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Loosening Mom Guilt’s Grip

Written by Ana Hrincu for Nest Integrative Wellness

Motherhood is a rollercoaster of emotions, filled with love, joy, and an undeniable sense of responsibility. Amidst the cuddles and giggles however, many mothers find themselves entangled in the web of “mom guilt.” Whether it’s the nagging feeling that you’re not doing enough, the comparison trap with other seemingly perfect moms on social media, or the constant struggle to balance work and family life, the guilt can be overwhelming. Potentially present from pregnancy onward, mom guilt can deeply impact your motherhood experience. By understanding when you are feeling it, what triggered it, and shifting your perspective, you can navigate mom guilt and reduce its hold on your emotions and your life.

What is Mom Guilt?

“Mom guilt” is an internalized feeling of guilt that focuses on how you are behaving in relation to your children. It is a feeling of doubt or inadequacy in your choices and bubbles up to produce shame. Generally, mom guilt stems from worries of how things “should” be, anxiety around making parenting choices, and fulfilling the role of a “good mom”. Mom guilt can be experienced when we feel we aren’t living up to our own or society’s expectations of what good parenting/caring is. It can happen for any parents or caregivers, but socially moms are set up to experience a lot of it, as mothers continue to be viewed as the main caretakers of the home and children in society with minimal supports or community.

What Triggers Mom Guilt

Gendered societal expectations and the highly personal nature of guilt ensures there is no end to the situations in which mom guilt can be felt. Some examples of ways mom guilt can be triggered include:

  • Comparing yourself to others. Pinterest moms can make beautiful breakfasts that look like art while you are throwing Cheerios at your toddler.
  • Differences in parenting styles. There is a lot of buzz around “gentle parenting” right now and having a moment with your child that is less than gentle can cause guilt. Differences in partner parenting styles from your partner can also be a source of guilt, as they may interact with your children in ways that differ from your own.
  • Perceived criticism from family, friends, or health care professionals. We rely on our communities and support systems to help us manage parenthood. When we feel they are critical of our choices, it can cause an influx of guilt. 
  • Striving to be the “perfect” mom. Our own ideas of what makes someone a “good” parent can be a source of guilt. When we struggle to meet our own expectations, we can set ourselves up to feel guilty. Unmet expectations around feeding, playing, sleep, and more can result in feelings of guilt.
  • Expectations around being a working parent. Working parents can experience guilt from being away from the home, placing their children in, or relying on family or their partner more. 

While it is common and normal to have fleeting guilt for the choices we make in parenthood (especially if we are unsure of them), more constant guilt can lead to shame, negative self-talk, a decrease in self-confidence, and can increase your risk of experiencing depression or anxiety due to an ongoing negative impact to your mental health.

How To Handle The Guilt

When mom guilt flares up in our lives, there are tangible steps we can take to help us overcome it:

  1. Take a moment. A lot of mom guilt is socially programmed into us and can be an instantaneous reaction. When you feel the guilt creeping in, focus on a few mindful breaths to recognize what is happening and what you are feeling.
  2. Identify the source. What is the narrative you are telling yourself that is making you feel guilty? 

An example of this is the guilt I felt when I decided to stop breastfeeding. This was a huge source of guilt for me as my milk had come in and my background in science meant that I had thoroughly researched how important it was for me to breastfeed my child – the benefits, the rationale, even the financial implications. I had taken the classes, bought the supplies, and thought I was ready. The expectation I had placed on myself and my child that breastfeeding would be a wonderful, magical experience in which we would bond and I would be a milk-making machine was in stark contrast to what was actually occurred. My baby and I were both miserable. I experienced extreme anxiety when she latched, pain because of her tongue and lip ties, and we would both spend feeding sessions crying from pain and frustration. It took me months to recognize that the source of my need to keep trying to breastfeed was guilt around doing what is “best” and that I “should” keep trying because I had such a great supply of milk.

  • Show yourself some compassion. When you are feeling guilty about not measuring up to particular expectations (whether your own or others), take a moment to remind yourself that you are doing the best you can in the circumstances you are in. Openly acknowledge the hard parts of what you are dealing with (no sugar coating), and remind yourself of what you are doing well.
  • Reflect  on your values and challenge your negative beliefs by reframing the narrative you are telling yourself. Our perception of events is coloured by the narrative we have told ourselves about them. If we view not meeting particular expectations as a fault, a problem, or a reflect on our worth, we are more likely to feel guilt surround them. If we instead look at what we have been doing/the choice we are making from a gratitude lens, we can outline that even hard choices have silver linings and that even though something is not the ideal we are striving for, it can still be good.

An example of this may be in returning to work after maternity leave. When going back to work, I felt a lot of guilt about not being at home with my children, about how other caregivers would have significant influence in their daily lives (maybe even than I would some days), and that my children would think I was absent. Sitting with these feelings and thoughts and digging to the core of why I was returning to work helped to flip the narrative around. By identifying my values and reframing these thoughts through a lens of gratitude, my guilt was lessened. The thought of my child being raised by other caregivers is uncomfortable but by seeking the gratitude in the situation, I was able to acknowledge the benefit that my children get to spend so much time with their grandparents – a luxury I did not have growing up.  Reframing  my concerns regarding my children feeling abandoned turned into gratitude for being able to model independence and women working towards their dreams (an important lesson as I have two daughters).

  • Prioritize self-care and ask for help. Allow yourself time to rechart. Lean on other people in your life to help you be more present when you are with your kids and can improve your mental stamina while coping with mom guilt. Surrounding yourself with supportive people can help you minimize your guilty feelings and recognize the things you are doing right.

Mom guilt can be triggered often in the early days of parenthood and can rear its ugly head regardless of how long you have been parenting. Managing mom guilt is a long-game but there are steps to help you along the way and by incorporating these tools, you can help to relax mom guilt’s hold on your emotions and your life.

If you are finding that the guilt you are experiencing is becoming unmanageable, it may be time to seek professional support. Both Paschia and Malisa at Nest Integrative Wellness can help moms experiencing guilt to develop skills and strategies to move forward, enjoy parenthood, and have confidence in their parenting abilities.