A Therapist On How She Deals With "Mom Guilt" & How You Can Too
Mom guilt, defined as the feeling many parents experience about not being "good enough," is real. As a psychotherapist, group facilitator, and mother, it's an emotional weight that I have carried and supported others in working through.
For you, this guilt might manifest as fears about not spending enough time with your kids, regret over snapping at them, or self-judgments about not wanting to play with dolls or take them to yet another extracurricular activity.
What most people don't know is that your guilt might be a cover-up of what you really feel, which is anger. But because most of us fail to investigate our guilt, we never get in touch with the root of it.
What happens when guilt sabotages our emotional well-being:
Two things typically happen when we feel guilt: We turn away from it, or we get talked out of it.
- Turn away: Because guilt assumes wrongdoing, it makes us feel bad about ourselves, and as a result we avoid it rather than investigate it. We make intentions to do better tomorrow but often repeat the same behaviors because we aren't paying attention to why they are happening. If we feel stuck in shifting a behavior, it's not because we are lacking something, it's because it is still serving a purpose. Engaging in self-examination instead of self-scrutiny can help to identify the function.
- Get talked out of it: When we tell our friends about our guilt, they often assure us we are good moms, and this also leaves the guilt unconfronted and underexplored. So let's look at what guilt is really about and how to address it so that you can free yourself to be a parent that both holds herself accountable and experiences more levity.
Critically examining "mom guilt"
Let's explore the many nuanced reasons guilt happens in the first place. As I've noted, it's important to examine these so we can address them later.
It is no wonder women report1 significantly more guilt in parenting than men. Many women struggle with the belief that they are "not good enough," and based on the other social identities they hold (race, sexuality, socioeconomic status, ability status, age, size), they may have received messages from society about being "too much" or "not enough."
We internalize these voices from oppressive institutions and their constituents and come to believe them about ourselves.
The tyranny of the "perfect mother"
The definition of the "good enough mother" is contextualized by sociocultural expectations, meaning that it changes based on the context you are in.
For example, you may have grown up being exposed to the trope of the "selfless mother," the one that denies her needs and exists solely in relation to her children. She lives to serve and meet the demands of others.
If this is a standard that you're upholding, you will likely critique your humanness in comparison. Satisfaction is determined by the distance between how we appraise where we are and where we think we should be. Unrealistic demands will lead us to feel like we are failing, even if we aren't.
The weight of the mental load
Women feel crushed by unrealistic demands in this cultural moment. Women are expected to be present parents, workers, partners, friends, children, and the list goes on. The world has changed, yet the expectations to keep up remain the same.
The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s, and it was singular (you could only have one priority). Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities—now that we have so many priorities, can you actually imagine having a singular priority as a parent? It is important to ask yourself is the guilt I am experiencing about my lack or am I feeling weighed down by the expectations placed on me?
Your self-doubt benefits systems of oppression
If we are guilty and self-critical, the only person we take action against is ourselves. When we are critiquing ourselves, we are not raging against the capitalist, racist, and patriarchal systems that have made us feel like we are not good enough.
This is by design because believing that the problem is located inside you keeps us stuck by making us look for solutions within ourselves (albeit impossible to find) and feeling bad about ourselves (which doesn't motivate us to make change) rather than appropriating responsibility to the sources that have tried to strip us of our ability to feel, depend on others, and organize for change.
Could it be that guilt is actually anger turned inward?
Maybe you're not guilty that you yelled at your kid but rather angry that you do not have child care support that is affordable so you can get the rest you need to feel resourced. Maybe you're not guilty for ignoring their requests for play but angry that you do not have a supportive partner to step in when you're too tired to. Maybe you're not guilty for not being able to "do it all" but rather angry at the individualistic culture that prevents you from asking your community for help and revealing how much you're struggling.
Anger, unlike guilt, can be a catalyst for change. Once we recognize that our anger may actually be a "tragic expression of unmet needs" (a phrase from Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D., founder of The Center for Nonviolent Communication), or a potential sign that something isn't working for us, we can begin to ask to figure out what we really need and seek getting that need met.
4 questions for moving through the guilt
Now that we understand why and how "mom guilt" happens, we can figure out how to work through it. Don't get stuck in the emotion. Ask yourself these questions instead:
Does the guilt belong to you, or did you inherit it from someone else?
Ask yourself if the critical voice in your head is actually your voice and your beliefs or words you've heard from your parents or societal messaging. Sometimes we internalize voices from the outside, and although they sound like they belong to us, they are not our own.
Approaching yourself with curiosity rather than judgment opens up opportunities for investigation and building self-awareness. We are more likely to take positive actions regarding our own behaviors when we are coming from a place of wonder (for example, "I wonder why I yelled at my kid? What made me snap?") rather than punishment (for example, "I am a bad mom for yelling at my kid").
How might this guilt guide me toward what's important to me?
We live in a culture that is negative-feeling-phobic. We don't like negative emotions, and we prefer to pursue the "good vibes." However, sometimes guilt can be good for us to feel because acknowledging the "wrongdoing" orients us to what is important to us and how we might not be living in line with our values.
For example, if you feel guilty for not spending enough time with your children, this might lead you to notice that you are investing too much energy in other parts of your life and that you may want to pull back in order to focus more on family.
Who/what am I mad at?
Anger, if we allow it, can be our savior. We avoid anger for valid reasons—some of us have witnessed harmful expressions of rage; others have been punished for releasing anger, and many worry about how big it will be if it comes out.
If you notice persistent guilt, it can be helpful to ask yourself what might the guilt be covering up? Who/what might I be angry at or have needs for, in order to release the pressure valve on myself to meet all of my children's needs?
Where am I overfunctioning, and how does this enable others to underfunction?
The pressure from the outside world to "do it all" may prevent you from noticing where your self-reliance is preventing you from seeking support and depending on others. This is not your fault, as many of us drink the American individualistic Kool-Aid, which tells us that we should use our internal resources to get by. In reality, separateness is at odds with our biology, and connection is the balm for growth and healing.
Emphasis on the nuclear family's ability to carry its own weight has left many moms feeling depleted and lonely. When you are "doing it all," you may be preventing others from stepping up with support.
Ask yourself: What can I ask for from another? What responsibilities can I share? What needs to shift in order for me to believe I deserve support?
Investigating our mom guilt rather than criticizing ourselves for it creates new pathways out of it. Instead of asking "What is wrong with me?" shifting to the question "What isn't working for me?" has the power to improve your relationship with yourself, which inevitably supports your relationship with your children.
Lia Avellino, LCSW, CEO of Spoke Circles, is trained as a relational and somatic psychotherapist and supports individuals and groups in being real and vulnerable. She believes that deep and intentional connection is the balm for healing and that we all have what we need within us to find our way. To this end, Lia has committed her professional life to bringing the science and ethos of therapy out of the clinical realm and into community spaces. In her role as the Advisor of Head and Heart at THE WELL, relationship columnist for Well Good, and facilitator & media commentator, she uses experiential learning frameworks to empower people to work through issues that are meaningful to them.
She graduated with distinction from Columbia University and has received awards for innovative research and excellence in the provision of therapeutic care to underserved populations, while managing a national component of President Obama’s initiative to reduce teen pregnancy across the nation. Her writing and commentary has been featured in GLAMOUR magazine, The American Journal of Sexuality Education, Best Life, ABC’s The Tamron Hall Show, Cosmopolitan, Men’s Health, CNBCs MakeIt, Motherly, and more. Lia lives with her husband and 3 children in Brooklyn, NY.