Conquering Mommy Guilt

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A week ago I had flu. So instead of cooking a healthy lunch for my children after school. I picked up a couple of pies, and shoved my delighted daughters in front of the TV. For the rest of afternoon I felt horribly guilty, lying in snotty misery on the couch.

Reasonable no, but I’m a pro at ‘Mommy guilt’.

The pressure of balancing work, motherhood and life results in the sneaking, creeping guilt that strikes at any time, but especially when a mum is doing something for herself…even if it’s just sitting down with a cup of tea and a book.
As moms we seem to feel it’s our sole responsibility to ensure our children’s comfort and happiness 24 hours a day, even to our own detriment. This phenomenon of maternal guilt seems to be universal – worldwide, moms feel guilty.

How does it start?

Women are primed form early on to become effective mothers. Childhood play integrates maternal behaviour, with us mothering dolls. And physically, even our genes impel us toward motherhood. According to Robert Bridges of Tufts University Veterinary Medicine in Massachusetts, certain genes are expressed at key developmental points to ensure maternal care is displayed. Interestingly, Katherine Ellison in her book, The Mommy Brain, explores how certain factors such as hormones, motivation and practice bring about amazing changes in a moms. From mental tasks such as increased ability to read faces and body language, multitasking and increased feelings of serenity, to a fierce protective instinct, even at the risk of personal harm.

Are we hardwired then to mother, and feel guilty about what we perceive as inadequate mothering?

What exactly is guilt?

Guilt does serve an adaptive function. It allows us to monitor our thoughts and actions, and it brings things that need to be addressed to our attention. According to Roy Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University in the United States, guilt fosters social closeness and attachments. If people feel guilty they naturally avoid behaviour that leads to guilt and therefore pay more attention to the needs of others. This serves the biological need to protect the social group one belongs to. In the case of ‘mommy guilt’ it ensures we protect our family.

Healthy guilt involves sadness that our behaviour caused a problem. But unhealthy guilt involves shame that we should be different in the way we actually are. We then impose unhealthy and unrealistic expectations onto ourselves which causes great stress. For instance many moms feel they should be making their children happy all the time.

Ultimately mothers have mommy guilt because we want the best for our children and put pressure on ourselves to ensure it. After temporarily closing my practice to focus on raising my three small daughters. I found myself baking furiously trying to live up to the image of a stay at home mother I had in my mind.

Every mother feels guilty about a variety of issues unique to her. These can range from the state of our child’s clothes to their schooling and the amount of time spent with them.
While some moms worry that their children should be wearing fancy clothes and others couldn’t be bothered, instead they run around finding organic veggies to serve their children. The issues are different, but the feeling is the same.

In the age of positive psychology research had turned to how a woman’s psychological well-being is influences by her perception of her mothering performance. Research has found the women report more stress and anxiety when they compare their performance to other mothers than men seem to feel about their parenting skills.

Why is mother guilt so prevalent now?

Throughout history and across cultures, women have taken on the responsibility of making the people they love happy. This means anticipating their needs and meeting them promptly. Shari  Thurner author of The Myths of Motherhood: How Culture Reinvents the Good Mother states that the modern myth of the Good Mother in western society has raised expectations so high that it leads to self-denying behaviour.

The modern world is pressuring parents directly as well as indirectly. Never has so much information been available on just about any topic imaginable. Nowadays, mothers aren’t supposed to only keep house and cook meals – the meals they serve must also be nutritionally perfect!

Living in the information age is the cause. There is information on any topic you can think of, including the long-term effects of bad parenting. The problem is not with the information, but the pressure of trying to internalise all of it to give our children the best possible life. Women are targeted to ideals about motherhood from their inner circle of family and friends, from medical professionals and even from the media.

Interestingly, a study by the University of Maryland in the US found that mothers spend much more time focused on their children today than 40 years ago. Women today are working more but cutting down on things such as house work and even sleep to spend more time with their kids. But we don’t realise it. In 1965 (American) mothers spend on average 10.2 hours a week with their children. This increased in the 1990s to today’s average of 14.1 hours a week.

It seems Donald Winnicott’s theory about the good enough mother might have fallen by the wayside. His theory allowed for moms to not be perfect and be free to fail, within reason. He believes that through the failure of the parent the child learns about the limits of a parent’s ability and in turn about the real world.

Common sense tells us that children need realistic boundaries. The aim would then be to move toward a style of parenting that allows for boundaries and decreases guilt. For example, according to Diana Baumrind, parents shouldn’t be punitive but should have rules for children. Basically she endorses authoritative parenting, which encourages independence but has limitations. Don’t feel guilty when you have to say to your child, ‘Mommy needs to work now but in an hour we can play’, just remember to stop when you promised and follow through.



  • When guilt attacks, analyse it. Is it healthy guilt or not? Is this about your children’s needs or your own issues?
  • Strive for balance. Obviously we want to provide the best level of care for our children, but be aware when that need creates unhealthy expectations of yourself.
  • Examine your ‘shoulds’ and find out where they originated. How much baggage from childhood, for instance, affecting your feelings of guilt?
  • Set aside a reasonable amount of time to spend with your child every day. Doing something she or he enjoys. Even just 30 minutes is meaningful. It’s not quantity that’s important but quality.
  • It’s unrealistic to meet your child’s every need. Children need limits and boundaries
  • Parenting is a learning process. We need to make mistakes and learn from them. Understand and accept that your child and you both have limits.
  • Be honest and apologise if things don’t work out. Children need to learn that adults make mistakes and parents aren’t perfect.
  • Don’t let you children ‘guilt’ you. Children are by nature egocentric and can’t fathom without our input that we have a good reason to not meet their every whim
  • Discuss and share your feelings of guilt with trusted friends. Laughter and sharing really does help alleviate guilt.
  • Children have a mind of their own and will make mistakes. Not allowing your child to stumble would cheat him or her out of learning to get up.
  • Let go of the imaginary concept of the perfect mom. Rather aim to be true to yourself. Trust you instincts
  • Treat parenting books as friends, not mentors. Sift through the information and take what personally resonates with you. Discard the rest
  • Take care of yourself and take me time, a happy mom allows for happy children, ideally schedule a small amount of time for yourself every day. If this is impossible aim for a weekly chunk of personal time.

Author of Mojo Mom: Nurturing yourself while raising a Family. Amy Tiermann offers tools to eradicate guilt: be grateful for blessings, have confidence in yourself and your abilities, have compassion for others and yourself and accept others, yourself and your children.

Mommy guilt allows us the opportunity to learn and grow as parents and individuals. When this guilt interferes with your life, know that it’s natural and you’re a normal, loving parent to feel this way.

If you didn’t feel guilt you wouldn’t care. So have that cup of tea, turn on Barney for your toddler and put your feet up while he or she watches.

Feel guilty but be ok with it.

First Published Your Baby March 2008


Image courtesy of nenetus at