In my practice and in my life as a working mother, I see “mother guilt” as an extremely common phenomenon that triggers anxiety and low self-esteem in many women who are doing their best to juggle the responsibilities of work and home.
Kids aren’t the only ones who feel separation anxiety–moms feel it too. Mothers hearts are always tethered to their children. While at work, the separation can tug at our heartstrings, sometimes excruciatingly so. Thoughts of all we want to do, “should” do, and imagine other (“better”) moms are doing with their children run through our minds as perpetual self-flagellation.
Many moms report they feel spread too thin and feel they are falling short both at home and at work. This is unsurprising as recent news tells us moms are the primary breadwinners in 40% of U.S. households and the United Nations report on Men in Families in 2011 indicates that working mothers still handle the large majority of childcare and housework responsibilities. Women are also more often the ones to make career sacrifices for the sake of the family. (I just Googled “mother guilt” and there are more than fifty pages of relevant articles. For “father guilt,” there were less than four and many of the entries referred to divorced dads.)
Since 2004, my practice has been providing Pre- and Post-Baby Couples Counseling and I have a book in development called First Comes Love, Then Comes Carriage. Both my program and book offer practical guidance for new parents to successfully navigate the relationship challenges of early parenthood. Based on my experience, I recommend the following to alleviate mother guilt:
- Understand you are only allowed to feel guilty if you have done something wrong. Otherwise, it is just self-loathing which is not useful for yourself or anyone else. Be aware of your inner critic and detach from those negative thoughts. Breathe them out and let them go.
- Consider this: If you still feel mother guilt, you are a good mom because you care. And since you are a good mom, there is nothing to feel guilty about. It is extremely rare in my practice for me to see a mom who has a nanny working 80 hours a week and spends the remainder of her time socializing and taking care of herself with little or no guilt. If you are not one of those moms, you have a conscience and a healthy attachment to your child.
- Understand there is no perfect mom, only good moms. We are all human and motherhood is incredibly humbling. Just as we don’t expect our children to be perfect, we can’t expect ourselves to be either. If you think other moms are perfect, keep in mind you are comparing your insides to their outsides. (I secretly was overjoyed to hear my “perfect” neighbor yell at her kids, “STOP WHINING!!!!!!!!” on a summer day when the windows were open. That’s when I knew she was normal and that we could be friends…)
- Have a positive mantra and cut yourself some slack. Mine is “I am doing the best that I can, and that is all I can do.” When I notice at work that the bottom my purse is lined with smashed goldfish crackers and I realize I forgot to give my daughter her snack for her after school activity, I repeat this mantra and try to zoom out and gain perspective. Big picture, everything is fine.
- Get the help you need and deserve so you have the time and energy to do the things you want to do with your kids. Set healthy boundaries and make sure your partner is doing his or her fair share. Review your budget and assess whether you can work in things like a cleaning service or grocery delivery.
- Nurture your friendships with other moms. Other moms and will validate, normalize and assuage your mother guilt. They will laugh with you and cry with you.
- Understand, it takes a village to raise a child. It is good for our kids to have the experience of others taking care of them and some healthy separation from us.
- Appreciate that you are a positive role model for your child. When my daughter was four, she said she was happy she was a girl so she could grow up to be a mommy because, “Moms can do everything. They can work, have friends, clean and even do hairstyles…”
- Celebrate your competency, strength and resiliency. When pontificating on all the things mothers do, my client said, “I mean, who do you think puts the salt in the salt shakers?” We mothers make the world go round.