Before I became a mom, I’d heard of mom jeans and mom guilt but I didn’t give either much thought. I was too busy getting nine hours of uninterrupted sleep and peeing alone. Once I gave birth, I tried on the mom guilt before I even left the hospital. Hiding under the hospital sheets, I used my phone to search the internet for breastfeeding tips. Nursing my son wasn’t going well, and my new mantle of mom guilt hung heavy in my chest where my milk should’ve been. Clearly, I was a “bad mom” for not getting this right. Through tears, I eventually told my husband how I’d been struggling — confessing that my shame, my worry about being judged for my mothering skills (or lack thereof), kept me from asking for help. Huh, and I thought finding the perfect pair of mom jeans would be hard.
For all you mamas feeling guilty for reading this instead of folding your kid’s clean underwear, chances are you’ve faced mom guilt at some parenting point. A recent poll says 94% of all moms experience some kind of “parenting-related guilt” during their motherhood journey. Supatra Tovar, PSY.D, RD., says, mom guilt is characterized by a pervasive perfectionism and constant anxiety/worry about “getting it right” to the point that guilt and shame are induced if perceived perfection is not achieved. So, you might recognize the inner critic that says a “good” mom does it all perfectly, which is why asking for help gets trashed like the painting your toddler made with her dinnertime peas.
When asked about the guilt moms carry, marriage and family therapy associate with Creative Family Counseling, Tiffany Keith, says it’s all about expectations. Mom guilt is all the negative feelings a mother can experience when they fail to live up to their expectations of being a mom, Keith says. These conscious or unconscious parenting expectations can form during childhood or be linked to present day beliefs based on outside ideas. This is where a partner’s belief system or societal images of how a mother should behave can come into play.
Mom guilt can show up for different reasons, and Dr. Tovar says it can rear its ugly head in many arenas. For example, a mother who works part-time can feel guilt rise because she may feel she’s not living up to the standards of other stay-at-home mothers, explains Dr. Tovar. Other places guilt can come up are when you compare parenting methods only to believe you’re not doing enough — or how about the guilt that builds as resentment when you take on the brunt of the household workload? “The resentment will eventually make mothers feel guilty, question their capacity for child rearing, and bring about shame for not being good enough or worthy,” she says. So, basically there’s plenty of guilt to go around — for everything!
As mama’s journey continues, this guilt can pile up, leaving moms feeling isolated in their shame. That’s when the idea of asking for help seems ridiculous and impractical, even if talking to your partner about a better household chore balance would alleviate stress. And that recurring thought about asking a grandparent to watch the kids for a night out, well … it gets buried under the dirty dishes that you’ll get to after your kiddo’s 7.2-hour-long bedtime ritual. These are all essential supports in maintaining a mama’s mental health, so why don’t moms ask for help?
Keith explains mothers can dismiss guilt because many people parent from the letdowns of their past. “Moms want to be the superhero that they themselves didn’t have,” Keith says. This keeps a parent stuck in overachiever mode, bringing on the guilt when those supermom goals aren’t met. To this point, Dr. Tovar says, it doesn’t help that we’ve been conditioned to believe that mothers should take on the brunt of the child-rearing and household duties. “Because so many (moms) adhere to these unfair and outdated expectations, reaching out for help can sometimes be met with resistance, judgment, or criticism,” Dr. Tovar explains. So mothers stay quiet, creating an insurmountable impasse when it comes to getting their needs met.
The shame inherent in mom guilt can lower self-confidence, create anxiety, and even bring on feelings of anger. So, how can moms step out of their silent shame to ask for the support they crave? First, says Keith, begin to recognize when feelings of guilt come up: “Be on guard for behaviors that lead to negative feelings and critical talk like ‘What’s wrong with me?’ or ‘I should be doing more, doing better.’” This type of negative self-talk is generally accompanied by feelings of guilt, and that’s when the shame spirals, locking you in your Fortress of Mom Solitude.
Next, take steps to break your silence and speak to your partner or a trusted loved one about your feelings. Dr. Tovar encourages her clients to start conversations with “I statements,” saying this style of communication allows the listener to pay attention solely to the feelings of their partner. It takes practice, but a sentence like, “I feel guilty when I can’t accomplish all of the chores at home. I’m hoping we can come up with a solution,” helps the listener hear you without getting defensive, and supports the speaker in feeling heard.
Keith says a mama can start to release her feelings of guilt by exploring the thoughts that are shaping those feelings. “Many people would like to not explore or lean into the negative feelings, because they don’t feel good,” Keith begins, “[but] we need to change our behavior and understand that our feelings are here to serve us, and we aren’t here to serve our feelings.” Once we’ve sourced the thought creating the feeling, we can work on changing the root idea. Talking about this with friends who are receptive can be a great start, and Dr. Tovar also recommends therapy, as having outside support can be extremely helpful.
Those first days in the hospital with my newborn might’ve been my initial brush with mom guilt, but it definitely wasn’t my last. It’s been a wild ride of mom shame, but over the years I’ve learned that keeping silent only brings on heavy feelings of loneliness.
“Paying attention to our bodies instead of ignoring them can be the first step to addressing your needs,” says Dr. Tovar. So when I feel hollow and heavy, I push through and talk it out with my BFF or husband in order to come up with a solution. And this is where Dr. Tovar, too, suggests finding a remedy — saying, “Whether it’s asking a spouse or friend for extra help, scheduling a little ‘me time’ by securing some childcare, getting some takeout, or the like.” Letting go of the mom guilt can be difficult, but in the end, it does us a world of good … which in turn supports our whole family.
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