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Recovering From 'Mom Guilt'

Put an end to the never-enough-mom story.

Key points

  • “Mom guilt” is the feeling of not being a good enough mother.
  • Women, and moms, in particular, struggle with the belief that they are not good enough.
  • To break feeling mom guilt, consider your well-being, stop assuming that you should be invisible, and tell your inner critic to stop criticizing.
Vitolda Klein/Unsplash
Source: Vitolda Klein/Unsplash

“Mom guilt” is the feeling of not being a good enough mother. It can come in many forms: We’re not spending enough time with our children; we’re not patient, loving, fun, or interested enough; we’re not offering our children the life, family, and opportunities that we should... and the list goes on. The list of ways we moms think we can fail our children is endless.

Most women, and moms in particular, struggle with the belief that we’re not good enough. We feel like we’re failing our children and failing to live up to some image of a perfect mom who’s selfless, has no needs of her own, and exists only for her children. Some of this remains as a remnant of the role women played in the family in previous generations.

Although our culturally conditioned idea of who we should be no longer fits into modern life, in which women work outside the home, our idea of the perfect mom remains unchanged. And maybe more importantly, despite our image of perfection frequently conflicts with our own well-being, we continue to shame and blame ourselves for not being who we imagine we should be.

Mom guilt is built on an idea of who we should be—not who we are. From the time we’re little girls, our emotional safety, acceptance, and approval are built on our ability to be selfless and take care of other people’s needs. The better we are at taking care of other people, the more we’re liked, which makes us feel valuable—and makes us like ourselves. Being a mom is the ultimate test of our caregiving abilities; how much can we give ourselves away in service to our children, which then is the ultimate test of our worth?

When Jenny was packing her kids into the car for yet another weekend trip this past summer, each of which took enormous effort and cost (and wasn’t that much fun), it suddenly dawned on her that she was doing all of this to live up to some idea in her head of what a good mom should be and what she should offer her kids in the summer.

And yet, she also realized that she didn’t want to do it, and truth be told, neither did her kids (or the dog!). No one in that car actually wanted to be going away for another “family” weekend; no one wanted this “perfect family life" that she was forcing. She was enslaved by some archaic story of what was supposed to happen in the idyllic months of summer by being perceived as a “perfect mom,” having a “perfect family,” and offering her kids a “perfect life.”

In a revolutionary moment, she decided to put the car in reverse, unpack the trunk right then and there, and start living in what was true rather than some idea of what should be. She decided to step out of her imaginary story and into reality.

At any moment, we can step out of the story we’re telling ourselves about who we should be and in that moment, invite and welcome the mom we really are.

Tips for Breaking the Mom Guilt Habit

  • Become aware of your inner voice of guilt.
  • Breaking mom guilt starts with awareness, noticing how and when you’re “should-ing” yourself with a dose of shame and blame for failing to live up to some idea of the mom you should be.
  • Notice the thoughts that you are not enough and how your inner-mom critic criticizes you for not being someone you’re not.
  • Consider your well-being.
  • When you recognize that you’re spinning in the mom guilt narrative, drop out of the story of who and how you should be and consider who and how you actually want to be—in this moment, this situation, and this life.
  • Take the bold step that it is, as a woman and a mom, to stop assuming that you should be invisible. Remind yourself that your wants and needs matter. Put your authentic self back into the story.
  • Ask yourself what takes care of you in this situation and what serves your well-being. What would happen if you allowed your well-being to matter, too, not just your children’s? Is there a way to take care of both you and your child?
  • Remind yourself to keep coming back to the present moment.
  • When you’re lost in mom guilt, you’re distracted from the present moment. You’re not with your children, which is ultimately what good mothering is all about.
  • When you catch yourself mom-guilting, get fierce with your mind. Tell your inner critic to stop telling you what’s wrong with you.
  • Focus on modeling for your kids what it looks like to be on your side. Focus on what you like about yourself and what makes you a good mom. Let your kids meet who you actually are, as opposed to a tortured version of yourself trying to be someone else.
  • Practice self-compassion.

Remember, being a mom can be an exceptionally difficult role. Some say it’s the hardest job in the world. We all fail our kids and we’ve all been failed by our own moms (and dads). Thankfully, humans are resilient; our kids find a way to be OK most of the time. That’s reality. So, keep your shortcomings in perspective and remind yourself of all the things you do right, not just those things you think you do wrong.

Use whatever you don’t like about your parenting as an opportunity to grow and be more mindful rather than an opportunity to judge yourself. Remind yourself that you’re doing the best you can, even when there’s room for improvement. Moms, like all human beings, are works in progress; being the best mom you can be today that’s the goal—with all the shortcomings and gifts that that includes.

That’s enough.

More from Nancy Colier LCSW, Rev.
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