The biggest surprise I’ve had from motherhood is what a beast mom guilt can be. I had never experienced such a recurring feeling of personal deficiency before, especially from something I put so much heart and energy into.
Practically from the moment I became a mom, mom guilt was there—a voice in my head telling me I wasn’t good enough. Parenting is something that’s hard to prepare for, so perhaps it’s to be expected that we repeatedly question ourselves as moms.
Over time, I’ve learned to fight back against the demon of mom guilt.
It isn’t always easy. There are always new challenges in motherhood—some new failure to beat yourself up over. But every day is a new day, and a new opportunity to work on building up your confidence as a mom.
Let’s take this opportunity to explore mom guilt, how it affects even the best moms, and what you can do about it.
Tips are based on personal experience and should not be considered medical advice.
What Is Mom Guilt?
Guilt is a feeling of worry, shame, or regret that you get when you have either done something wrong or think you’ve done something wrong. Mom guilt refers to feeling down about yourself because you think you’ve made a parenting mistake or haven’t performed well enough as a mother.
Mommy guilt looks like thoughts such as:
- I can’t believe my kids have had so much screen time lately. I’m such a bad mother.
- I shouldn’t have lost my temper with my kid. I’m not fit to be a mother.
- My kids don’t eat enough vegetables. I’m failing as a parent.
- I couldn’t breastfeed my baby exclusively for 12 months so I’m not a good mom.
- My child fell and got hurt. It’s all my fault—I should’ve been there.
- I’m always working and don’t spend enough time with my children. What kind of mother am I?
- Theresa’s family is always doing fun bonding activities. I should be a better mom.
Parenting guilt can affect both moms and dads but tends to affect women more, especially when it comes to working parent guilt. Working mothers experience additional societal pressures that men don’t.
Can Guilt Be Helpful?
Guilt can serve a purpose in that it can help you re-evaluate your behavior, and then make amends or make a change going forward. However, when guilt is fueled by irrational beliefs, it is not helpful and only makes you treat yourself more harshly than you deserve.
Why Does Mom Guilt Happen?
Often, mom guilt occurs when you haven’t done anything wrong. As moms, we have an idea of this perfect mother inside our head. We love our children so much that we set impossible standards for ourselves.
When we don’t live up to our own unrealistic standards, we feel like a failure as a parent. Mom guilt rears its ugly head.
It’s also too easy to compare ourselves to other moms and feel not good enough, especially with pervasive too-perfect images on social media. Sadly, some moms may actually experience being judged by others for their parenting and feel inferior as a result.
And sometimes, we do actually make mistakes as mothers. It’s an exhausting 24/7 job without an instruction manual, so we are bound to mess up at some point. Everyone does! Because we are so invested in making sure our children are healthy and happy, we can feel really bad when we slip up.
Motherhood isn’t just a job. It’s also a big part of our identity. The pressure to perform flawlessly is higher because we connect our success as a mother with our own value.
Raising another human is a huge responsibility. When the stakes are so high, it’s easier to beat yourself up if something doesn’t go right.
As you have probably experienced, there are a lot of big feelings tied up in motherhood. From the first moment you first hold your child in your arms, your heart expands in a way you never thought possible. It’s no wonder that we have such an emotional investment in our performance as mothers.
The more important something is, the larger the opportunity to experience guilt if it doesn’t go as expected. We feel responsible for our children’s lives and their future, so the pressure to succeed as moms can be intense.
Finally, because we care so deeply about our kids, we also believe they are more fragile than they truly are. Kids are more resilient than we give them credit for, so it can feel like any mistakes we make as parents will do irreparable damage.
The postpartum time is an exhausting, bewildering experience with hormone shifts that can cause a maelstrom of emotions, guilt included.
Women experiencing postpartum depression can feel mom guilt quite acutely. For some, it is a major symptom. When their mental health is in such a fragile state, they are more likely to blame themselves and feel they are not worthy to be a mother.
Moms with postpartum depression may feel so numb or down that they have trouble connecting with their new baby. It’s not their fault at all, yet they may attribute this lack of joy or affection to some deficiency as a mother. It’s a cruel trickery of depression.
Depression can also sap motivation and energy, making it harder to do even the simplest of tasks. One mom with postpartum depression described feeling like, “I’ve always wanted to be a mom, so I should be better at this.”
The personal stories of postpartum depression are heartbreaking, but it is possible to start feeling better. If your mom guilt might be connected to postpartum depression, be sure to seek out help from a healthcare professional.
Working Mom Guilt
Working mom guilt is a specific type of mommy guilt experienced by mothers who work a paying job outside of their motherhood duties. Because these mothers either cannot or choose not to stay home and raise their children full-time, they worry that they are less of a mother.
Of course, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Our minds simply trick us into thinking that any time spent away from our child means we are taking something away from them and not providing enough motherly attention.
Working mom guilt happens when our brain equates the amount of time spent with a child to the amount of love given. These feelings can be challenging to overcome, because each working day there are reminders that you are leaving your child and spending time away from them.
Even moms with fulfilling careers can experience working mom guilt. Missing your child when you’re away from them may be tied to regret for choosing to put your energy into something other than motherhood.
Similarly, you may feel shame if you don’t miss your child while you’re at work. Some working moms look forward to their working time, and there is nothing wrong with that!
We’ll talk about ways to fight this specific type of mommy guilt later in the post.
Effects of Mom Guilt
There’s no question that mom guilt doesn’t leave you feeling very good about yourself. Left unchecked, guilty feelings can have negative effects on mental health and physical health.
A constant barrage of negative self-thoughts can lead to chronic stress and effects such as:
Effects on Mental Health
- Reduction in brain chemicals needed for happiness
- Low self-worth
- Perfectionist thinking (never good enough)
- Inability to take any criticism
Effects on Physical Health
- Hormone imbalances
- Immune system damage
Moms who feel like they aren’t doing enough might try to compensate by doing even more, which can lead to burnout.
Some amount of mom guilt from time to time is typical. It can be dealt with by working on personal behaviors, as we’ll discuss. If you’re able to move on with your regular activities, there’s nothing really to worry about.
It’s part of being a mom and caring greatly for your children, though you can learn strategies to manage it.
However, in some cases, intense and persistent feelings of mom guilt could be associated with an anxiety or mood disorder. People with an anxiety disorder worry excessively, more than a situation warrants.
If your mom guilt is severe, constant, or starts to interfere with your relationships and daily life, consider consulting with a professional.
How to Fight Mom Guilt
Mom guilt doesn’t have to make you feel bad all the time. There are ways to fight back against that inner voice that’s telling you you’re not good enough.
To start, repeat after me: There is no such thing as a perfect mom.
Good moms have challenges every day. They lose their temper; they’ve fed their kids cereal for dinner; they’ve lost their child at the store; and they have dirty dishes in the sink. They experience mom guilt just like you.
Everything is not in your control as a mother. It’s a stressful job. But tearing yourself apart for every mistake or unmet standard is not going to improve your life or your child’s. So, let’s review what you can do instead.
Challenge Negative Thoughts
If you start to feel a guilt trip coming on, take a deep breath and prepare yourself to examine why you’re experiencing guilt. Is there any truth to whatever mistake you feel you’ve committed or is it an irrational or exaggerated thought?
If you legitimately messed up, is there something you could do to make it better, like apologize? Or maybe you learned knowledge that you can apply to the situation next time.
However, if you find yourself comparing your performance to some ideal of motherhood, ask yourself if that is reasonable or helpful. A giveaway is a “should” thought, such as, “I should be more like…” or “I should have…”
Another thing to watch out for is “I never…” or “I always…” thinking. Chances are, you’re being harder on yourself than you deserve to be. Try to keep yourself from blowing a perceived fault out of proportion.
We often exaggerate the negative consequences that our parenting might have.
As you come to recognize these types of negative thoughts, you can learn to stop them in their tracks. You might use positive affirmations to shift your thinking.
Treat Yourself Like a Friend
One way to challenge negative self-talk is to speak to yourself how you would speak to a friend. Treat yourself with the kindness, love, and acceptance you deserve.
Think of what a friend would say to you if you shared your mommy guilt feelings. You would be greeted with level-headed understanding. A friend wouldn’t accuse you of being a bad mom. They know how much you love your child.
Similarly, would you hold a mom friend to the expectation you are holding yourself to, or does it seem unreasonable when you look at it that way?
Taking this perspective can help tear down mom guilt.
Name Your Mom Guilt
This one might seem a little strange, but I’ve seen it help with my teenager who has anxiety. If that voice inside your head keeps telling you you’re not a good enough mom, give your pesky inner critic a name.
You’ll learn to recognize when they’re popping up. “Here’s Brenda again telling me I’m not good enough. Shut up, Brenda. I’m not listening to you.”
This method can help you see negative self-thoughts for what they are—annoying and rubbish. It makes light of the ridiculous nature of this type of thinking and gives you power over it.
There are bound to be times when you legitimately screw up as a parent. Everyone does. You forgot your kid’s recital or you lost control and yelled at your child.
Mistakes don’t make you a bad mother, as much as mom guilt would like you to think so. You must learn to make amends and then forgive yourself so you can move on. Torturing yourself with negative thinking after you’ve recognized your error will only bring further harm.
Forgiveness is powerful and has been shown to improve hurt feelings and self-esteem. It has even helped with physical symptoms of stress such as pain, blood pressure, and gastrointestinal upset.
Forgiving yourself can be even harder than forgiving others sometimes, but it can be learned and gets easier with practice.
Comparing yourself to other moms and to idyllic standards of motherhood only sets yourself up for feelings of shame and disappointment. All moms have different situations and challenges that you don’t always get to see. Even the moms who appear perfect could be completely different behind closed doors.
Why not focus on being the best mom you can be and forget trying to be someone else?
You might take a break from social media for a while if it’s messing with your head, or at least look closely at who you follow. Find your mom tribe in real life of messy, imperfect moms who are just like the rest of us.
Avoid Judgmental People
Surround yourself with people who support you and distance yourself from those who make you feel bad. Sometimes this is easier said than done, as sadly, moms may have toxic family members that love to make judgmental comments disguised as helpful advice.
You’re an adult and you get to choose where you spend your time. So, limit your interactions with people who only amplify your mom guilt. Those people aren’t good for you or your family.
The people in your life should lift you up and not tear you down.
Celebrate Your Accomplishments
Unfortunately, negative thoughts tend to be stickier than positive thoughts. Try to even the score by having frequent positive thoughts. Think back over the things you accomplished as a mom each day.
Take notice of your motherhood achievements, no matter how small. Sometimes it’s the little moments that make the biggest difference to a child, such as laughing or snuggling together.
To counteract working mom guilt, focus on quality time over quantity. You deserve to celebrate the great mother that you are! It will give you encouragement for the next day and build your confidence as a mom.
You can also focus on the positive aspects of being a working mom. You are providing for your child and showing them that women are free to have career goals if they choose.
When you take care of yourself properly, you’ll have more energy to be the type of parent you hope to be. You’ll also be better able to handle stressors.
Self-care refers to making healthy choices that promote well-being for your body and mind. This includes things like moving your body, eating healthful foods, and getting good sleep. It also means making some regular time to relax and recharge away from your motherhood duties for a little while.
Self-care isn’t selfish! When you prioritize self-care in your life, you can hold a positive, optimistic outlook more of the time. This will help you drown out the negative thoughts of mom guilt.
I should note that self-care does not include unhealthy coping mechanisms like drinking a whole bottle of wine.
Summary: Conquering Your Mom Guilt
You’re never going to get rid of mom guilt entirely. You could be the most amazing mom in the world and still have mom guilt. The point of these strategies is to help you build emotional resilience so you can challenge negative thinking and bounce back quicker.
Sometimes mom guilt might clue you in to a change you want to make as a parent, such as being on your phone less or not being in such a rush all the time. However, often mom guilt is not a reflection of reality. It is a trickster and a liar that stems from unhealthy comparisons, unrealistic expectations, or personal insecurities.
By learning to see this type of mom guilt as unhelpful and only taking away from you, you can begin to use strategies to work against it. Also, don’t forget to use proactive methods like regular self-care that can help prevent mom guilt.
Remember to be kind to yourself. Don’t let mom guilt transform your view of yourself as a parent.
If you’re in a particularly stressful time, like pandemic lockdown or being home with a new baby, things are not going to look ideal. Your expectations of yourself as a mom need to shift when you’re in survival mode.
If you find mom guilt is more of a constant force in your life or interferes with daily living, you could probably benefit from some professional help. There’s no shame in seeking help, and it can get you feeling better.
I hope you feel more ready to face mom guilt head on. You’re stronger than you think you are, mama.
Which of the methods here do you plan to put into action? Let me know in the comments.
Monday 22nd of February 2021
It's such a great post. You have talked about some great points from postpartum depression to having daily guilts. I liked the idea of naming the critic:)
Thanks for writing and sharing an amazing article.