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Don’t Let “Mom Guilt” Make You a Worse Parent

Ten things to remember when coping with the contradictory reality of mom guilt.

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A unifying theme of motherhood is guilt. We all feel it, react to it, and sometimes perpetuate it. No matter what choices we make about childcare—stay at home, work part-time, or pursue a full-time career—we aren’t immune to the nagging feeling that we could do better by our kids. Of course, mom guilt can be a good thing if it serves as a gentle reminder that our actions toward our children matter. Guilt, or what I like to describe as a healthy conscience, can be useful if it inspires more productive involvement or a sincere apology, or if it helps us bite our tongue. But if guilt is your primary emotion, overriding feelings of pride, affection, and empathy, it can negatively impact your parenting.

Karen Kleiman writes, “Guilt is so pervasive that many mothers, particularly those who are depressed, presume it is a natural part of mothering, one that is inescapable in this day and age.” Mother guilt starts during pregnancy and continues to rear its ugly head at home, work, and in society in general. So-called experts—as well as plenty of amateurs—like to point out perceived flaws in moms, saying we’re too free-range, too tiger mom, too pushy, too controlling, etc. And because we love our children so fiercely, we’re susceptible to second-guessing and ongoing regret. In fact, we are especially vulnerable because we want to believe that we have influence over our children and that our behavior makes a difference. Thus, mom guilt becomes a balancing act of coping with these internal and external feelings of guilt that only serve us well if we keep them at bay.

Here are 10 considerations to keep mother guilt in check:

  1. Guilt is not a powerful or joyful place to parent from. Solid parenting isn’t about always worrying whether you’re doing the right thing. Decide what kind of parent you want to be, establish your signature boundaries and parent with confidence. If something isn’t working, reassess and move forward. Hand-wringing and regret undermine your power and make children feel less secure.
  2. Children like to contribute to your feelings of guilt. They will point out how other moms are better or try to make you feel bad about your rules. That’s normal! Don’t lose confidence just because a kid is testing you. That’s part of growing up. My son likes to remind me of the time I was so frustrated I threw a bag of baby carrots at him. This happened over a decade ago, and the story gets more dramatic every year. You would have thought I’d thrown giant carrots with razor-sharp edges!
  3. Your child will face tough times and challenges no matter what. You could be the best mom in the world (whatever that means), but you can’t protect your child 24/7. If something bad happens, beating yourself up might get in the way of being a strong ally. Acknowledge your pain but then strategize to help your child without guilt.
  4. Forgive yourself. If you’ve ever been in therapy, you’re aware that mothering is under a psychological microscope. But you will also note that therapy usually reveals that a mother tried her best given particular conditions and experiences. Afford yourself the same analysis. Sure, you might have handled a situation more effectively, but instead of self-blame, try self-empathy. Compassion is a much healthier emotion. Sometimes I wish I could give a younger version of myself a pep talk, especially during the toddler years! I would tell that young mom, “It’s OK—your children are going to be fine!”
  5. Being a perfect mom isn’t always best for the kids. It’s OK for your kids to see you struggle and express negative emotions. Don’t let mom guilt remove important opportunities to develop empathy and understanding. With my children, I’m honest about hurt feelings and when I’ve had a hard day. Talking about our feelings helps build their emotional intelligence. It also shows them that we don’t always have to be models of emotional perfection. This can be liberating for all!
  6. Share your guilty feelings. Whether it’s with a spouse, therapist, or a friend, it’s useful to analyze why you feel guilt over a specific situation or why guilt crops up so often. More often than not, a sympathetic ear helps put our guilt into perspective. And by sharing, we moms begin to recognize that unrealistic expectations are the root of our collective mom guilt.
  7. Don’t believe everything you read. Be attentive and skeptical of articles and advice that place the blame on moms and moms only. A summary of research over the last few decades shows that moms are blamed too often. If we believe everything we read, it’s impossible to parent consistently because there’s so much contradictory information. Don’t switch with the trends or feel bad if the latest trend isn’t your style. Just be yourself and do you.
  8. Trust your instincts. Guilt can squelch your ability to stay the course. You know your child best. Is a teacher or friend questioning your choices? Don’t assume they are on target. Stay open to feedback and new ideas, but not to the point where you go against your heart.
  9. Choose proactive reactions. Some of us feel guilty for physical or psychological traits we pass on to our kids. This is a real waste of time! Instead of focusing on the fact that Jr. got your bad feet or ADHD, be a great role model and show them how to cope with these challenges. We can’t choose what our children inherit, but we can choose how we react.
  10. Love is the key. If you parent from a place of love—and I know you do—then guilt should be a small piece of a larger puzzle. Society might want to place mom guilt front and center, but we as mothers don’t have to accept this. Motherhood is hard enough. Let’s do our part as mothers and allies to cast off the guilt and help moms parent with love, pride, and confidence. This means honoring and supporting each other as we raise our children.
More from Marika Lindholm Ph.D.
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