Mom Guilt: It's Keeping You Stuck. Here's What You Can Do About It.



Ever caught yourself snapping at your kids to leave you alone because you're trying to send 'one last email?' Or let them use the screen way too long so you could get ________ done without too many interruptions? What about yelling at them like a wild banshee because you were stressed/tired/anxious/overwhelmed?


Do you sometimes (or oftentimes) feel like you're neglecting family because you're working too much? But then when you're at work, you feel like you're falling behind there too. You see other people achieving the elusive 'work-life balance' (which is a myth btw), but you can't seem to pull it together. You're trying to do it all and be a great mom, but for some reason, you are coming up short.


Here are more examples that may sound familiar:


I've let my kids watch too much screen today so I could get my work done. I'm stunting their intellectual growth. They'll probably end up on drugs and in prison because of my bad parenting.


I feed my baby non-organic smashed peas from a jar instead of homemade organic, non-GMO, gluten-free, locally farmed butternut squash and quinoa puree. I'm poisoning my own kid.


I yelled at my kid really hard today. She'll definitely end up needing intense therapy for the rest of her life.


I thought about asking my spouse and kids to help out around the house more but they all have so much going on. I would feel bad if I get them to waste their time on chores.


I work too much and don't spend enough time with my family. But I actually love my job. What kind of parent am I?


I'm not contributing financially as a stay-at-home parent. I need to get a job so we don't all end up homeless.


I wasn't able - or didn't want - to breastfeed my baby. Now my baby will be unhealthy, unintelligent, and messed up for life. I'm such a failure.


I want to focus more on myself and my interests now that the kids are older. I'm so selfish.


The Joneses are always going on amazing holidays to exotic places. We need to travel more so the kids don't miss out and get teased at school for not being world travelers. We should probably start a blog to document every single second of our life (but only the shiny, happy bits).


If you said yes to any of these, then you're suffering from mom guilt.


I was being a bit cheeky with some of these examples, but I'm guessing many of you are nodding your head in agreement.


The problem is, these types of thoughts cause us to feel really guilty and question our parenting up, down, and sideways. And the polarized thinking that accompanies these thoughts causes us to feel even worse. Polarized thinking - also called 'all-or-nothing' thinking - means that you think in extremes (e.g. my kid will end up in prison because I let them play Roblox). And getting hooked on worst-case scenarios only serves to add to the mom guilt.


Guilt becomes an annoying little buzzy fly in your ear telling you - constantly - that you could do better, you don't do enough, you're selfish, you're a bad parent, and so on and so on.


If you have mom guilt, don't fret. You're certainly not alone. Mom guilt is pervasive and is experienced by women around the world. Mom guilt has existed since moms were invented. The problem is, standards set for mothers today are much, much higher now than they were a few decades ago (or even a couple of years ago before this pandemic!).


And the proverbial bar keeps rising and rising. Moms are expected, quite literally, to be able to operate at full throttle 24/7. These quixotic standards - which we'll explore more - are unattainable no matter how much of a so-called #supermom we are. And when we can't meet these ridiculous standards, we feel guilt - mom guilt.


So what's the difference between regular guilt and mom guilt?


Let's take a look.


What is Mom Guilt, Exactly?


Guilt, generally speaking, is the feeling we have when we believe we've caused harm (physical or psychological) or distress to another person. Guilt can occur whether or not we've actually done something "wrong" or not.


Mom guilt, in particular, is the perception that you're not doing enough as a parent and your children are suffering for it.


In her paper published in Qualitative Sociology, Caitlyn Collins (assistant Professor of Sociology at Washington University) describes mom guilt as a "socially induced feeling of negative self-judgment... a type of internalized oppression"


I think the key words here are 'socially-induced' and 'oppression.' Mom guilt has its fundamental roots firmly embedded in the immense pressure society puts on mothers to be able to do it all.




The quintessential 'supermom' is a career woman and a housewife. She's expected to work, cook, clean, parent, and take on the mental load of the entire family. Or maybe she's expected to stay at home with the kids and abandon her own professional hopes and dreams so as not to be seen as selfish or uncaring. Regardless, the idealogical supermom should don her cape with a big smile on her face and wear her self-sacrifices like a badge of honor.


After all, isn't this what she signed up for?


Hardly any mother is immune to mom guilt. That nagging feeling that we could be doing more, even when we're at full, overwhelming capacity.


For the record, guilt isn't all bad. Guilt is a 'moral emotion' that can be useful when it prevents us from doing something that will truly harm someone - physically or psychologically. Or when it leads us to offer an apology when we've done something that has hurt another person.


But if guilt becomes an overarching emotion that leads you to feel constantly ashamed and bad, it can negatively impact your life.


To better understand mom guilt, it's helpful to look at some of the factors that contribute to it in the first place.


What Factors Contribute to Mom Guilt?


There's no shortage of all the things that can make us feel bad about our parenting but here are a few significant culprits.




Society's Unrealistic Expectations


Take a look at the photo right above this section. Look at her go! Vacuuming in a dress and high heels, hair perfectly coifed, house looking immaculate. What a superwoman!


And what a joke.


While women today aren't exactly expected to don stilettos and suck up dust mites with their Dysons, society still expects us to put on a front just like the 1950s housewife in that photo. Even when we're overwhelmed, tired, stressed out, overworked, and emotionally overloaded, the message is clear - do it all no matter the cost. And look good while you're doing it.


And boy is there a lot to do.


Work, cook, clean, laundry, shop, pack lunches, warm bottles, sterilize bottles, breastfeed, arrange the childcare, keep up with birthday parties, plan the birthday parties, buy the gifts, wrap the gifts, cart the kids' to sports, music, dance, swimming, debate club, coding camp, sign the permission slips, volunteer at school, update the family planner, book medical appointments, schedule dentist appointments, make the costumes, ensure there's not too much screen time, monitor the content, remember all the names, plan the play dates, vet the friends, set the curfew, worry about your family's wellbeing and safety, etc., etc., etc., etc.


And let us not forget (how could we) about the extra demands and stress slapped down on us by COVID.


And while men are doing more than they used to in terms of childrearing and helping around the house, the bulk of unpaid domestic work and mental load is unequivocally assumed by women. On average, women do 21 more hours of unpaid work per week (largely in heterosexual couples with dependent children; there seems to be more equality within L.G.B.T.Q. families).


Society - in general - hasn't caught up to reality. The reality is, women can't do it all without sacrificing something - usually their own wellbeing, interests, dreams, and hobbies. The expectation remains - and is abundantly flouted on social media, advertisements, TV, movies, and perhaps even school drop-off - that women should be able to juggle (many erroneosly call it "balance") all the balls that life throws at them. And we should do it in lipstick and heels without bags under our eyes (because, you know, you can buy an overpriced magic cream for those) or muffins around our top (you have plenty of time to go to the gym to prevent muffin top!).


Here's a great read in Harvard Business Review on the topic.



Photo credit: Canva


Social Media


The truth is, everywhere you turn there are messages screaming at moms to do more and be more. I could write a book about the factors contributing to mom guilt, but in the interest of your time and mine, I'll focus on what is, in my opinion, one of the biggest offenders.


Social media.


How many times have you scrolled through Instagram or Facebook and thought to yourself, "Wow, that family is messed up! Every time I see photos of them, the mom is a wreck, the kids are eating CocoPops and drinking Mountain Dew while playing on their Ipads and the house is a hot mess!"


Probably never. That's because most people only post the best moments of their life on social media.


We are constantly exposed to the seemingly perfect lives of other moms causing us to question our own parenting styles, choices, and decisions.


Come on. You know the posts I'm talking about:


The whole family (even the dog) dressed in matching Christmas pajamas in front of their perfectly coordinated tree holding mugs of homemade egg-free eggnog (and the poster makes sure you know it's homemade). Or in the case of the family in the photo above, snuggled in their stain-free, freshly ironed bright white sheets with a holiday-themed throw pillow complete with fairy lights draped across the headboard (because who doesn't do that, right?).


A mom posting a photo of her kid's lunch - organic tofu nuggets, vegan spinach blueberry muffins with a side of baked kale chips, and sugar-free Kombucha in a glass water bottle. Complete with hashtags #surgarkills #meatisforlosers #healthylunches #youarekillingyourkidsifyoudontmakeluncheslikethis


A photo of a friend of a friend's teenager who was just named 'Smartest Teenager in the Universe", qualified for the 2024 summer Olympics, is joining the Peace Corp and invented a new app that made her an overnight millionaire. (I'm being a bit extreme here, but you get the point).


Naturally, we want people to see the best versions of ourselves and our families. And that's OK. Most of us don't feel too motivated to post photos of our messy house or a video of us yelling at our kids.


The problem is, being constantly exposed to others' seemingly splendid, impeccably polished lives leads us to compare ourselves and contributes to feelings of inadequacy. And that gives rise to, you guessed it, more guilt that we're not doing enough for our own families.


The next time you catch yourself scrolling through dozens of flawless photos on Facebook and you end up feeling a pang of envy over some stranger's cherry-picked posts and pondering how admirable their lives seem (and comparing theirs to yours), remember this. Most people only show the world their brightest sides, especially on social media. Behind the pixels, everyone (and I mean everyone) has their own struggles and foibles.


Besides, I bet that mom who posts constantly about organic, homemade lunches strategically forgets to pop up photos of her kid licking Dorito dust off their fingers so they can continue using their Ipad to play Fortnite for a few more hours.

How Mom Guilt Keeps You Stuck


If you're always feeling guilty that you're not doing enough for your family, this likely means you won't make time for yourself. If you don't make time for yourself to pursue your passions, dreams, wants, and needs, then you get stuck.


Trying to keep up with unrealistic standards of parenting can lead to stress and anxiety. Research shows that parental distress can prevent us from achieving realistic goals and stall us from moving forward personally and professionally.


Now you're feeling guilty, stuck, AND stressed. This cycle perpetuates if you let it.


I like examples so here are a few more on how moms can get stuck because of mom guilt:


A new mom who really wants to get back into exercising but feels bad about leaving her newborn, even for an hour. She gets stuck in the new habit of disregarding her own health which leads to even more guilt and feeling physically and mentally unwell.


A midlife mom whose kids are older. She wants to transition out of her career into something entirely new. This will entail big adjustments for her and her family as she needs to complete a year-long education course to upskill in her new area of interest. She feels guilty because her family will have to make too many sacrifices - like helping with the housework - for her sake so she abandons the dream. She's stuck in a job she no longer enjoys but at least her family doesn't have to 'suffer.'


A mom who can't say no and can't set boundaries. She feels guilty so she says yes to everything. She makes the costumes for the school play, volunteers as the kids' soccer coach, is president of the parent-teacher committee, bakes cookies for the community fundraiser all while working full-time and taking care of her own family. She wishes she had more time to do the things she loves, like hiking and painting, but she is stuck because she has so many other commitments.


See what I mean? I'm sure you can come up with your own examples of how mom guilt is holding you back.


If guilt is keeping you stuck, what can you do about it?


Glad you asked.


What You Can Do About Mom Guilt


Like I mentioned before, guilt is not all bad. A certain amount of guilt keeps us from doing and saying things that can truly harm others.


But when guilt becomes a reflexive, all-encompassing emotion that drives your behaviors and actions, it can prevent you from moving forward and living your best life.


Here are a few ways you can dial down the mom guilt:


Acceptance


A key factor in managing mom guilt is acceptance. You can accept that the guilt is there, but don't let it make decisions for you. It's a feeling, not a compass.


Learn to live with this emotion the same way you live with happiness or joy or sadness or anger. Interact with it, acknowledge it, be curious about it, but don't give it too much credit. Guilt is an emotion that can prevent you from truly causing harm (or not causing harm again) but as we've seen with mom guilt, it's unlikely you're actually damaging anyone. Instead, you're trying to live up to unrealistic expectations and you feel guilty when you don't meet them.


There's a big difference between actually hurting someone or threatening their very livelihood vs thinking you've done something wrong or not done enough at all. Feeling inadequate is not the same as being inadequate.


There is a wonderful book on learning to accept emotions called Emotional Agility by Susan David. I highly recommend it and you can learn more about it here.


Give Yourself Permission to Be Good Enough Instead of Great


Hang, on. I should strive to be a 'good enough' mom but not great?!


Yep, you should. And here's why.


Great has somehow come to mean that moms should give 110% across every area of their life - home, work, community, friends. The math doesn't add up.


A 'great' mom is expected to live up to the standards set on social media by their friends and complete strangers. A 'great' mom is expected to work full-time and be the primary provider of unpaid work at home. A 'great' mom is expected to be all things to all people without feeling stress, resentment, or regret. A 'great' mom is expected to bake Pinterest-perfect pies (and post photos of them on Facebook).


The expectations placed on women to be 'great' moms are wholly unrealistic and unattainable without burning out. Great has somehow come to mean perfect. No one on this earth is perfect but you can better believe moms are trying their best to be (at a huge cost).


Good enough, on the other hand, is exactly that.


If you love your family and meet their basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing, that's good enough. You don't have to handknit their sweaters or cut their store-bought ham sandwiches into heart shapes (unless you want to and truly have the time).


If you spend quality time with your kids and show them you care, that's good enough. You don't have to go on elaborate holidays to exotic places or volunteer for every. single. activity.


If you don't have time to coach the soccer team but you show up at all the games, that's good enough. You don't have to take on too many things that you know you don't have the time or energy to do.


By aiming to be 'good enough' instead of 'great', you'll free up time and mental energy to do things for YOU. Yep, that's right -YOU. You can, and should, make time for yourself to do the things you love and enjoy. Self-care is not selfish.


You'll feel less guilty if you don't have to meet ridiculous expectations of everyone around you (including yourself).


Let's make good enough the new great.


Reevaluate Your Social Media Habits


Like I said before, social media fuels the fire that is mom guilt. If you find yourself constantly comparing yourself to others on social media, it's time to reevaluate your habits.


First, do a clean sweep of all your social media accounts and blog subscriptions. If there are groups, pages, accounts, or individuals that you follow who make you feel bad about your mom'ing, click 'unfollow.'


Next, get in the habit of practicing mindful scrolling. Don't get trapped looking at perfect strangers' staged photos of their organic dinners or reading posts from #supermoms proudly displaying photos of the Halloween costume it only took them 7 weeks to make (because the sequins had to be imported from overseas, duh).


And P.S. - don't get hung up on how many 'likes' you have on your own posts. Seeking validation that way can perpetuate feelings of mom guilt. If at least 98 people don't like the photos of my newly organized food pantry with labeled containers, I must be doing something wrong! I'll look on Pinterest to figure out how to do it better next time!


Finally, learn to see social media posts for what they really are. A snapshot in time handpicked by the poster. It's perfectly fine to enjoy all the wonderful things your family and friends share. It's a way to stay connected. But just be careful not to compare yourself and your family to the carefully curated content you come across every day.


You can alleviate some of that mom guilt brought on by social media if you remind yourself that you're 'good enough.' Everyone on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and TikTok, is, in one way or another, putting up a front.


Ask for Help and Set Boundaries


Get comfortable asking for help and setting boundaries for yourself.


When you have too much on your plate, don't be afraid to ask for help. Divvy up the household chores among your family. Tell your boss you need more resources or time to do your job right. Ask your neighbor to water your plants while you're away. Phone a friend to watch your kid while you go to a job interview.


For some, paying for help may also be an option. Hiring a cleaner, subscribing to weekly meal kits, getting someone to mow the lawn. I fully understand that, for many, procuring these services is a luxury. But something to consider if you can afford it. If you can afford it, don't feel guilty about doing it.


Getting help frees up your time and energy so that you're not constantly being pulled in a million directions (mentally and physically). When you don't feel stretched, you probably won't feel guilty that you're "neglecting" your family, and, bonus, you'll have more time for yourself.


While you're getting accustomed to asking for help, also try your hand at saying no more often. I know it's hard, but it works. It's all about setting boundaries.


Don't have time to take on yet another big project at work? Say no and accept the guilt.


Don't really want to chaperone your son's field trip/excursion to the aquarium (again) this year? Say no and accept the guilt.


Don't have time to hand crochet matching beanies with embroidered team logos for your daughter's ice hockey team? Say no and accept the guilt.


Don't have time to make cookies from scratch for the school bake sale so you bought some from the supermarket and put them in your own container? Cool. I've done that too :-)


When you do start setting boundaries, make sure you stick with them so everyone, including your family, will understand you mean business.



Break Free From the Chains of Mom Guilt


Mom guilt. It's real, it's largely society-induced, and it can keep you stuck firmly in the status quo.


But it certainly doesn't have to.


If you practice the tips I outlined and allow yourself to dial down the self-criticizm, stop comparing yourself to others, and accept that guilt is a normal emotion that doesn't have to dictate your actions, I bet you'll start to experience a shift in your life.


And I hope you realize that you are completely and unconditionally worthy of prioritizing time and energy for yourself to pursue your dreams, passions, goals, and hobbies. Even if the only thing you're pursuing right now is sitting down alone with a great book and a nice glass of wine.


Cheers to breaking free from the chains of mom guilt.