Tell me if this sounds familiar. You’re talking to another mom when the topic of screen time comes up. She tells you that she just read an alarming article about it, and that she’s been regulating her son’s iPad use.
At first, you don’t think much of it. But then a pervasive feeling of guilt overcomes you. Oh no! you think. I let my kid watch YouTube for hours yesterday! You try to participate in the conversation, but soon you’re second-guessing other decisions you’ve made recently. Should I have cooked dinner instead of getting takeout? Maybe I shouldn't have gone out with the girls last week.
And before you know it, you’re experiencing a full-on episode of mom guilt.
Even if you don't know the term, you know the feeling. Mom guilt is an all-encompassing sense that you’re not doing enough as a mother or that you’re making the “wrong” parenting decisions.
As a therapist, I meet a lot of moms who feel this way. In fact, a recent study found that almost 90% of mothers experience it.
Well I’m here to tell you that you don’t need to beat yourself up over your parenting choices. Chances are, you're a great mom who cares a whole lot about her family. So why do you feel guilty, and how do you manage it?
Thankfully psychology can help. In this post, I want to show you how you can use cognitive behavioral therapy to reduce mom guilt and avoid mom burnout. With a little practice, you will learn how to control negative thoughts that make motherhood so much more difficult than it needs to be.
1. Accept That Mom Guilt Is Totally Normal
I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you this, but being a mom is hard. And society is doing everything it can to set unrealistic expectations for you. Family, friends, and the media are clamoring to tell you the “right way” to raise your child.
As a caring parent, it’s easy to get swept up in this idea of being a perfect mom. But here’s the thing about being perfect…it’s not possible! Striving for perfection only ends up making us feel inadequate—and that quickly leads to a cycle of guilt.
But in a psychological sense, it’s a totally normal way to respond to impossible standards. So if you’re struggling with mom guilt or mom burnout, be gentle with yourself.
Brené Brown, best-selling author of Atlas of the Heart, says that empathy is an antidote to feelings of guilt and shame . And in this case, you need to extend that empathy to yourself.
So the next time you start feeling guilty, recognize it happening. Stop and take a moment to acknowledge your feelings. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and let all those thoughts and feelings come to the surface. Instead of getting angry about them, accept them with loving kindness. Say to yourself, “I feel guilty, and that’s okay.”
Breathe calmly. You may feel like crying. Whatever happens, remind yourself that these feelings are normal and there is nothing wrong with having them. Good moms feel guilty sometimes. It just means you love your child a whole lot.
2. Identify the Sources of Guilt
Now that you’ve accepted mom guilt as a normal reaction to the pressures and stresses of motherhood, it’s time to identify the things that make you feel insecure about your parenting decisions.
Try to be aware of moments when you’re feeling guilty. Are certain situations, social media accounts, or people triggering these feelings?
Whenever you identify a source of guilt, you should try to minimize your exposure to it. If an acquaintance or Instamom is making you feel more stressed than supported, it’s probably time to cut them out of your life.
3. Challenge Negative Thoughts
Even if you manage to minimize the bad influences in your life, feelings of guilt are sure to creep in. It’s not all social media and nosey friends—most of us just want to be good moms. So how do we deal with it?
With a little practice, you can learn how to control these feelings using cognitive behavioral therapy.
Negative thoughts become our beliefs when left unchanged, and they can lead to a decrease in our self-worth. An example of negative thinking that I hear from working moms is, “I should just quit and stay home. I’m abandoning my baby when I go to work.”
Next time you have a thought like this, challenge it. Say “No. I’m not abandoning my baby. I am contributing to the family and teaching my child the value of work. And besides, I want to focus on the quality of the time I spend with my kid, not the quantity.”
If you start comparing yourself to super moms on social media, you can do the same thing. “Sure, her life looks great. But that mom and daughter picture probably involved a tantrum of two. She’s just editing out all the difficult parts. Motherhood is challenging and messy no matter who you are.”
Whenever you feel guilty or insecure, just remind yourself that you are capable, strong, and powerful. You are a caring mom, and you’ve got this!
4. Take Care of Yourself First.
Let’s get something out of the way right up front—self-care is not selfish! I can’t tell you how many moms feel this way, and I’m here to tell you it’s not true.
We cannot help others if we are not healthy ourselves. Parents are people too, and we need to eat healthy, sleep, exercise, and spend time with family and friends.
A healthy mind requires that we “fill our buckets” first, so we have enough to give to our family and kids.
Whether you ask a family member or friend to help or hire someone, take time to feel like a person again. Get your nails done or enjoy a night out with friends.
Whatever you need to do, make yourself a priority.
Reclaim Your Passion for Parenting
Now that you know how to tackle mom guilt using psychology, it’s time to try it for yourself. By implementing the strategies of cognitive behavioral therapy, you can acknowledge your feelings, identify the sources of guilt, and turn negative thoughts into empowering ones.
Motherhood may be a challenge, but it’s also one of the most rewarding and joyous experiences in a woman’s life. So don't let guilt hold you back from enjoying it. Get out there and reclaim your passion for parenting!
Have you experienced mom guilt recently? Let other mothers know they’re not alone by sharing your experiences in the comments below.
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If you’re a Virginia resident and want to talk to a therapist about mom guilt, burnout, or anything else, get in touch with us.
Christine Willing, M.Ed., NCSP, is the CEO & founder of Think Happy Live Healthy, a psychological therapy and wellness company in northern Virginia. As a Licensed School Psychologist, she helps kids and families navigate the stress of school with resiliency and positivity. When she’s not seeing patients, Christine enjoys life at the beach, listening to podcasts, and walking her adorable dog, Latte. Follow her on Instagram at thinkhappylivehealthy.