April 27, 2023

Got Mom Guilt? Here’s How To Navigate It

Caring for your own well-being and setting manageable expectations can dispel that feeling

Busy mom helps children with homework while holding baby, working on computer and talking on phone.

You lost your cool with your toddler who’s refusing their vegetables (again) and seems to think hot dogs are at the base of the food pyramid. Your baby has a forehead bruise, even though you only turned your back for a minute. Everyone’s getting entirely too much screen time. Your boss is on your case … again … because you had to take even more time off with a sick kid. Oh, and your relationship with your partner? More like roommates these days.

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And there it is. The mom guilt. The incessant voice in the back of your head saying you’re doing it wrong. That you’re not the parent, the partner, the professional you should be.

You’re supposed to be “having it all” over here. And instead, you’re scrambling on the daily, just trying to make sure the kids are fed, the laundry is done, your work is at least passable and your relationship doesn’t completely lose its spark.

Your own needs? Pushed to the end of the list.

You’re not alone.

It’s commonly called “mom guilt” because in our culture, it’s often assumed that moms bear the burden of juggling work life and parenting. But in reality, the guilt that comes with making seemingly impossible choices between competing demands can happen to any parent or caregiver. No matter your gender identity or role in your family, if you’re feeling guilty for not being everyone’s everything at every moment of every day, you’ve got the mom guilt. And we’re here to help.

We talked with functional medicine specialist Melissa Young, MD, about what mom guilt is, why it happens and strategies to help overcome it.

What is mom guilt?

“Mom guilt” is a name given to the feelings of guilt and shame some people feel when they don’t live up to their own or others’ expectations in their role as a parent. It’s like an internal dialogue that tells you you’re failing as a caregiver.

Researchers define guilt as “a core emotion governing social behavior by promoting compliance with social norms or self-imposed standards.”

In other words, guilt is part of what encourages us to play by the rules. That may mean that we obey the law. Or that we adhere to cultural norms (or our own internalized ideals) of “what good parents do.”

“There are so many subtle — and not-so-subtle — triggers in our society that pressure us into thinking we should be able to ‘do it all,’” Dr. Young explains. “Mom guilt is a very natural experience when you consider all the competing responsibilities and expectations in our lives. But there aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything you think you should be doing. The math doesn’t compute.”

You play a number of roles in your life. And each of those roles comes with certain expectations. You may have responsibilities to your children, partner, friends, colleagues, parents, siblings and more. And on top of it, you’re a unique individual with needs of your own.

When those needs compete for your time and attention, something’s gotta give. You’re forced to prioritize one role over another.

  • Working late and ordering takeout? (I should be making my family a nutritious dinner.)
  • Stay-at-home parent? (I should be contributing to our family’s financial picture.)
  • Going on a child-free vacation? (I shouldn’t be looking forward to time away from my kids.
  • Snapped at your partner about not cleaning the toilet? (I should be more appreciative of their contributions. And I should be taking better care of our home.)
  • Dozens of unread texts from friends and family? (My loved ones need me. I should be making more time for them.)

All those “shoulds” add up, creating a storm of internal turmoil.

How guilt affects us

As guilt builds, so does stress. And stress has a number of impacts on your physical and mental well-being.

Here’s how.

In response to stress, your body releases adrenaline and other stress hormones. That psyches you up and sends your body into fight-or-flight mode. That’s useful if you need to, say, decide whether to fight off a bear or run for your life. But left unchecked long-term, living in a perpetual stress response cycle keeps your body from relaxing and appreciating the moment.

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It can leave you on edge, tense and more likely to lash out (and feel guilty for doing so). And it has long-term ramifications, too.

Living with chronic guilt and stress doesn’t give your nervous system the downtime it needs, Dr. Young says. When your stress response is constantly being triggered, it can lead to chronic disease and mental health concerns, including:

“When you think about the long-term effects, you realize that relieving yourself of your guilt isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity,” Dr. Young states.

How to deal with mom guilt

The stresses of parenthood can leave you feeling like there’s no space for your own needs, but it’s a viscous cycle. Leaving your own needs behind creates more stress. More stress means you’re not going to live up to the expectations you have for yourself. That means more guilt, more stress and less effectiveness in every role you play.

Dr. Young offers these tips to work through your guilt:

Self-care

One small study suggests that feelings of guilt are more intense if we believe our actions affect others. The flip side is you feel less guilty if you’re the only one affected by your choices.

Taking time to indulge in your interests means you’re not actively caring for your children (or your partner, or your work). Your choice affects others. So, you feel guilty

But, you reason, there’s no shame in putting your own wants and desires at the end of your to-do list. So, you neglect your own desires to avoid feelings of guilt.

It turns out that thinking is flawed.

Just as with your checking account, if you take too many withdrawals from your energy bank without making enough deposits, you’re bound to face some penalties.

“When we don’t make time for ourselves, resentment and stress can build,” Dr. Young explains.

The result? You’re irritable. You’re anxious. You yell. And now, you’ve layered on even more guilt for not being the perfect parent. Sooo NOT what you were going for.

“It’s very hard to think about taking time for yourself when everybody needs something from you,” Dr. Young emphasizes. “But if you can frame caring for your needs as a way to help you better care for others, you might find you can prioritize it more.”

Self-care, Dr. Young says, is your opportunity to fill up your energy bank and lower your stress.

Self-care looks different for different people. It’s about taking time out to charge your batteries. You don’t have to go full-on goblin mode if that’s not in the cards for you. But you can find 10 minutes to do something that’s just for you. That might mean:

  • Taking a relaxing Epsom salt bath.
  • Calling a good friend.
  • Going for a walk around the block.
  • Reading a book for pleasure.
  • Kicking back with a favorite TV show or a movie.

The point is to deliberately take time for YOU. Fill up your energy bank before you go bankrupt.

“Parents are so good at caring for the needs of their families, but they don’t always take the opportunity to nourish their own souls,” Dr. Young notes. “Give yourself permission to take a small amount of time. Over time, you may find you feel less guilty as you feel more fulfilled.”

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Get in tune with your breath

Breathing is something we take for granted. It just … happens. But when you step back and focus on your breath — instead of your guilt, stress and what’s next on your ever-growing list of priorities — you may find a renewed perspective.

“When we feel guilt and stress, it can be like being in a pressure cooker, where the intensity just keeps building,” Dr. Young explains. “It’s helpful to recognize when you need a time out to calm your nerves and turn down the heat.”

Regular meditation practice may help train your body and mind to disengage from fight-or-flight mode in moments of tension.

And when you’re in a moment of guilt or stress, try the five-finger breathing technique to reset your thinking.

  • As you breathe in, use one finger to slowly trace your opposite thumb from the base to the tip.
  • Breathe out as you trace down the other side of your thumb.
  • Continue with each of your fingers — breathing in as you trace up and breathing out as you trace down.
  • When you reach the bottom of your pinky finger, reverse directions.
  • Continue until you reach the base of your thumb.

Pro tip: Five-finger breathing works great for kids, too. So, encourage them to join you, and teach them to use this technique in times of stress. Practicing it yourself helps model healthy behavior and stress regulation. (Self-care, plus rockstar parenting. You win!).

Avoid the comparison game

We all want to be the best. The best partner. The best colleague. The best parent. But setting impossible-to-reach goals is a recipe for failure. And guilt.

Social media and “mommy blogs” can add fuel to those feelings of guilt, until a bonfire is raging.

  • Your co-worker manages a multimillion-dollar investment portfolio by day and never misses a soccer game, ballet recital, swim meet or school field trip. (Why can’t I manage to make it to the kids’ piano practice once a week?)
  • That popular girl from high school works out for two hours every single day and makes a gourmet meal for her kids every night. (When’s the last time I even went to the gym?)
  • Your sister’s house is always sparkling clean, plus she and her husband go on date night every week without fail. (What’s a date, again?)

But try to remember, you never know the full story. What we put out on social media or what we choose to share with others is often not the full picture. People in your life are probably looking at you some days thinking you, too, are setting a high bar. It’s all a matter of perception.

It can be difficult to do, but the more you can avoid comparing your life to others’ will help to keep your expectations for what you can achieve at a more manageable level. You’re not perfect, but neither are they.

Talk it out

Have you ever heard the phrase, “A problem shared is a problem halved”?

It means that when we talk about our concerns with others, it allows us to unburden ourselves from carrying the weight of our worries all on our own.

“Reaching out to a good friend or sharing your feelings of guilt with a partner or trusted individual can help remind you that you’re not alone,” Dr. Young says.

Some people may find support in connecting with a licensed therapist or other healthcare provider. If guilt and stress are impacting your ability to enjoy a full life or if they’re creating effects on your physical well-being, it’s time to talk with a professional about it.

Mom guilt is natural, but that doesn’t mean you have to grin and bear it. Take time for yourself and keep your expectations reasonable. You don’t have to be a superhero. You just need to do your best. Chances are, you’re doing a darn good job.

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