Ask a group of 10 moms to define or describe mom guilt and you will likely get 10 different responses. We all associate feelings of guilt with different parenting situations that are as unique as we are. It ranges from feeling guilty about snapping at your children or feeding them sugary snacks to dropping them at daycare every morning or leaving for an overnight work trip.
We feel guilt for big and small things, for things we did and didn’t do, and everything in between.
It’s a big topic and one that repeatedly comes up in almost all of my coaching calls. It’s not always labeled as mom guilt, but the more we talk about overwhelm, about what we’re focusing on or spending our time on, or about why we haven’t had a date night or a girls’ night out in months, it usually circles back to guilt. We don’t do things because we want to avoid the guilt. We don’t think we’re strong enough to experience it and move past it. Or...we don’t realize that we are the ones creating our own guilty reality.
Guilt, when not addressed, can be quite a consuming feeling. It can become a bad habit, one that grows over time until soon you second-guess everything that you do for fear of feeling guilty afterward.
While I could certainly share my own experiences with guilt, I know they may not encompass the wide spectrum of mom guilt. So I asked some of my friends, colleagues, and neighbors to help me share stories of mom guilt, and boy was I surprised at some of the answers. Examples I never would have thought about, but I’m so glad to know about.
When Have You Experienced Mom Guilt?
Blending Work and Life
“I have a job that has a lot of flexibility so I am around a lot more than other full time jobs but a lot of the time I never feel like I am fully present. I am always taking phone calls and worrying about clients. It’s hard to push that out of mind and focus fully on the kids.”
Taking It Out on Your Kids
"I lose my sh*t with my daughter all the time, and it's usually because I'm tired. When I don't parent with grace and instead react out of anger or frustration, I feel terrible, especially because it probably could have been prevented if I had gone to bed earlier the night before."
Traveling for Work
"Two weeks ago I was out of town for a work conference and found out our one year old had fallen down the stairs the night before and was taken to the hospital via ambulance. He was completely fine (just had an ear infection), but I felt guilty that I wasn't there. I kept thinking if I had been there I would have been an extra pair of hands and my husband wouldn't have been so stressed trying to get everyone ready for bed. I felt guilty that my husband had to go through that terrifying experience alone. I felt guilty that I couldn't be there for several more days to hold my baby and have physical proof he was okay."
"I was unable to exclusively breastfeed my babies past four months. My milk supply couldn't keep up, and truthfully, I wasn't willing to be attached to my pump and eat all kinds of supplements to try to increase my milk. So we just started using formula. With my first born, I cried over this many times. I was disappointed and felt guilty that I wasn't giving her breast milk. But eventually I came to appreciate the conveniences of formula, and my guilt subsided.
I was surprised when my son was born and we made the switch to formula again that [the guilt] crept back up. I remember bottle-feeding my newborn and feeling like I had to tell everyone in the room that the bottle was breast milk. Why is that?! Why do we need to slip it into conversation that we're giving our kid breast milk or justify why we're not? When I stopped producing enough, that was disappointing but to be honest, I didn't love breastfeeding and felt a little relieved that it was over, and that made me feel guilty too. Why didn't I love something I was literally designed to do? Did I give up too easily? And would I have loved it if I had had a normal supply? I wrestled with these questions a lot."
Working Too Much
"Luckily, I do not have to do morning drop off (that's my husband's realm). Avoiding the daycare drop off has been huge in terms of avoiding mom guilt on a regular basis. I typically do not feel guilty while I'm at work because I get a fair amount of fulfillment from my work, which I think makes me a better mom at the end of the day. However, I feel very guilty when my work bleeds into what should be time with my family (evenings and weekends). This happened a lot last school year (new school districts & new preps = 55-60 hour work weeks). I felt very guilty having to tell my son I couldn't play or couldn't go to the zoo with him and his dad on a Sunday because I had to work."
How Do You Move Past the Guilt?
It happens to the best of us, and it happens pretty frequently. Feeling guilty over certain circumstances, behavior, and decisions is a part of parenting. So how do you move past those feelings of mom guilt? What can you think or do instead?
These were some of my favorite tips:
Instead of feeling bad about yourself for something you can't control, try to be grateful. For example, be grateful that you can afford formula and that formula even exists.
Talk About It, Normalize It
Talk about your experience when it comes up in conversation to normalize it - for yourself and for any other moms who might be listening. If someone says something offensive or insensitive, give them the benefit of the doubt.
Keeping busy at work or during work travel is the best way to distract yourself and keep your mind off of feeling guilty.
Accidents will happen whether you are there all the time or not, no matter how careful you are. The same thing could have happened even if you hadn't been away and both parents had been looking out for the kids' safety. It's okay to let yourself off the hook.
If you lose your patience with your little one and resort to harsh words or actions, make a point to apologize and ask for forgiveness as soon as possible. Talk about why you both got upset, and after you hug it out, your guilt will probably have melted away.
Try setting stronger work boundaries so you can be more present at home. Especially if you don't work a tradition 9-5 job, that flexibility can lead to never being fully present. Find the boundaries that work for you so you can focus on family or work and not both all of the time.
Ask Yourself Some Questions
If you feel overcome with mom guilt, try asking yourself some questions -
- Is your child thriving and happy? (yes)
- Does he know he has a mom who loves him? (yes)
- Is he learning new lessons/skills at daycare that you maybe wouldn't have even thought to teach him? (yes)
Then, what a lucky kid! Why are you even feeling guilty?
You Are Not Alone
If I can teach you one thing about guilt, it’s that whether you feel guilty or not, is completely up to you. You may say, “she made me feel so guilty when she said…” or “hearing her talk about the privilege she has in staying home with her kids made me feel so guilty.”
But it’s not true. She didn’t make you feel guilty. You thought that what she does or how she mothers was better, and that thought created the guilty feeling. Or you thought, I am doing a disservice to my child, or my child will never forgive me for leaving, or my kid would be better off if I did this or that, and those thoughts (most of them not true!) created your own feelings of guilt.
Knowing that, being aware of that, is so powerful.
I hope, by reading these honest stories from other moms who are doing the best that they can, helps you realize that we all feel it. We all experience mom guilt.
Share your stories, talk about it, normalize it, or challenge yourself with some of those amazing questions about whether your kid is happy, healthy and knows he is loved.
I bet you can talk yourself down off that ledge or pick yourself up out of those feelings of guilt. We all get through them and we get better and stronger every time that we do. Don’t avoid the situations that “make you feel guilty”. Walk head-on into them knowing you’re not alone and knowing you have the tools to get past it.
Many thanks to these amazing women who were willing to share their stories, thoughts and tips on mom guilt:
- Brooke Lehenbauer - Stay-at-home mom & part-time family photographer, Mom to a girl and a boy (3 yo and 7 months)
- Jackie - Sales/Account Management, Mom to 3 kiddos (5, 3 and 1)
- Lauren Karas - High school teacher, Mom to 3 yo boy and one on the way!
- MC - Realtor, Mom to 2 boys (4 1/2 and 2 yo)