Why All Moms Feel Guilty and How We Can Be Kinder to Ourselves


Why All Moms Feel Guilty
Photo of author and her daughter by Amanda Marie Studio

I am a part-time stay-at-home mother. This means that two days per week, I have the solo task of preoccupying my toddler while hopefully providing her with some sort of education. Some days go better than others. Some days we get out of the house early enough to swing by a Caribou drive-thru and make it to kids’ yoga (not right now, of course, but in more normal times). We get home by lunch, at which time I’ll cook up broccoli, spinach, and cheese tortellini, and the two of us will have a nice meal together while discussing what a great morning we had. After her two-hour nap, we will go for a walk, paint pictures, and build towers. These days feel good.

These days are not common.

Other days I will sleep in because I was up with my daughter in the middle of the night. I’ll sit on the couch drinking coffee as we watch Disney+ and I’ll try to make a plan for the day. Because it’s too late for kids’ yoga, I will likely just bring her to Target. There, I’ll go straight to the coffee shop and she’ll end up with milk and a snack. When we get home I’ll put her down for a nap (she’ll no longer be hungry after her snack), and when she wakes up and the TV is on again, I’ll realize she hasn’t had any exercise yet. I’ll watch Andy play with Woody and Buzz Lightyear, using the imagination that all kids should have, and I’ll get a pang in my stomach, wondering why my daughter prefers movies to playing with her own toys.

Then, I’ll spiral into my guilt. It’s because of me, I’ll think. She’s like this by my own design.

The sad thing is, I am not alone in this. Not even remotely. Most moms I know carry with them one form of guilt or another. While some moms don’t care about how much screen time their children get, they feel guilty if their kids don’t eat balanced meals for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. Mom guilt doesn’t look the same on everyone; what is the same is its existence.

Most moms I know carry with them one form of guilt or another. . . . Mom guilt doesn’t look the same on everyone; what is the same is its existence.

When thinking about mom guilt, I find myself asking some questions: Why have I never heard of dad guilt? Do fathers feel the same guilt we do, but just remain quiet about it? Do we moms do this to ourselves?

I don’t know the answers, but I believe a lot of it has to do with the fact that gender roles are still very much alive today. Most dads aren’t the ones taking their children to yoga (although this isn’t true in all cases—my husband does this on weekends), so they’re not the ones left to feel guilty when all other moms take their children home for lunch and you go next door to Subway.

Most dads don’t follow mom influencers and parenting blogs on social media (again, this is a generalization and I know some men who do), so they don’t see the recipes for vegan veggie sandwiches “your kids will love” or the aggressive homeschool schedules when schools are closed for the foreseeable future.

In many cases, this is no fault of the fathers. This is a side effect of societal standards that haven’t yet updated with the 21st century. Consider this: when a kid talks about having had a Happy Meal for lunch, the default assumption is that the mom provided it. Moms ourselves make these assumptions, even though we know them not to be true. It is simply ingrained in our heads—a subconscious reaction—that moms are the ones to feed, clean, educate, and overall care for the children. But this isn’t the case. This not only puts undue pressure on moms, but it sells dads short. They often do just as much as we do. It just looks different.

Melanie Klein, one of the key figures in psychoanalysis, says that our first-ever human experience is with our mother’s breast. The mother’s breast is a source of nourishment; it is life-giving. But at an early point in an infant’s emotional life, he or she will associate more with the breast than sustenance, and ultimately it will fail to live up to those expectations. Right off the bat, we face an unconscious disappointment in our mothers, and our mothers, in turn, experience guilt. It’s nature. It’s science. And it’s a pillar in our society that must be broken down.

I took a survey from Mother.ly the other day, and I want to share a few of the questions because the questions alone highlight the sheer weight of motherhood:

Do you feel society does a good job of understanding and supporting mothers?

Yesterday, how much time did you get to yourself without work or family obligations?

In the past month, how often have you felt “burned out” by motherhood?

Have you changed your work status (i.e. full-time to part-time, etc.) in some way since becoming a parent?

That last one was when it hit me: My answer was yes. I did what so many women have done for generations. I altered my work status in order to fit the needs and desires of my family, thereby perpetuating one of the very stereotypes that, I believe, lead to the condition of mom guilt in the first place.

Before digging any deeper into the well of guilt that I dip my toe into on a daily basis, I’ve decided to crawl out and do something radical: be kinder to myself.

Moms—it is time we all be kinder to ourselves. Here is a list of ideas to swap out default mom guilt reactions with productive behavior:

  • Instead of worrying that our kids watch too much TV, be proud that we can provide them with opportunities our elders didn’t have.
  • Instead of getting frustrated that our children love macaroni and cheese so much, congratulate ourselves on cooking them a warm meal.
  • Instead of being ashamed we didn’t put up a fight about the outfits our kids chose, be content that they are clothed and warm.
  • Instead of being disappointed in ourselves for our lack of educational projects at home, consider the invaluable life skills we’re teaching them. 
  • Instead of comparing ourselves against moms on Instagram whose stories make them look like perfect mothers, remind ourselves that Instagram is a highlight reel and none of it is real life.
  • Instead of relying on the default assumption that moms are behind everything, give the dads some credit.
  • Instead of being ashamed for bribing our kids with fruit snacks to clean their rooms or pick up their toys, be impressed with our quick problem-solving solutions.

Basically, instead of getting down on ourselves for our shortcomings, we should be asking ourselves productive questions: Are our children clothed? Warm? Fed? Do they express their opinions? Feel safe at home? These are the things that really matter.

Mom guilt is biological, passed down from generation to generation, embedding itself in society’s fundamental architecture. But we can eradicate it—if only for ourselves.

If you have other ideas to add to the list above, please share them in the comments below. We need to be kinder to ourselves now more than ever.

BY Kolina Cicero - April 7, 2020

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April 8, 2020 11:19 am

This spoke to me, I feel so seen as a mother after reading this. I really needed to read this especially during this time at home while I’m still working and still maintaining a blog while cleaning a house and taking care of a toddler.

Stephanie | SPV Living

April 18, 2020 12:49 pm

Thank you so much for this! I really struggle with mom guilt, especially now. I am working 40-45 hours a week from home while my husband watches our 2 and 5 year old and tries to work a full time job as well. As I always do I focus on the things that aren’t perfect and don’t take enough time to marvel at how well we are coping with everything. I love “Instagram is a highlight reel not real life” – going to write that down somewhere I can see it daily!

Charlotte Davis
August 1, 2020 5:07 am

Thank you for this article!
Guilt is familiar to many. No matter what I do, I always think it’s not enough because I want the best for my child. I guess everyone thinks in a similar way.
You made me rethink my behavior a little. Thank you! I totally agree that sometimes we demand too much from ourselves and as a result, we don’t do anything that could be really useful due to doubts.

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