Freedom from the Oppression of Mommy Guilt
“Mommy guilt” has become very pervasive in our society. Stay-at-home moms can feel guilty for not “contributing to society” or for not enjoying every moment they are with their kids. Working moms can feel guilty for not spending “enough” time with their children. There is the guilt of not exposing one’s children to “enough” academic opportunities or social skill opportunities, coupled with the guilt of exposing children to too many germs.
Mothers these days can often find themselves feeling like they can’t do anything right. If you spend time on yourself, then you can feel selfish. If you don’t spend time on yourself, then you may not be as patient with your children, making you feel like a “bad mom.” Mommy guilt is oppressive!
Dr. Diana Lynn Barnes, Psy D at The Center for Postpartum Health, has identified a lot of myths that contribute to how a mother experiences motherhood.
Here are a few:
1) Mothers’ instincts will always let them know the best thing to do for their children: FALSE
Although mothers do generally have a maternal instinct to protect and nurture their children, this maternal instinct does not mean that a mother knows what is best for her child in every situation or that she has learned all the parenting skills she might need. No one naturally knows what to do in every circumstance. Even when you do know what to do for your children, oftentimes you can’t do it alone. It takes a village to raise a child! Parents need support from others to meet the needs of their children and to learn resources and tools for how to care for their children.
2) Mothers instantly bond with their infants and love being around their children at all times: FALSE
Sometimes mothers bond instantly with their newborns, but sometimes that bond takes time to develop and grow. And even after a strong bond is formed, a mother will feel varying levels of connection to her children. No relationship in this world sustains a constant level of enjoyment. Children demand a lot from parents, and various situations and feelings—like fatigue—can commonly cause us to feel distant from our children.
3) Mothers need to be a “good mom” as opposed to a “bad mom” at all times: FALSE
This mentality too often translates to the perceived need to be a perfect mom who isn’t allowed to make mistakes or to just have a bad day. Who defines a “good mom” or “bad mom” anyway? Expectations can flood in from family, friends, media, and society, and these expectations can set standards for what it means to be a “good mom,” but they are unrealistic to fulfill all day every day! There are certainly specific practices and skills in parenting that are helpful and even necessary, but when our identity begins to be defined by unrealistic expectations—especially the perception that we have to be perfect all the time—we run into problems.
The truth is that all this mommy guilt is more of the problem than any of the claims it makes of us! Mommy guilt distracts us from being fully present with our children when we are with them, which strains attachment. Mommy guilt can keep us from setting boundaries with our children when we need to. It can also cause us to neglect our self-care and to be less likely to ask for help.
Mommy guilt can be complex and can arise for a variety of reasons.
Here are some general ideas that could help:
1) Write down the expectations you have for yourself as a mom. Sometimes when we see them on paper we can look at them objectively. When we recognize those that we would never expect these expectations of someone else they can lose their power over us?
2) Speak kindly to yourself. We all make mistakes as parents. Consider how you would respond to others when they make a mistake, and try to speak that same way to yourself.
3) Notice the many things you are doing well! Our society, so driven by success and perfection, can cause you to focus on your mistakes, problems, and anxieties. Take a moment to notice areas where you have problem-solved, grown in patience, learned from mistakes, and done a wonderful job!
Sometimes, however, these ideas are not enough. Sometimes, in our mind, we are able to think I know I am not doing anything wrong. I know these expectations are too much and that I am being too hard on myself. I know it’s okay to spend time on myself. Yet our hearts still feel guilty, and we continue to beat ourselves up anyway.
One therapy I have found to be particularly helpful for mommy guilt is called EMDR. For instance, instead of trying to ignore the guilty feelings and repeatedly convince our hearts that we are doing our best as a parent, EMDR is a therapy that helps the mind and heart get on the same page so we can live fully believing we are doing our best—without guilt!. EMDR helps us discover where the mommy guilt messages may have come from, and it allows our brains to reprocess those memories in a way that can free us of unnecessary thoughts and feelings that precipitate mommy guilt.
I have used EMDR (along with various other techniques) to help mothers with mommy guilt. It is a delight to see mothers feel free and to see their children reap the benefits too! Mommy guilt can be suffocating, but it doesn’t have to stay and keep hurting you and your family!