We have exciting news–Happy as a Mother has evolved into The Momwell Podcast! The podcast is staying the same–same great experts, same mission, same format. But we’re now operating under a new name–Momwell.
What You'll Learn
- How Our Childhood Resurfaces When We Become Moms
- Why It’s Important to Acknowledge Our Past
- What Mom Guilt Is
- The Difference Between Mom Guilt and Shame
- How Intensive Mothering Paves the Way for Mom Guilt
- How Embracing Our Values Helps Us Deal With Mom Guilt
- How to Break Away From Mom Guilt
What is mom guilt and how do we overcome it? Motherhood has a way of bringing out doubt, fear, guilt, and shame. But when we learn how to let go of comparison and mother with our own values, we can break away from unproductive mom guilt and chart our own path in motherhood.
Today, I’m joined by Libby Ward, founder of Diary of an Honest Mom, to discuss why we experience mom guilt and how we can navigate it.
Facing My Childhood Wounds After Becoming a Mom
When I became a mom, I was determined to break cycles and move away from the patterns that had been modeled for me.
As a child of a high-conflict divorce, I didn’t want to repeat the same mistakes my parents had. I wanted to do things differently.
I worked on myself, entered the therapy field, and felt that I had a handle on my emotions and that I had healed from my past.
But motherhood changed everything. Old wounds resurfaced—I found myself experiencing anger toward my parents for things I thought I had already healed long ago. I realized that I still had a long way to go to learn how to regulate my own emotions.
I found myself experiencing anger toward my parents.
And I also learned that the pressure I was putting on myself to be a perfect mom was actually leaving me feeling mom guilt and shame every time I fell short of the standards I laid out for myself.
It took a lot of healing, acceptance, and self-work to realize that I didn’t have to be perfect to break cycles.
When I first came across Libby’s platform, I was glad to find someone speaking so honestly and openly about topics like mom guilt, mental health, and the difficulties of motherhood.
I was so excited to sit down with her and discuss mom guilt, shame, and how we can find our own path in motherhood.
How Our Childhood Resurfaces When We Become Moms
Libby’s story is similar to my own. She believed she was healed—that she had moved on from her past and was ready to be a different, better mom than what had been modeled for her. And she also believed that she was not holding onto any wounds, anger, or resentment from her childhood.
Once she had children, however, she started to see the patterns that had been set for her playing out—frustration, martyrdom, and people-pleasing. She realized she still had a long way to go on her journey of self-work and self-discovery.
Many of my mom clients have been shocked when this happens to them. They suddenly have to confront childhood experiences and trauma, sometimes dealing with mother wounds or father wounds.
It’s as if we have one foot in the past, seeing our childhood through a different lens.
It’s as if we have one foot in the past, seeing our childhood through a different lens, and one foot in the present, trying to do better.
Libby pointed out that before we became moms, we didn’t have the same stressors. We could take breaks, set boundaries easily, and walk away from jobs or relationships that weren’t working for us. But once we have kids, we don’t have the same level of control.
We lose autonomy over our money, our time, and our bodies. And to top it off, we care about our kids on such a deep level that everything feels high-stakes.
That’s why it’s so common to have childhood experiences resurface—whether your childhood was traumatic or not. Libby said that at each new age and stage, you hit new traumas or reminders of past experiences, from trauma to simply having your feelings repeatedly invalidated. It can feel like having old wounds ripped back open.
Why It’s Important to Acknowledge Our Past
It can be an odd sensation to relive past experiences while mothering. Libby shared a story about helping her daughter work through her feelings after being made fun of at school. She was proud of herself for being the mother that she had needed when she was young, while also grieving that she never had that example in her life.
I experienced something similar while seeking help for my neurodivergent son. As we sought an ADHD diagnosis and formed a plan for support, I remember feeling so hurt that nobody had ever been there for me in that way and helped me through my own struggles.
Sometimes we feel as if we shouldn’t get caught up in our own experiences or blame our parents for their mistakes. But it’s okay to validate our own feelings and acknowledge that our experiences weren’t what we wanted or needed.
Libby pointed out that we can accept that our parents did the best they could, while also realizing that we had unmet needs. We can grieve our past while still moving forward.
What Mom Guilt Is
For many of us, our past has set us up to become self-sacrificial. We were often raised to suppress our emotions or put other people’s needs above our own. Then, when we put pressure on ourselves to be perfect, it paves the way for mom guilt.
Libby defined mom guilt as a collection of negative feelings that make us feel like we’re not doing enough, and that our actions, choices, or even our thoughts are going to negatively impact our children.
She recalled the immense guilt she felt the first time she thought that her child was being annoying—she felt that she was a bad mom for even having that thought.
We’re conditioned to think that everyone else’s needs matter above our own.
We’re conditioned to think that everyone else’s needs matter above our own, and that when we become moms we should never focus on ourselves.
We often feel mom guilt for things like Mom Rage or losing our cool—but we also feel it for being tired or annoyed or needing a break. This puts us in a position where human moments leave us feeling guilty—which can be very damaging to our mental health.
It’s as if we have a little voice in our heads that our feelings or emotions can negate the love we have for our children or invalidate how good of a mom we are. But that isn’t true. We can love our children and still have negative emotions about our experiences—we can be humans with a range of feelings and still be good moms.
The Difference Between Mom Guilt and Shame
Libby pointed out that there are two types of mom guilt—one is productive and the other is not.
Mom guilt that occurs after we make mistakes can be productive. If we raise our voices or yell at our children, we often experience guilt. This type of guilt tells us that our actions were not in alignment with our values and reminds us to work toward doing better.
But then there is mom guilt that stems from feelings or emotions or a need for space. We feel guilty if we want to take time for ourselves or if we feel touched out or overstimulated.
As a therapist, I associate the second feeling with shame, which is different from mom guilt. We often lump all of these feelings together and label it as mom guilt. But when we do that, we miss an important nuance.
Shame is internal—it’s directed at who we are, not at what we did.
Guilt is triggered by our actions. But shame is internal—it’s directed at who we are, not at what we did. There’s a difference between saying I made a bad choice and saying I am a bad mom or I’m not cut out for this role.
Mom guilt can be productive—it serves as a catalyst to grow and move forward with our values. If we know we made a mistake, we can learn to depersonalize it, looking at the situation with curious eyes. For example, did we feel overstimulated? Or tired? Were we hungry? Have we just never had regulatory skills modeled for us? Do we need to learn new strategies? When we can determine what led up to a situation, we can create solutions and try to avoid repeating the same mistake.
But shame on the other hand keeps us from thinking of solutions and moving forward. When we go into a shame spiral, there is no curiosity. If the problem is us, there is no way to solve it.
How Intensive Mothering Paves the Way for Mom Guilt
Shame, or unproductive mom guilt, often stems from intensive mothering ideology—the belief that we must be “perfect moms,” constantly attending to our children and sacrificing all of our resources for them.
The perfect mother myth tells us that we can never do enough for our children, and leaves us feeling mom guilt when we don’t measure up to an impossible standard.
Intensive mothering keeps us from becoming curious—and it also keeps us from questioning the social expectations and systemic factors impacting moms. Dr. Sophie Brock calls this the “mom guilt surveillance crew.” If we police ourselves and think we’re the problem, we’re not looking for flaws in the system or social construct.
Libby pointed out that, while self-work and self-growth are important, it needs to be intertwined with sociological work. We might be flawed, but we aren’t failures. We didn’t ask to carry the entire mental load on our shoulders or become the default parents—much of those roles and beliefs are based on gender norms, handed to us by society.
We often don’t realize we’re being handed these roles or messages until we find ourselves drowning in invisible labor. The gender norms in our society are so engrained that it can be very difficult to see the patterns being created.
Many of us spend years drowning in motherhood, trying to tread and keep our heads above water. We don’t question it—partially because we are in survival mode, and partially because we have been conditioned often since birth to take on the labor ourselves.
Libby said that she grieves for women who cope with the mental load for so long, believing they are the problem for not being able to handle it all. It isn’t always easy to realize that the problem is so much bigger than just us.
How Embracing Our Values Helps Us Deal With Mom Guilt
It often takes a glass-shattering moment of realization to see that there is a motherhood narrative that needs to change—as Libby calls it, a “motherhood contract” that we don’t know we’re signing onto.
Realizing this can be wildly freeing. We can start to let go of the unrealistic expectations and pressures we’re carrying and question the perfect mother myth. We can realize that it’s okay to be human beings, to experience negative emotions, and to sometimes feel conflicted about our role. And we can focus on repair instead of perfection.
We need to question the perfect mother myth.
One of the best ways to move away from mom guilt and carve out our own path in motherhood is to identify our values—both as individuals and with our partner.
Those values serve as our north star—they tell us where we want to go, what works for our family, and what labor and expectations that we can let go of.
Perhaps we don’t have to have a spotless home or do all the extracurricular activities. Maybe those things don’t define us as mothers. Maybe we don’t need to cook or bake from scratch or make handmade Valentines for our child’s party.
For some of us, those things do align with our values. But for others, those pressures come from social expectations and comparison.
Ultimately, each of us has to determine our own values for our family, and begin letting go of what doesn’t align with those values. It’s important to stand strong in what truly matters to us. As Libby pointed out, we must be grounded in what our values tell us.
The pressures of society aren’t going anywhere. Gender norms aren’t going anywhere. But we can choose to turn down the noise and determine what matters to us—as long as we have awareness, resilience, and self-compassion.
How to Break Away From Mom Guilt
Libby said that the path to defining our own choices in motherhood begins with inward and outward work. We need to explore our values, become curious, and question where our expectations come from.
She recommended following people, like Dr. Sophie, who are actively questioning these roles and talking about society and social change.
It takes a great deal of unlearning and forgiveness to move away from mom guilt, blame, and doubt.
We need to dig into our own past, look at the messages we’ve received over time, and do values work to uncover what matters to us.
There is power in curiosity and honesty.
Practicing curiosity and actively working to stay out of the shame spiral can also help us move forward and release mom guilt. There is power in curiosity and honesty.
It’s also important to remember that self-work and introspection take time. We won’t change society overnight, and we also won’t break our own patterns in an instant. But over time, we can begin to let go of mom guilt and write our own motherhood contract.
Ready to uncover your values and create your own path in motherhood? Our Motherhood Road Map can help! Download yours today!