It may sound cliché, but my life changed in an unexpected way when I became a mother. I was filled with love, awe, gratitude, and—something I didn’t expect— an enormous amount of guilt.
I have felt guilt before in instances when I have over indulged in dessert, told a white lie to get out of plans, or spent too much money while out shopping, but this was a whole new level. It was crippling. It made me feel cemented in my circumstances at times, like I couldn’t “win.”
I later found that this feeling I experienced was no stranger to motherhood. Every woman I encountered could relate to some degree. It’s as if we felt guilty for existing. As a new mother and an experienced psychologist, I wanted to understand why.
Guilt in and of itself is not terrible. It has a function. It may be protective. It can nudge us to do something different, to pivot, make it right, etc. In our motherhood experience it can caution us to do better in instances when we know things are off.
However, it can also be debilitating if it becomes a daily point of obsession. If our thoughts are consumed with guilt, blame, and self-deprecation, then something needs to change.
I’ve often had conversations with my own mother about mom guilt. It’s strange, because either she’s minimizing its impact on her mothering experience, or times have significantly changed. I don’t doubt that the latter is true.
Mothering in our society is different. We’re pulled in many directions, feeling the pressure to excel at home and the workplace. We are subjected to social media and the beautifully curated images of motherhood and its perfection. We watch mothers juggle their responsibilities all while perfectly put together, well-behaved children in tow, and in homes that look like they’re staged to sell.
Instead of filtering images like this, we’ve created our expectations of motherhood and we are broken when we realize that this lifestyle that we follow, only exists on the internet.
Despite all this, this is what I’ve come away with:
01. Information overload.
We consume information all day long. We encounter friends, family members, acquaintances, social media accounts, professionals, and many more people that provide us with information, whether it is welcome or not.
An abundance of information can be overwhelming and can make us anxious. We tend to think that we need to do everything (ex. “I should read more”, “I should play more with my kids”, “I should cook healthy meals”). The truth is, we cannot do it all.
The more we stretch and expect, the more pressured we feel and ultimately the more miserable we are. Instead, we should be treating information like a buffet. You wouldn’t consume every item at the buffet, and you wouldn’t plate your food according to what someone else wants. You take what you want. Do more of that!
02. Unrealistic expectations.
Many women I know share about their guilt-ridden thoughts. They feel bad about taking care of themselves, leaving their home, going to work, going on a date with their partner, bathing, and the list goes on.
I wish I couldn’t relate, but I do.
I find myself racing the clock when I’m alone, trying my hardest to finish the impossible with limited time. As simple as this may sound, I tell people (and myself) to imagine that someone else shared this guilty thought. Imagine your friend telling you, “I feel so awful because I took a shower and I had the kids watch T.V.,” or, “I feel terrible because I left my daughter with her dad while I went to get my hair colored.” It sounds silly when someone else says it.
If you’re really having a hard time with this one, share your thought(s) with a good friend.
03. Comparison in motherhood.
What does comparison do for us? We can all win—I’m sure you’ve heard someone say this before. Just because another mom has a specific skill set, doesn’t mean that your skills should be discounted.
It can be hard when we’re mindlessly scrolling and seeing other moms doing it all. We can feel like we don’t have a single skill or attribute that is commendable. This is a lie. You (and I) have qualities that are unique and beautiful. They can be drastically different and that’s okay.
We easily make allowances for our children and say things like “kids develop at different rates” or we say “no two kids are the same.” The same goes for adults. We develop differently, we are not the same, and that is completely okay. If you are finding it hard to stop comparing, I urge you to set boundaries with your time, social media, relationships, etc. If social media is part of the problem, you may need to unfollow something/someone to really appreciate yourself.
04. Judgment is at the center of guilt.
Not only do we need to stop judging ourselves, but we need to stop judging each other. We get so caught up in how we feed our children, discipline them, sleep train, co-sleep, vaccinate (or not), that we forget that we are all trying to navigate one of the most challenging journeys we will ever embark on.
Check your questions—I find myself asking questions that are irrelevant and can be received as being judgmental. For example, “do you work?” or “did you breastfeed? For how long?” or “is your kid sleeping through the night?” Why do we ask these questions? Why don’t we ask “how are you feeling?” or better yet “is there anything I can help you with?” Remember that judgment comes from feelings of inadequacy. If all else fails, treat others how you would like to be treated.
5. Self-care is not optional.
When you nourish yourself, you are able to care for others in a more positive way. Your time away will give you what you need to be more present. I recognize that time, finances, and support may be limited, but this means you need to get creative.
You have to fight for the right to self-care (I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s true). Utilize free childcare, whether it’s at the gym, church, or grocery store—find it and use it. Ask your friends, neighbors, or family members to come over and hold your baby (or watch your children) while you nap. Ask for help whenever possible. A happy mom, makes for a happy child. Your children will learn about self-care by watching you.
I recognize that these tips aren’t perfect. They will not “solve” mom guilt, but they will help. We need to be conscious about what we consume, who we spend time with, what we say to ourselves, what we say about others, and how we nourish ourselves. I have made a commitment to myself to dispute any thought that tells me “I shouldn’t…” and I’m committed to lead by example and show my son that caring for myself is the ultimate declaration of self-love.