But even with a little more public consciousness about what goes into motherhood, mom guilt still persists. Missing Field Day at school due to work, not being able to make well-balanced meals every night, and losing your temper when it just gets to be too much all have a way of making women feel like sub-par parents. This is especially prevalent in the U.S., where there is a general lack of public policy to support working families compared to many other western countries.
Moms too often feel like they have to do it all, while somehow keeping their mental health intact—and it’s got to stop, says Sarah Oreck, MD, a reproductive psychiatrist and advisor for vitamin brand Perelel.
“The idealization of motherhood is complex and multifactorial,” she says. “One main driver is our culture and how we depict motherhood. Until recently, pregnancy and motherhood in the media were depicted in one-dimensional terms—all beautiful, joyful, and rewarding without the real, messy stuff.”
Fortunately, Dr. Oreck says there has been a tremendous shift over the past decade in how the media and culture addresses the transition to motherhood, and the expectations that come with it. But the underlying pressures still persist. “This idealization of motherhood, which is often internalized by many mothers, can lead to feelings of inadequacy and comparison with others, aka mom guilting or mom shaming,” Dr. Oreck says.
Okay, but what is mom guilt, exactly?
The term has been thrown around a lot. “Mom guilt is a feeling of inadequacy and shame that mothers experience when they feel like they are not doing a good enough job raising their children,” Dr. Oreck says. “It stems from unrealistic expectations about what motherhood ‘should’ look like.”
You’ve seen those moms on Instagram: Their hair is always perfectly curled, their kids dress in adorable matching outfits, and they love to gush about how they always do fun, outdoorsy activities after enjoying wholesome meals. Viewing content like that can make even the most confident mom feel less-than.
“Many moms focus on everything they perceive they are doing wrong instead of focusing on the wins and the fact that we are all learning on the job when it comes to being a parent,” Dr. Oreck says. “Mom guilt can feel overwhelming and lead to feelings of inadequacy, isolation, burnout, and ultimately perinatal mood and anxiety disorders like postpartum depression.”
5 key ways to avoid the mom guilt cycle
1. Recognize when it’s happening
Dr. Oreck says it’s important to be aware when you’re feeling mom guilt. “Recognizing and naming what mom guilt feels like for you is a good start,” she says. This can give you some emotional distance from the feelings, and is the first step to coming up with a plan to handle them.
2. Focus on what’s important to you
It’s crucial to figure out what you want being a mom to look like—from a realistic, achievable standpoint.
“Focus on your own path to parenthood and what works for you and your family, not necessarily what others are doing,” Dr. Oreck says. “Focus on the wins and what is going well for you when it comes to parenting.” Maybe getting ready-to-eat baby food delivered gives you more time to spend playing with your kids, or letting the house get messy frees you up for a fulfilling work opportunity. Your mother-in-law might not approve, but if it's what works for you, accept it.
Dr. Oreck says it’s important to acknowledge to yourself that you don’t need to do everything perfectly in order for your child to become a good and well-adjusted person. The key is to embrace “good enough” parenting—meaning, you know you’re doing the best that you can.
You don't need to do everything perfectly in order for your child to become a good and well-adjusted person.
3. Avoid the comparison trap
It's easy to be influenced by, well, influencers, or even your neighbors and peers. “Don't compare yourself to other moms,” says Dr. Oreck. If that means staying off of social media or blocking certain accounts that don’t make you feel great about yourself, then so be it.
4. Take a break when you can
If you’re having a rough day or week, Dr. Oreck recommends reminding yourself of this fact: Parenting is hard. “Take a break if you need it and relax and recharge,” she says. “Asking for support and talking to your friends and family can be incredibly helpful.”
Of course, many moms don’t feel that they can take a break. If you’re one of them, and you need a minute, Dr. Oreck recommends that you “engage your child in something that will keep them entertained for a bit.” That can include reading, a toy they really like, or, yes, screen time. “Taking those five minutes, even if it's just on the opposite side of the room as your child, can be incredibly rejuvenating,” she says.
While it can be tough to focus on your own needs when you have little ones, Dr. Oreck says it’s important. “Take care of yourself,” she says. “Make sure to get enough sleep, eat healthy foods, and move your body. Taking care of yourself will make you a better mom.”
5. If it’s getting to be too much, ask for professional help
Mom guilt can be a tough thing to shake. If your feelings of guilt are interfering with your ability to parent or enjoy life, you feel overwhelmed or hopeless, or you have thoughts of harming yourself, Dr. Oreck says it’s time to consult a mental health professional.
“A therapist can help you to understand the root of your guilt and to develop healthy coping mechanisms,” she says. “They can also provide you with support and guidance as you work to overcome your guilt.”
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