I think we can agree that most of us would like to escape the broken record of mom guilt—and not have it shipped to us on the fly.
One of a million moments in my 13 years of motherhood that mom guilt played out loudly was last Monday.
I looked into the tear-soaked eyes of my seven-year-old through the screen on my phone. As she sobbed uncontrollably, I could feel her physical pain and heartache in missing and needing me. Pleading for me not to go, not to get on the plane, to just come back to her dad’s house and bring her home instead.
Disclaimer: when this FaceTime moment occurred, she had been away from home less than one hour. I was running 30 minutes later than planned to get to the airport, and my carry-on bag was packed only halfway because I was (of course) waiting for the dryer to finish. It had been my older daughter’s 13th birthday party (including sleepover) weekend. I was an exhausted mom, chauffeur, chef, and teen drama mediator.
And now, I was even further swarmed by guilt. This four-day trip to a poetry retreat in the woods of upstate New York was the chance of a lifetime and an opportunity to learn from two of my spoken word poetry idols alongside other writers. I was nervous and struggling to feel worthy of the opportunity, but the mom guilt weight was heavier than all the other emotions combined.
As I looked into her puppy dog eyes, I saw the decision as a floating bridge. Two sides, one with calm waters and the other choppy with emotions: regret, guilt, forgiveness, failure. But both deep with pressure and heavy at the bottom.
So often it feels like there is no right decision. We are all essentially “winging it” as parents all the time anyway, right!? And as a single mom, the pressure for right decisions and choices and activities and adventures and friends is completely daunting and impossible. Perfectionist Momming is real. Mom guilt is real. It’s alive and looming around every corner of decision.
Did I do the “right thing” by getting on the plane? For me, yes. For her, no—at least not in that moment. Is that selfish or self-first? The oxygen mask has to go on the mom first, right? Is that still a thing? Or do we just pour out our entire selves into their little cups until we are bone-dry and break down.
I like to think that self-care is the best example for my daughters. I’m sure I’ve read that somewhere…or everywhere. But the balance (and fear) of it bending into abandonment is the truth of the scales.
We fear they will feel “not enough” or not important, the same way we feel now or used to feel at one time.
So what’s the cure? We need an antidote—or at least a crystal ball to see into their future therapy sessions.
Will they say, “My mom was so strong and I looked up to her for taking that class and being a ‘follow your dreams’ example.” Or will it be, “She left me when I needed her.”
In researching mom guilt, I was honestly shocked to find so many positive strands weaved into it all. Here’s a few:
1. Guilt and the awareness of these pressures and expectations, so often unrealistic, can help us to identify and tune into methods to handle situations differently the next time.
2. Guilt can help facilitate empathy and show our humanness to our children, especially our teens.
According to Brené Brown, “Guilt is adaptive and helpful—it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.”
So in other words, shift your expectations and give yourself a break. Self-awareness of my people-pleasing, perfectionist mind and always trying to “get it right” (read: be perfect) is the first step to my mom guilt recovery.
It was during open mic at the poetry retreat when I realized permission plays a heavy role in this mindset for me. I had finished two short cover poems and looked up and out over the mic into the audience—into the faces of my 10 classmates and two instructors, and I said, “Is it okay if I do one more? Have I been up here too long? Is my time up?”
I was asking permission to take up time and space and stage. Aha moment! I do this almost every day. I ask permission, even from my kids. My instructor’s response was exactly what I needed to hear to snap me out of it. He said, “You have the stage. It’s all yours, do your thing.” So I did, and it felt amazing!
Another big one for me is over-apologizing. Showing our kids how to own up and apologize is important and teaches them empathy and forgiveness. But it becomes dangerous when we (especially as women and moms) apologize for the little things like, “I’m sorry your favorite shirt wasn’t dry yet,” or, “I’m sorry traffic was bad and we’re late.”
If we continue this way, we’re guiding them toward a path of “Mom makes bad decisions and is to blame for everything”—a double-edged sword in which they are released from taking responsibility for actual mistakes and encouraged to over-apologize throughout life. It also devalues the phrase “I’m sorry,” which should carry weight, empathy, behavior awareness, and correction, if needed.
The antidote to mom guilt is in the imperfect moments and hard decisions. Less self-judgement, more grace—easier said than done, I know, but practicing in the small moments can make a huge impact, especially in teaching our children, by example, to be kind humans who value self-care. Let’s give our kids the pole and teach them how to fish—and not apologize for not fishing for them.
Realizing that we have the power to redefine expectations and change the game is a power so much louder than the mom guilt record. Let’s crank that jam up loud with the windows down!
“It’s extremely counter-cultural to admit that life is not perfect. I think that people are desperate to admit together that life is messy, and that marriage is hard, and that parenting is excruciating sometimes. And that doesn’t mean that you’re doing something wrong. It’s hard because it’s supposed to be.” ~ Glennon Doyle