Spend any time around moms – be it on social media or in a real life social setting – and I guarantee that before too long you’ll hear references to mom guilt. Some moms will bemoan it. Others will poke fun at it. But rest assured – almost all moms talk about it. It’s a part of our vocabulary. A part of our subconscious. And between blogs and memes and discussions over Friday night cocktails and Saturday morning coffee, it’s quickly becoming a part of our social fabric.
But here is the problem.
Mom guilt, as we know it, isn’t real. And the misappropriation of this word has some serious consequences.
In recent years, I’ve started to notice that moms tend to categorize anything and everything that they are struggling with in motherhood as “mom guilt.” This applies to everything from their work-home life balance, what their kids eat or don’t eat, how they teach and discipline their children, educational decisions, and overall attitudes towards this bizarre and wonderful gig we call motherhood.
Essentially, mom guilt has become a stand-in to express our general frustration and doubts about how good of a job we are doing. These frustrations and doubts are real and valid and a part of motherhood, but the problem is that – by and large – these emotions aren’t guilt. We are accurately identifying some difficult emotions that motherhood causes, but we are mislabeling them, and when we mislabel them, we allow them to mislead us.
Let’s start with guilt.
Guilt, my friends, is not a bad thing. Sure, it doesn’t feel good, but guilt is actually a powerful tool to refine us and make us better people! Shame is the negative, soul crushing emotion. Shame is the thing that stops you in your tracks and destroys all sense of self. Guilt, on the other hand, spurs us to action. It causes change. It it the point of recognition where we realize we have been wrong, so that we can choose to do better. As always, my girl Brené says it best:
When we apologize for something we’ve done, make amends, or change a behavior that doesn’t align with our values, guilt – not shame – is most often the driving force. We feel guilty when we hold up something we’ve done or failed to do against our values and find they don’t match up. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but one that’s helpful. The psychological discomfort, something similar to cognitive dissonance, is what motivates meaningful change. Guilt is just as powerful as shame, but its influence is positive, while shame’s is destructive. (From Daring Greatly)
Guilt causes us to face our choices, compare them to our values, and if they don’t match up, our only two choices are to live in denial or choose change.
But that isn’t what most women are talking about when they are referring to mom guilt. And that’s a problem.
Here’s the thing. Motherhood is the most difficult job ON THE PLANET. I absolutely adore my children and love being a mom and I still have no bones about admitting that it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s exhausting. It’s complex. It’s never ending. And it feels like it’s constantly requiring more from me than I have to offer.
Those feelings and experiences are completely valid and real, but they aren’t mom guilt.
Because the hardest reality about being a mom is that many of the difficult issues I face with my children don’t have a solution – other than me just continuing to show up each and every day and be the best possible version of myself that I can be. Motherhood is difficult because it matters so much. It’s ridiculous that we would take something so precious and so complicated, and feel guilty over the fact that it’s precious and complicated.
Categorizing everything as mom guilt seems to imply that we have all the cards, we have all the control, and if we can just apologize enough, feel sorry enough, or change enough, then somehow this will all get easier.
Listen up moms, because I’m about to set some of you free right here:
Most of the frustrating/concerning/overwhelming issues that you face as a parent aren’t a symptom of your inadequacies. It’s simply the job description.
The goal is not to clear our life of obstacles and hardships, the goal is to face those obstacles and hardships with tenacity, bravery, and integrity. And we begin to do this by changing our perspective, changing our expectations, and learning how to lean into (rather than fight against) the experience.
You know what my friends and I commiserate about together as moms?
We want our kids would be better eaters.
We want our kids to be better sleepers.
We want our kids to be more respectful, less head strong, and more obedient.
We want our kids to help take care of our homes and each other.
We want to be less stressed out, more patient, and have more fun as parents.
We want less melt downs – by us and them.
We want a peaceful, loving home where needs are met and life is enjoyed.
And you know what? All of these things are wonderful values and goals. But if you compare your bad day to these values through the lens of mom guilt, then you are going to come away with an inaccurate assessment of how good of a job you are doing.
Because motherhood is one of those jobs where you do can put in all this work, do your best day in and day out, and the outcomes just aren’t there. (Or don’t appear to be there, or aren’t obvious, or aren’t there yet.)
Does that mean you re-evaluate? Sure. Does that mean you search your own heart for any of the ways you could have responded better or acted with big-picture-perspective rather than an in the moment emotional response? Absolutely. But this is not mom guilt. This is you doing your best at a job that is 100% harder than any of us realized when we first signed up. Believing that it is mom guilt will only make you chase for the elusive silver bullet; The thing that you can do to “fix” the hard things in your life; The thing that – once discovered – will solve your problems, will make you a better mom, and will help your kids stop doing whatever behavior it is you want them to stop doing.
Let me put it this way.
Let’s say you have a kid that refuse to eat anything healthy. You do your best and try all the Pinterest recipes and you read all that articles about proper childhood nutrition and you sing songs and you dance dances but nothing helps you get anything that even resembles a vegetable into your kid’s stomach. Let’s say this experience causes you to suffer. You are frustrated. You feel defeated. You worry about your kid developing scurvy. You worry what your other mom friends think about you kid proudly declaring “I only eat chicken nuggets!” at your play group. You start to believe you are experiencing mom guilt. This guilt makes you think that you are doing something wrong. That you are a failure. Because there is something that you can do to fix this situation, you just can’t figure out what that is. Because raising a kid on a diet of chicken nuggets doesn’t fit your value system. But what more could you possibly DO? You’ve already done all the things. You cry and pray and research and pull your hair out wondering what more can be done BECAUSE THIS GUILT MEANS I NEED TO DO SOMETHING TO CREATE CHANGE.
And you can’t.
And so you get super depressed. And you chalk it up to another thing you can’t get right, do right, or feel right about. Another point for mom guilt.
But this isn’t guilt. This, is shame. Shame born out of poor perspective and misappropriated emotions.
Friends, there are so many elements of motherhood that are out of our control. These kids that we are raising are HUMAN BEINGS. We can’t control them anymore than we can control our husbands (can I get an Amen on that?). What we can do, is our best.
We can wake up each day and know what our values are and live out of those values. We can continue to teach and mold our children with the understanding that parenting is not a process that transforms in the moment or even over night – it’s ongoing and seemingly never ending. We can accept that our kids will reject our values out of hand when it comes to eating habits, sleeping habits, playing nicely with other, etc, because they are unfinished humans and that is what unfinished humans do. This is not a judgement on our mothering, its a reflection of our humanity.
The problem with labeling everything as mom guilt is that it implies that the problems we face day in and day out are an indication that we are doing something wrong.
Now, hear me out, you and I both know that we as moms DO mess up and there are things that we SHOULD feel guilty about and things that DO need to change in our lives.
For example, when my oldest son was struggling so much in kindergarten, I had to face the reality that every day I was sending him into an environment that didn’t meet his needs, didn’t match up with our family values, and that I had the power to do something about. I felt guilty about it. I had to face it. I was empowered to change it.
But dear sweet mommas, 99% of the things we are categorizing as mom guilt are really just hard things that we are doing our best – sometimes with success but more often than not with a sense of failure. And the feelings that come when we try to face those hard things and then force change is defeating and demoralizing.
Not every hard thing you face as a parent has a solution, because not every hard thing you face as a parent is a result of you doing something wrong.
Sometimes hard things are just the result of humans being humans.
This should not discourage us, it should set us free.
It should set us free from the unrealistic notion that everything is in our control and therefore we are burdened to figure everything out.
It should set us free from the illogical idea that there is a single, magical way to get our kids to do whatever it is we want them to do (potty train, eat better, sleep better, etc.). In reality, the things that truly help our children grow and learn and mature aren’t solutions – it’s simply called parenting. It’s showing up day in and day out with the understanding that this is going to take time, this is going to take work, and this is going to feel like it isn’t working – until one day – it does.
It should set us free from the idea that everything that our children do is our fault, or a direct result of our poor parenting. (Guess what, guys, kids have the same free will as us adults.) We can (and should!) model and train and teach and encourage, but the ultimate responsibility for their behavior is on them. I’m concerned that mom guilt causes us to take all the blame for our kids’ behavior, causing us to parent them as if we are at fault and not them. This fosters an entitled mentality in children who alway see themselves as victims, and parents who are constantly defeated and see themselves as failures.
It should set us free from prescriptive parenting tips and advice that boils childhood, parenthood, and life down to a series of “if this then do this” type solutions. Life doesn’t work that way unless you are dealing with the stable and predictable world of numbers. But if there is one thing that children aren’t, it’s stable and predictable. 😉
And, it should set us free from believing that we are at the center of the universe. Listen friend, it’s absolutely our job to do our best for our kids. But our best will never be perfect. This whole mom guilt thing seems to be selling us the illusion that perfection is attainable if we only strive hard enough, sacrifice enough, want it enough, grovel enough, feel guilty enough.
And that simply isn’t true.
You aren’t perfect as a person, so you will never be perfect as a mom. And that’s ok. That’s normal. That is what we call reality.
Embrace it. Love it. Get up real close and comfortable with it. Because once you set yourself free from mom guilt and the quest for perfection, you’ll be free to embrace allll the good things about being a mom.
You’ll be free to embrace the fun. You’ll be free to embrace the transformative process that motherhood naturally inspires. You’ll be free to grown and learn right along side your kids. You’ll be free to make choices knowing you can only deal with what is right in front of you. You’ll be free to make choices that aren’t rooted in fear, but rooted in love. You’ll be free to choose grace – for yourself, and for your children. You’ll be free to show up, mess up, and get back up. You’ll be free to acknowledge guilt when it truly does arise in your heart and mind. You’ll be free to face it. You’ll be free to act and change and move on. You’ll be free to make mistakes that don’t define you, and won’t derail you.
Guilt is a real thing. Guilt is a good thing. But mom guilt? Nah. None of us need that. We don’t need a culture that tells us that we should be able to feel good about everything as a mom all the time. We don’t need to buy into the belief that just because things feel hard that we are somehow to blame. And we certainly don’t need to believe that there is a solution to every tantrum, every struggle, every frustrating situation that we face with our kids. Sometimes, being a mom is just really, really hard.
Perhaps the incredible, collective anxiety we feel in our culture today as mom stems from this idea that if motherhood is hard, then we need to find a solution to make that hard thing disappear. Yet we instinctively and experientially know that isn’t true. But mom guilt makes us feel as if it is. And so we spiral. Our normal frustrations and concern and – let’s just call it what it is sometimes – exhaustion, morphs into something huge and ugly and unbearable. Mom guilt sets us up to believe that all the hard things we face are in our control to fix. And moms, they just aren’t.
You have the ability to fix your attitude.
You have the ability to fix your perspective.
You have the ability to fix your head and your heart on truth.
You have the ability to know and live out of your values.
You have the ability to try, fail, and try again.
You have the ability to offer and receive grace.
You have the ability to fix yourself some coffee, sit down on the sofa with your kids, and relax, knowing that you are doing your best. And there is nothing – NOTHING – to feel guilty about that.