I remember walking down the streets of Koreatown in Los Angeles with my friend Courtney not too long ago. As we pushed strollers down the sidewalk, she told me all the things she had not been keeping up with around her apartment and how overwhelmed she felt. I asked her if she had ever asked her husband for help. “I can’t do that,” she replied. “He has his job. This is my job.” I was astounded. From the outside looking in, it was obvious that the task of motherhood, along with running two other part-time businesses by the way, was far too much for one woman to handle - even if that woman was Wonder Woman. And I knew her husband. I knew he was a kind, caring, attentive man who would gladly help if she asked. So why did she pile the entire burden on herself? Even if she felt she couldn’t ask for help, why didn’t she lighten her load? Make life easier on herself? Give herself a break?
Mom guilt. That’s why.
Mom guilt is that nagging feeling that you’re not doing enough. You’re not enough. The more moms I talked to, the more I realized how rampant mom guilt is.
From the outside it seemed obvious to me. Courtney’s was clearly a case of mom guilt and a completely irrational feeling. Of course she was doing enough. Of course she was doing a great job. How could she not see it? Motherhood in and of itself is a huge undertaking. In fact, according to a recent study, motherhood is equivalent to working two and a half full time jobs. As an objective observer I got it. But then I realized, I was paddling against the exact same current, and wondering why I was failing. I felt guilty. All the time. It didn’t matter if I had been on my feet all day, cleaned three loads of poopy laundry, washed four sink loads of dishes, cleaned the kitchen four times, bathed, clothed and fed my son, played, read and sang to him, cooked dinner and worked on the taxes... by the time I got to bed all I was thinking about was that one neglected chore. Or that one snappy comment I made when I should have been patient. Or that one temper tantrum that could have been avoided.
Guilt is a strange feeling, if you think about it. It’s not like we’re intentionally harming someone or doing something criminal. We were trying to nurture other humans. We should feel empowered. Excited. Maybe overwhelmed. But not guilty.
So what makes us feel guilty when we are trying our hardest to be a good mom? The stakes. Parenthood is the job with arguably the absolute highest stakes. Every decision you make, every action you take can affect the outcome of another human’s life. Or at least it feels that way.
OK, so the stakes are high and we are under a lot of pressure. That much is true, but what can we do about it? We can’t crumble under the weight of mom guilt. That would be worse for our children than if the fears associated with mom guilt were actually true. Our kids lean on our mental wellness for their own sense of security. So for their stability, we must be stable. And if we’re not? Yet another reason to feel guilty. This conundrum reminds me of when I was pregnant for the first time. I stressed out over every decision I made. Every morsel I ate. Every calorie I burned when I exercised. “Is this good for the baby?” “Is this good for the baby?” I couldn’t stop my mind from reeling. Everyone would always tell me, “Relax, stress is not good for the baby!” Great, thanks. That will definitely help me relax.
So if our stress is bad for our kids, how do we de-stress? First, we need to learn to take good care of ourselves. This means eating well, plenty of calories and greens. Drinking plenty of water. Getting plenty of sleep - even if it means sacrificing getting things done. It also means indulging. If you feel like having a piece of chocolate, or two, go for it. And don’t guilt yourself for it! If you need time away from the baby or kids, find a way to make it happen. Ask your husband, ask your mom, heck, ask another mom to come over for an hour. Make your mental health a priority. It will feel great and it will have a positive impact on your kids too.
The other practical thing we can do to eradicate mom guilt is to focus our thoughts on the wins instead of the losses. I’ve heard it said that you should list five things you did well right before you go to bed. I think that’s great, but I would up the ante. Any time the guilt starts to creep in, I would say start listing wins. Did you clean the kitchen today? Win. Were you patient with your toddler when you wanted to scream? Win. Stand on those wins because they will make you stronger during the inevitable losses.
Another tip I received after becoming a mom came from my Physical Therapist. She said, “Lower your standards. Do things you would never do otherwise. Use the paper plates, order dinner every night, whatever you need to do. You won’t do it all the time, but right now you need to.” Boy, did that help me. Even now, when my kids are older, if we go through a season that is unusually rough, I lower my standards. I can’t cook an elaborate dinner tonight. That’s fine. Paper plates this time? You got it. Whatever I need to do, I do and I don’t second guess it.
That same Physical Therapist also turned me on to the importance of alone play. Make sure at least one room in the house, if not several, are fully safe. That means outlets are covered, there are no heavy objects, etc. Anything that could hurt your child has to go. Kind of safe isn’t safe. Once the space is safe, allow your child or children to play alone. They need time to process their feelings, explore on their own and make decisions away from you. Not to mention the fact that they need a break from non-stop stimuli, just like you do. Even if they only last a couple of minutes before they desperately “need” you, that’s fine. Try to work them up to a few more minutes, then a few more. By the time you’ve got them to 20 or 30 minutes of alone play, bam. You’ve got yourself a mom break.
I also talk a lot about “clearing out the cobwebs.” This simply means taking care of any nagging tasks or chores that are weighing on you or stressing you out. When I first became a mom, heck, when I first became pregnant, one of the biggest frustrations was feeling hopeless or like things that were previously easy for me were now near impossible. Life slows way down with kids, and as an achiever, this drives me bonkers. So, for me, clearing out the cobwebs is a must for my peace of mind, even if I’m tired or need a break. If you’re like me, I suggest that if and when you carve out some time for a mom break, balance that time between knocking something off the old mental to do list and doing something fun, you know an actual break.
Lastly, have some compassion for yourself. If you were another mom, what would you say to you? Probably that you’re doing your best, right? In the end, of course we are going to mess up. That’s inevitable. After all, we’re only human. What’s important is that we are present with our kids and enjoy them as much as possible. So, whatever it takes for you to tame the mom guilt, do it. And let me know what worked for you in the comments below! Good luck, mom. You got this.