I deeply dislike the concept of “mom guilt.” It’s a social construct (not an inevitability of the maternal experience), and one that causes harm on so many levels.
While guilt is a natural and sometimes healthy reaction to having caused harm, as mothers we’re conditioned to think that our constantly feeling guilty is normal and simply another less-than-awesome aspect of motherhood. I don’t buy it.
Here’s what feels truer to me:
“Mom guilt” is manufactured. It’s intentionally cultivated in us. The powers that be (namely patriarchy, capitalism, white supremacy, and those who benefit most from these structures) bombard us with constant messages about all we need to be doing, purchasing, and prioritizing; about what’s important and worth our resources. We internalize these messages and adjust our decision making and prioritization accordingly because we want to be ”good moms” and “good people,” we want our loved ones to be happy and well, and we desperately long to live with less stress and more ease. Then, when we can’t keep up with alllll the seemingly important things we’ve been told we must prioritize in order to be “good,” we feel guilty. Not because we’re not doing enough, but because the messaging is intentionally designed to play upon our core values, our unmet needs, our deepest desires, and our greatest vulnerabilities. So then we work even harder, take on even more unpaid labor, and purchase more products, which props up and perpetuates existing power structures. The more we care, the guiltier we feel, and the guiltier we feel, the easier we are to control, exploit, and market to.
“Mom guilt,” as a concept, takes advantage of our caring nature. Mothers, perhaps more than any other demographic on the planet, are wired to love, to care, and to track the needs and desires of others. This means we notice unmet and undermet needs everywhere and constantly (and we’re especially sensitive to the unmet needs of our children) which often brings up a whole range of uncomfortable emotions such as sadness, frustration, and powerlessness. Because we don’t know what to do with those emotions (and because we’ve been taught, as women, to be highly self-critical and self-sacrificial) we tend to default to the “there must be something wrong with me” story when emotionally dysregulated, swap sadness, frustration, and powerlessness for guilt (because we can DO something with the guilt!), and work even harder. If the popular cultural narrative is that mom guilt is simply a fact of life, the chances are lower that we’ll access the truth and power of our complex and nuanced emotional landscapes.
“Mom guilt” is often a byproduct of repressed, righteous rage. Think of the last time you were feeling stressed, the chaos around and inside you reached a critical mass, and you exploded at your kids. The guilt that follows these moments when we’re out of alignment or integrity can feel crippling. But rarely are we encouraged to examine the unsustainability of the circumstances that led to that explosive moment. Most mothers are mothering under extremely under-supported conditions, running on too-little sleep, with fried nervous systems, not because they’re doing it wrong, but because modern motherhood is a setup for dysregulation and reactivity. We’re only human, but we’re expected to behave as if we’re superhuman, all the while being treated as if we were subhuman.
“Mom guilt” perpetuates gender inequality. Ever hear conversations about “dad guilt?” Me either. Even though, as a whole, dads are way less involved in their kids’ lives than moms are, there’s little to no social expectation that they would feel guilty about this reality. The definition of “guilty” is responsible for a specified wrongdoing. So, when we accept that mom guilt is just par for the maternal course, we’re agreeing that even though we’re doing more than anyone else in society for our kids, we’re responsible for doing even more, while fathers (and other members of society) are let off the hook.
“Mom guilt” is gaslighting. Never mind how unsupportive and even oppressive many social structures are, the message is that we just inherently feel guilty because that’s how we’re wired, or because we’re still not doing enough or enough of the right things. This leads to us doubting our perceptions and abilities and feeling ashamed of our complex and valid emotions. Meanwhile attention is diverted away from the real problems and source of our struggles. It’s crazymaking, just as gaslighting is intended to be.
Too much information, not enough support. Our guilt, in part, comes from the fact that we’re overwhelmingly over-resourced when it comes to information, but entirely under-resourced when it comes to the kind of support that would allow us to do something with that information. For example, parenting books, podcasts, and courses are much more accessible to most of us than childcare, community care, and seasoned mentors and elders. So we end up feeling guilty because we know better, but aren’t well supported enough to consistently do better.
Guilt often masquerades as shame and fear. Guilt is an easy, tidy explanation. “I can’t give my kids all they deserve so I feel guilty about it.” Beneath that statement, however, complex emotions are usually present and often rooted in toxic personal, familial, and cultural narratives wound up in shame, fear, and grief. Alok Vaid-Menon describes it this way, “This is how shame works…It’s a chain reaction. Our parents shamed us because their parents shamed them because theirs shamed them, and so on. A cycle of violence.”
Our “mom guilt” has everything to do with the absence of the village. If society were structured in such a way that community care was the norm (and if men were expected to do half of the caretaking, homemaking, and emotional labor), mothers wouldn’t be carrying such impossibly heavy loads, which means we wouldn’t be set up to feel inadequate and guilty most of the time.
So basically, “mom guilt,” presented to us as a normal, inevitable part of motherhood, is adding insult to injury for mothers everywhere. It’s a way of making it seem as if our inadequacy is the source of our struggles and not the inadequate social structures meant to be supporting us and our families. It’s a clever way to get us to agree to endless unpaid labor; labor that strengthens the very systems and structures that are harming us all.
Once we wake up to the harm “mom guilt” is causing, we can choose to work with it in healing and empowering ways. Here’s a start.
Whenever “mom guilt” begins to creep in:
Get curious – Likely, you’re experiencing or noticing unmet needs, you’re having a hard time living from your values (due to an accumulation of said unmet needs), you’re living from unexamined stories, or there’s grief under the surface, in need of an outlet. Curiosity will get you to the truth much more quickly than any guilt spiral will.
Be gentle with yourself – Remember, we’re mothering under seriously suboptimal circumstances. That is the primary reason for your struggles, not your personal inadequacies. Self-compassion is a huge part of what makes healing possible and truth easier to access.
Consider what community members might most naturally and enthusiastically meet the particular need you’re identifying if you did live in a vibrant village; if you had the community care you deserve.
Make space for grief – Grief wants your attention. It wants your care. It’s meant to be felt and expressed and moved through us, not bottled up and buried. Though it’s not easy to find time and space for grieving, doing so can make all the difference when it comes to our feeling whole and grounded and connected.
Take one step toward getting your needs better met (which often means getting more support) – Even the smallest-seeming steps can help us feel more empowered. Make one phone call, connect with one neighbor, have a first courageous conversation with your partner about household division of labor.
Here’s how this might look, practically speaking:
When we feel guilty for not wanting to play with our kids, we might start by getting curious instead of being hard on ourselves. From this softer place, we might identify the unmet need for community support, and name neighborhood kids (or teens slightly older than our kids) as those best suited for the role. When tenderness and heartache comes up with the realization that we don’t have neighborhood kids around us, we might choose to go deeper into those feelings, have a good cry in the shower, and welcome grief’s guiding presence. Over the next couple days, we might then take some time to connect with a neighbor or two, ask our friend if her 11-year old might ever want to make a little money by playing with our kids after school, and/or talk to a trusted, empathetic friend about the injustice of our villageless lives.
Here’s another example:
If I feel guilty that I just yelled at my kid, I might first feel a sense of guilt, then get curious about my unmet needs. Once I’ve identified the need for more breaks for my nervous system (and made space for the anger I feel that I so rarely get those breaks (keeping in mind that anger is a part of grieving), I can then start brainstorming ways to get more time away, and working with any stories and “shoulds” I’ve internalized that might be contributing to my overwhelm.
It’s also essential that we begin helping our kids see the absence of the village, particularly as they get a little older. This way, they’re less likely to grow up perpetuating the narrative that their mom didn’t give them what they needed, and they’re better able to identify villagelessness as a primary source of so many people’s struggles at every stage of life. We need to help them see what is possible and understand what’s lacking so that they’re better equipped to do their part as the next generation of changemakers.
In short, “mom guilt” isn’t really about moms. It’s about broken social structures inadequately supporting mothers, children, and families, and the distorted cultural narratives being told about those structures (and our roles and responsibilities within them), which ultimately prop up and perpetuate systems of oppression.
Let your guilt be a guide. What do you value most? What do you need in order to feel better supported? What village members do you long for most tenderly? What stories are you telling yourself about what you should be able to provide for your children that reflect toxic hyper-individualism? How does the story change if you and your needs are added to the lineup of people’s needs within your family that are worthy and important? What’s one small step you can take toward community support as opposed to constant self-support?
Need a little extra motivation to do the work of examining and deconstructing your internalized mom guilt? Ask yourself, “What do the powers that be count on me doing with this guilt?” If the answer is overfunctioning and/or consuming, you can be sure that your guilt has more to do with toxic cultural narratives than anything “wrong” with you.
Deconstructing alongside you with tender fierceness,
“Mom Guilt” Is Bullsh*t (Here’s What’s Really Going On)
I love this! What great guidelines to break cycles and bring awareness to us and our children. I’ll be revisiting this post and working on the questions. What a shift when we recognize the “ broken social structures” and become part of the resistance. Thank you for your insights Beth!
I often feel guilty about not doing anything besides being “home”, homeschooling (really unschooling, and feeling guilty about that because it’s actually awesome!) my 3 kids. They are my career. I honestly don’t know how people can do all kinds of other projects, work etc,etc and be able to be present and supportive of the kids processes and needs. It’s really not possible for me to do anything besides this. But saying that out loud often makes me wonder why I can’t do more like other moms. But then I see all the time how completely overwhelmed they are, and I know that what I am capable of is all I can do.
“We’re only human, but we’re expected to behave as if we’re superhuman, all the while being treated as if we were subhuman.” Ooh, that is a powerful and true statement. Beth, I so value your ability to put clear, compassionate language to the swirling thoughts in my brain and tender pangs in my heart. I really appreciate the practical examples you walked through step-by-step here, too.
i feel this in my bones. thank you so much for taking the time to put words to all of these feelings and allowing so many of us to feel seen, even in our isolation. all the love to all the mommas:)