Guilt & Motherhood: How It Affects Our Parenting & Ways to Combat It

Do you feel guilty, no matter what you do, about not being a pro at motherhood? This is called Mom Guilt, and it affects our parenting. Here’s how to combat it!

by Laura Onstot | Laura Onstot, registered nurse and mom of 2 young kids, rarely pees alone, only frequents restaurants with Kraft Mac N Cheese, and blogs at Nomad’s Land. In her spare time, she can be found sleeping on the couch while she lets her kids watch endless episodes of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. Her parenting advice is questionable, but at least she’s honest. Follow her on Twitter @LauraOnstot.

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My journey with guilt began on day one of motherhood. 

More specifically, it began when I requested an epidural during labor, and the nurse disapprovingly scrunched up her face. While I was annoyed by the sheer judgy-ness she emanated, I considered it a one-off, not realizing that this was the beginning of the rest of my life. 

My daughter was born blue. She got stuck in the birthing canal and by the time I pushed her out, she required intubation.  As I watched the medical team surround my daughter’s tiny body, the disapproving nurse’s words, “Getting an epidural can slow down labor,” echoed in my brain. 

I had failed my first task as a mother: birth. 

And then she had latch problems, so breastfeeding was also a failure. Guilt stacked upon guilt, and loathing stacked upon loathing. I quickly developed a case of postpartum depression, hating motherhood, and not particularly liking my eating, sleeping, pooping machine who couldn’t smile yet. 

I went back to work instead of staying home to be a nurturing mother. Guilt again.

In daycare, she was exposed to the petri dish of germs that only a daycare can grow. She was sick every other week. And I knew the truth: because she wasn’t breastfed, and because I worked, these illnesses were obviously all my fault. 

And all mothers love being mothers, right? I didn’t. So, I added it to the list of my failures. 

I blamed myself for anything that went wrong, and due to the long length of that list, I concluded I was a bad mom. 

How I combatted mom guilt:

It wasn’t until I spent a year in therapy that I realized that none of these things made me a bad mom- that in fact, most moms have similar feelings at some point in their journey. We all experience guilt as parents, and it sucks. You won’t be able to prevent the experience of guilt from happening; but, there are things you can do to make the experience more tolerable.

In therapy, I learned about this thing called, “Self-Compassion.” It’s this crazy thing that most self-loathing people don’t practice, and then when they learn about it, they loathe themselves for not practicing it. 

Kidding. Kind of. 

Kristin Neff is a researcher who specializes in the practice of Self-Compassion. She even has an online quiz you can take to determine how self-compassionate you are. Neff recommends taking a self-compassion break when you realize your brain is going to unkind places. Here’s how:

  1. Recognize that you are suffering

“This hurts”

  1. Remind yourself that you are not alone

“This is part of being human. I am not the only person to ever feel this way.”

  1. Using soothing touch: place your hand on your heart, or give yourself a hug

*This sounds weird, but it works.

  1. Using a kind inner voice, ask yourself: “What do I need to hear right now?” and then give yourself that message. Or you can simply say, “May I be kind to myself.”

I started practicing self-compassion as a way to combat the guilt and the dark feelings that motherhood sometimes inspires. Slowly, I realized that I was not alone. I realized that other moms struggled too. 

Self-compassion certainly didn’t erase all of my mom-guilt. But it leaves me feeling peaceful rather than in a self-loathing state. 

Other things that helped me combat mom-guilt:

  1. Taking a break from social media:

Even though we all know that Instagram is just a collection of a person’s best moments, it is still easy to compare our reality to curated snapshots of other moms and families. Some people quit permanently, while others take a break for a certain length of time.

  1. Verbalizing what I am feeling: 

Oftentimes, when I verbalize what I am feeling, I realize how obnoxious my expectations are. My husband is great at encouraging me to do this. As I sit on the couch, fists clenched, or tears streaming down my cheeks, he will say, “Tell me what you are feeling”, and I will say, “The story I’m telling myself is….” Once my narrative is out in the open, I realize it might be just that- a story that isn’t entirely grounded in reality. The house doesn’t need to be sparkling clean, I don’t need to look like I never had a baby, and even though my meals never please every single person in the family, I am still a great cook. 

  1. Journaling:

Much like verbalizing how I’m feeling, journaling is a great way to put my thought processes on paper, gives me a chance to revisit the thoughts later, look for patterns, and also, bring my dark thoughts into the light. Perhaps one of the biggest things I learned from therapy is that just because you think something, or just because your brain tells you something, that doesn’t mean it is true. A thought is simply that- just a thought. 

If you start to pay attention, you will realize that oftentimes, no matter what you do- work or stay home, formula or breast feed, have a natural birth or c-section, feed your kids fruit snacks or a sugar free diet- you will feel guilty. We are surrounded by unprecedented amounts of research about parenthood, which is often inconclusive, and often only exacerbates the guilt. We have more data to use to quantify ourselves as failures. 

So, the next time you find yourself trying to wrap your brain around first grade math, while cooking a dinner that everyone is going to complain about, in a house that recently experienced an atomic lego bomb…. have a little self- compassion. 

You’re doing great, mama!

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