By Aga Grabowski
As moms, this feeling of guilt runs through our blood the moment we bring our baby home from the hospital (and as women, this can start when we’re trying to conceive, we’ll save that important conversation for the next article). When we asked moms what types of situations made them feel guilty, they responded with the following:
- Not being able to breastfeed
- Not breastfeeding long “enough.”
- Missing moments like bedtime or extracurricular activities
- Asking for help
- Too much screen time
- Not wanting to play with their child or children
- Traveling for work
- Being a mom who works outside of the home
- Not having a clean house
- Not having enough money for presents for special occasions
- Not losing baby weight
- Losing my identity
And the list continues on and on. In fact, moms feel an overwhelming amount of guilt all of the time. If you’re a mom and you’re reading this, you’re likely nodding your head in agreement. But why do we feel this way, and what can we learn to help change this for the future?
We sat down with Aga Grabowski, LCSW, PMH-C, CST, to talk about everything mom guilt. Aga is a psychotherapist and a co-founder of Wildflower Center for Emotional Health. She has devoted her clinical career to perinatal and maternal mental health and is passionate about working with parents. Aga lives near Chicago with her husband, two rambunctious sons, and an equally spirited Great Dane.
Let’s start with the basics. What is guilt? Is there healthy guilt?
Guilt is an important emotion. It is how we respond when we have behaved in a way that does not align with who we are. Our emotions have evolved as social signals, and at a basic level, their job is to help us maintain a sense of belonging and connection with others. They also help guide our behavior and alert us to what matters to us.
When guilt shows up, it makes us pause and reflect on our actions. This might lead to the decision to make amends or change our behavior. When guilt is a voice of our conscience, and we have truly done something harmful, it is healthy to experience it. The sadness, unease, and remorse that accompany guilt motivate us to act and ultimately to resolve the unpleasant emotion of guilt. This being said, healthy guilt is short-lasting, proportionate, and appropriate to the situation and goes away once we have addressed it. Unfortunately, the kind of guilt many moms experience is not like that.
Why are moms so prone to feeling guilt?
Where do I begin! As parents, we naturally feel responsible for our children’s well-being. This tremendous sense of responsibility is obviously fostered by the love we feel for our children and the desire to protect them from pain and harm. The very harsh reality is that we can’t protect them from everything, no matter how hard we try – and we might know this logically, but knowing it in our hearts is another story. We engage in all kinds of tactics to cope with our uncertainty, helplessness, and fear. Guilt is one such tactic. If I blame myself for a problem that involves my child, even though it makes me feel horrible to feel this way, there can be a false sense of control in that — if I think I caused the problem, perhaps I can also fix it. The trouble is that we can’t always fix it; the problem might not be within our control in the first place, and we’re left with guilt that has nowhere to go, so it just grows.
The fact that moms are so quick to blame themselves is an outcome of cultural expectations placed on moms that are essentially impossible to meet. We live in a culture that puts a huge burden of responsibility on mothers for how children are raised and how they turn out. It’s a lot of pressure, and there is not enough support. We are bombarded daily with conflicting messages about what we should do with our children. The carefully curated images of perfect, happy families on social media contribute to a sense of inadequacy. After all, we want the very best for our kids. Guilt ensues as we internalize unrealistic messages about standards we “should” live up to at all times and feel that we are failing.
As a culture, we’re also quite uncomfortable with the idea of a mother experiencing anything other than bliss and fulfillment in her parenting role. Moms hear that message and start feeling guilty about how they are feeling. Women report feeling guilt about struggling, a whole spectrum of emotions about parenting and needing help. The list goes on. This can become a downward spiral that leads to shame. It can also have major mental health implications.
In conversations with moms about their guilt, the feeling of shame also comes up. Is that normal? What’s the difference?
As a psychotherapist, I find this to be such an important question, and I’m thrilled you are asking it. While guilt is about not feeling good about our behavior, shame is about our fundamental worth as a person. Brene Brown is a prominent shame researcher, speaker, and professor who defines shame as the experience of believing that you are fundamentally flawed and unworthy of love and belonging. In psychotherapy, I often see moms whose chronic feeling of intense and undue guilt has turned into shame. Shame is extremely damaging to our mental health. It is also exceedingly common among moms, which has to do with the intense pressures they are under to “perform” motherhood up to impossible societal standards. As a mental health professional, it is part of my mission to help moms move away from shame and toward compassion and belonging.
What are some key misconceptions about guilt?
A big one is that guilt and shame are the same things. The key distinction is that with guilt, what we feel is I did something bad, whereas, with shame, it is more of I am bad. It’s vital to practice noticing whether we are going to a place of guilt or shame. We must ask ourselves: Have I done something here that does not align with my values, and if so, what steps can I take to rectify the situation? It is socially adaptive to reflect on our behavior in this manner. If we notice that instead, we are actually just berating ourselves and judging the very essence of who we are as a person, that means we are in the shame territory. That is a dead-end street. We don’t make meaningful positive changes in our lives from a place of shame. It just does not happen.
How does guilt show up symptomatically, and what does it look like to our kids?
Intense, unrelenting guilt that is disproportionate or inappropriate to the situation at hand frequently accompanies clinical depression. An overall feeling of worthlessness is often present as well. As a symptom, guilt can be the fuel for and outcome of rumination, which is typically present in both depression and anxiety. It looks like this: you feel guilty so you can’t stop thinking about the things you’ve done and/or are doing wrong, and as you keep rehashing this, you feel more and more guilt. Guilt can turn into shame or be accompanied by shame; you might oscillate between feelings of I failed and I’m a failure. It’s very exhausting. From there, a real sense of hopelessness and paralysis can ensue, deepening the emotional suffering that is already present.
Children tend to pick up on what we say and how we act. If we have a tendency to judge ourselves harshly and are chronically feeling down about our perceived wrongdoings, they will likely notice our stress and anxiety. They might feel responsible or even begin to engage in the same kind of self-talk they are noticing us having. This being said, it’s important to recognize that the solution for the parent is not to simply put on a happy face but to reflect on how guilt and shame show up for you and commit to addressing them more comprehensively if needed.
How can moms lessen the weight of all that guilt – are there techniques we can use?
Definitely! The first step is educating yourself about guilt and the differences between guilt and shame and engaging in ongoing reflection on how they are showing up in your life. It is helpful to consider when it may be time to seek professional mental health support. If you are feeling burdened by these experiences and they are impacting your ability to live a joyful and meaningful life, you likely would benefit from psychotherapy.
Additionally, surrounding yourself with people with whom you can be authentic and vulnerable goes a long way toward preventing excessive mom guilt. When we hear stories of strength and struggle, we are reminded that we are not alone in dealing with our beautiful but complicated and messy lives. We get to embrace it all, the light and dark parts. Research validates what we intuitively know already: that we learn, grow, and improve when feeling accepted and supported.
Lastly, self-compassion practice is an important part of the coping toolkit. This practice is not about self-indulgence or failure to take responsibility for actions we need to own. Instead, self-compassion is about being present and self-aware, greeting our difficulties with non-judgment and kindness, and recognizing that we are not alone in our struggles. If you’d like to learn more, I highly recommend the work of Dr. Kristin Neff, one of the world’s leading experts in self-compassion.