mom guilt]. It’s not permanent, and it will pass.” This advice is solid for most of us, but it’s also much easier said than done. We asked Dr. Oreck to share some in-depth insights about mom guilt to help us better understand what it’s truly about because when you’re able to identify why you’re experiencing these feelings, it’s much easier to put her advice into practice.

What Is Mom Guilt?

Most of us are well aware of how mom guilt makes us feel—whether it’s anxious, sick to your stomach, or like you’re on the verge of tears—but what is this phenomenon, exactly?

“Mom guilt is a feeling of inadequacy and shame that mothers experience when they feel like they’re not doing a good enough job raising their children,” says Dr. Oreck. “It stems from unrealistic expectations about what motherhood ‘should’ look like, as well as ideas about motherhood and martyrdom.”

For me, mom guilt comes from feeling like I’m not good enough or I’m not measuring up to what I am supposed to be doing as a parent. From there, it often evolves from guilt to sadness to overwhelm to anger to defeat and comparison. Why aren’t I as patient as other parents? Why do I seem to be having a more difficult time than everyone else? Why don’t I have as much energy as other full-time working parents do at the end of the day?

“Mom guilt feels a lot like all the different comparisons we make to other parents, like on social media,” explains Dr. Oreck, adding, “or just feeling pulled in different directions—like when we are attending to work or self-care instead of our children.”

Basically, all of us experiencing mom guilt are suffering from feeling like we’re failing in some way and that our children, our jobs, our relationships, or our well-being will be negatively affected by our shortcomings.

What Causes Mom Guilt?

The Cleveland Clinic explains it well: “Guilt is part of what encourages us to play by the rules.” We feel guilty as parents because we feel like we’re breaking the rules. But what are the rules of parenthood, exactly? On a basic level, the rules are simply to keep your children safe, fed, and clothed and to raise them to become upstanding citizens of society. Of course, we all know those aren’t really the rules.

First, look at how history influences mothering today: Modern moms are expected to provide their families with what mothers from previous generations provided. She is expected to bond with her baby immediately; she doesn’t work outside the home and does all the cleaning, laundry, and grocery shopping. While being the perfect homemaker and wife, she always manages to look put together, she never misses a PTA meeting, and she always has a hot and nutritious dinner on the perfectly set dining room table by the time her husband comes home from the office, all with a smile on her face and her hair perfectly quaffed.

Now, add in women’s equality and the subsequent “girls can do anything boys can do” mantra we were all raised with, and so many of us chose to pursue careers outside the home. But during this societal shift that hyped up working moms, no one stepped in to take on the “wife responsibilities” of our grandparents’ or even our parents’ generations, and it didn’t change the fact that mothers are still often the default parent. So as we try—and fail—to keep up with impossible demands, we feel guilty that we can’t do it all. And if a mother decides to stay home with her kids instead of pursuing a career, she may feel guilt or shame because she should, or could, “have it all” but failed to meet those expectations.

From there, throw in a few social media “momfluencers” proclaiming themselves as parenting experts and spewing conflicting advice across our feeds on everything from how to expand your picky eater’s palate to gentle parenting techniques to Montessori-inspired play to how to keep your wardrobe fresh—even though you barely have time to take a shower let alone put together a whole outfit. While each piece of advice is perfectly reasonable to seek out as a parent, we’re constantly consuming it because we have to “like” and “follow” content creators in order to keep the information coming. Of course, in reality, most of these influencers are no more experts than you or I are.

Dr. Oreck says mom guilt is often “rooted in perfectionism” and that “social media really turns up the volume.” In a video series for Perelel, Dr. Oreck discusses “how much higher the rates of distress among mothers can be based on social media engagement” and that she “empowers moms suffering with mom guilt to mute people [on social media] in order to have better clarity in trusting themselves.”

But the frustrating part is that even if we were to unfollow every “momfluencer” on our feeds, we’d still be bombarded with highlight-reel photos of our friends and their families, leaving us to feel less than (even though we know better). We are constantly told what we should be doing as parents, which makes it difficult to celebrate the wins instead of dwelling on the ways we come up short.

What Are the Best Ways to Deal With Mom Guilt?

Since mom guilt shows no sign of disappearing from our culture anytime soon, we need to find ways to combat and cope with it. Some of  Dr. Oreck’s suggestions include:

  • Recognize and name what mom guilt feels like for you so that you can recognize it when it’s happening.
  • Focus on your own path to parenthood and what works for you and your family, not necessarily what others are doing.
  • Acknowledge the wins and what is going well for you when it comes to parenting.
  • Whenever possible, take a break when you need it to relax and recharge.
  • Ask for support and talk to your friends and family about what you’re feeling and experiencing.

Of course, she also notes, “If your feelings of guilt are interfering with your ability to parent or to enjoy your life, you are feeling overwhelmed or hopeless, you have thoughts of harming yourself, or that life isn’t worth living, or you have a history of mental health problems, a therapist can help you to understand the root of your guilt and to develop healthy coping mechanisms. They can also provide you with support and guidance as you work to overcome your guilt.”

It’s helpful to remember that most people who hold moms to impossibly high standards also have absolutely no stake in our success as parents. They don’t know us, our families, our children, or our daily lives—so we have to stop giving them the power to influence us to the point of guilt. We are not our grandparents, our own mothers, or the beautifully filtered women in the immaculate kitchens on our Instagram feeds, so we need to stop trying to live like them. We can only do so much, and it’s due time we stop striving for perfection and start finding satisfaction in reasonable and realistic expectations.