During the Q&A after a recent workshop, a participant asked me how she might get over “mom guilt.”
Before I could answer, a memory that had haunted me appeared once again: I was holding a bag of groceries I had just picked up with my younger daughter while waiting for my older daughter to be dismissed from preschool. A grandmother also awaiting dismissal saw a baguette sticking out of the bag, then looked down at my younger daughter gnawing on a piece of the baguette in her stroller. She approached me and asked accusingly, “Why are you letting her eat white bread? Don’t you know that’s like feeding her paste?”
“She likes it. It’s fresh. It’s still warm… .” The reasons I nervously offered seemed to only enrage her further. She proceeded to lecture me on the ills of white bread, adding, “Why would you let your child consume something with no nutritional value?”
To this day, I hear “paste” and “no nutritional value” nearly every time I eat a sandwich, reach for warm rolls at a restaurant, or spread cream cheese on my sesame bagels.
Where Mom Guilt Originates
This is where it begins: most mothers’ guilt about their parenting starts when others—friends, family, strangers, other moms, or society as a whole—warn them that they could be responsible for “ruining” their children’s lives.
Jacqueline Kennedy once famously observed, “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do well matters very much.”
Moms already know that being a parent is an enormously important responsibility. Most conscientious mothers are already worried about doing right by their children. Most are already self-critical. It doesn’t help when everyone else is critical.
Yet people seem to think it’s okay to tell mothers—less so fathers—what they should and shouldn’t be doing. Moms are held to a higher degree of scrutiny.
Think about it: very few would walk into a stranger’s workplace criticize and offer unsolicited advice, let alone start a conversation by announcing what the other person is doing wrong.
Yet so many people believe it’s acceptable to tell a mother how to do her job. Mothers are fair game. And, thus, there are few safe havens for moms. Even their own minds can be minefields of unhappy memories with which they punish themselves.
Five Steps to Get Over Mom Guilt
So if mom guilt is so ingrained in our society, how do you get over it? Be gentle to yourself.
Here are five steps:
First, know the difference between healthy and unhealthy guilt.
Guilt is a natural (and useful) response alerting you that you may have done or be doing something wrong. It can serve as a moral compass and help us learn to do the better next time–similar to feelings of regret.
Guilt becomes problematic when you question everything, rethink all of your choices, or feel that you’re never doing enough. Then, this isn’t guilt but entering into the zones of shame or self-flagellation.
In other words, instead of feeling pangs of guilt now and then as alarm bells, if you’re feeling chronic “guilt,” the emotion is no longer
Instead, ask yourself, “Am I truly doing something wrong?”
- If you’ve made a mistake, take one small step to do something about it. If you can’t do something right away, make a plan to do something as soon as you can. It helps to write down what you’ve done or what you plan to do.
- If you haven’t done something wrong, notice how you might be setting unreasonable expectations for yourself–how you’re expecting yourself to be perfect.
- After doing either of the above, reassure yourself, “I’m doing the best I can” or “I’m handling what I can handle.” Then, let it go. It helps here to distract your mind with an activity or maybe some music.
Second, take charge of your own care.
Parenting is hard and it can be a lonely job. It requires strength and endurance. We need both patience and discipline.
When you’re busy, your priority is to take care of others and hope that someone someday will eventually take care of you.
Instead, take care of yourself first. Not just because it’s a prerequisite to being able to care for others. But, also because no one else can truly know what you need to be able to provide it for you. It’s impossible for others to be aware of what you are feeling and how you’re feeling. Only you can know that.
Specifically, know when your “battery” is low. I tell my clients to think of themselves as a cellphone. Just as you must recharge your phone battery regularly, you need to be aware of when you are low on energy or willpower.
You probably don’t rely on others to recharge your phone; why expect them to know what you need and when you need it?
- If your children are young (say, age 0 to 5), know that caring for them is often physically exhausting. Therefore, you’re likely to need more physical rest.
- If you’re parenting an adolescent, your job is more emotionally draining, so you need to have an outlet for the full range of your emotions. (Research indicates that moms of middle school children are most anxious about their parenting–even more so than new moms!)
- Whatever the age of your children, it’s critical to teach them how to care for themselves by modeling how you care for yourself.
Third, find your safe-havens.
Because our society can be so critical of mothers, you don’t just need some friends, you need an entourage!
Look for a variety of people you can count on so you can seek different kinds of help and encouragement when you need it–a personal board of directors and different friends in different spaces.
Recognize that relationships need to be cultivated and nurtured. Once you find people you like, build trust and intimacy by revealing more of yourself and inviting others to share more with you. It takes time. But, time with good people is always time well spent.
Fourth, engage in stints of activities that provide you with a mini-vacation.
I enjoy knitting, gardening, and watching TV. (My all-time favorite series, in order, are Dae Jang Geum, The Wire, Sports Night, My Mister, and Gilmore Girls.) I also like organizing a messy drawer. I make it a point to meet up or have a phone conversation with a good friend at least once a week. An impromptu Old Fashioned with a good friend is always a treat.
Know what floats your boat, then glide there as often as you can or need to. Several clients of mine find that it helps to have a general scheduling rule, like for every X number of activities you schedule for the kids, schedule 1 for you.
Finally, don’t compare yourself with others.
There are two things I repeat to myself all the time:
You don’t know their story.Rev. Laura Jervis
Suffering is part of being human. You don’t need to know the specific circumstances or details of another mother’s pain. Neither judge nor take pity. All you need to know is that all mothers can use some compassion.
As for me, I continue to feed my children “paste.” We enjoy bread. We have a bread machine! Even though my lockdown sourdough starter went bad, I recently bought some during a trip (had to carry it in my purse until I got home) and use it every week since.
I still think about that harsh scolding I got in front of my daughter’s preschool. I can remember how I often doubted how I was parenting my children. While I can’t know that grandmother’s story, I can assume she was suffering from something and see that she was taking it out on me. And, I reaffirm my commitment to my work.
How will you get over mom guilt?
An older version of this article first appeared in 2016.
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