Mom Guilt – Is it Helping or Hurting you?

July 31, 2023

Going to work and leaving your child with a sitter or in childcare? Cue mom guilt. Serving a plate of this and that, odds and ends, or boxed mac and cheese? Cue mom guilt. Having a limited budget for groceries, let alone extracurricular activities? Cue mom guilt.

In our society, mom guilt almost seems to be just part of having children if you identify as a woman. Just … part of the package. Nobody likes it, but most seem to accept mom guilt as inevitable.

Learning about harmful chemicals in products you’ve used with your child? Cue mom guilt. Struggling to breastfeed, and the best bottle for your baby is a plastic one? Cue mom guilt.

Having difficulty getting your baby on a consistent sleep routine? Throwing a birthday party without Pinterest-worthy decorations and eats? Taking five years to get around to printing off a photobook for your baby’s first year? Cue mom guilt. Cue mom guilt. Cue mom guilt.

Something I’ve learned during my years as a relationship and parenting coach – and mom of eight – is that as an emotion, guilt is actually a really important one. Guilt serves to alert us when we’ve betrayed our values, ethics and moral boundaries. It feels horrible, but when you harness it, guilt can be a really positive and helpful emotion … when it is real. Here’s how to tell if mom guilt is helping you or hurting you.

Why Is Guilt an Important Emotion?

Small child comforting his overwhelmed momSmall child comforting his overwhelmed mom

Guilt allows us to check ourselves and course-correct when necessary. Real guilt often triggers very physical reactions, such as:

  • Upset stomach
  • Headache
  • Weariness
  • Temperature fluctuation
  • Heightened heart rate  

These symptoms are our nervous systems’ reactions when something isn’t sitting right with us and requires attention. Our chance to do better and fix what isn’t working for us when it comes to our actions fitting our values, ethics and boundaries. A checks and balance system to be sure that we can live with how we’re living our lives.

In this way, guilt is very important … when it is real.

What Is Mom Guilt?

Mom guilt is a special brand of guilt. Unlike plain ol’ regular guilt, mom guilt is reserved just for parents that identify as women. As if there is a different, higher standard that being a mom means you must reach, and having difficulty with that, even if just for a moment, is failure. 

As much as many of us just accept mom guilt as a part of having children – beating ourselves up for how our baby sleeps (or doesn’t), for what we’ve fed our children, for the photos we didn’t take, for being away from our baby in order to work a job, or (dare we?) for taking time for ourselves, if it isn’t actually helping us be a better parent – mom guilt isn’t doing anything good for anyone because it isn’t real guilt. It is something else entirely.

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The Difference Between Mom Guilt and Real Guilt

Real guilt is when we feel bad about something we did that violates our personal values, ethics and morals. Real guilt motivates us to reflect, change and make repairs when necessary. Like the guilt I felt when I had been punishing my children and learned that punitive punishment doesn’t help children learn and is harmful for parent-child relationships. That guilt motivated me to discover that there are better ways for me to guide my children.

Fake guilt, such as mom guilt, is when we feel bad and question ourselves for not measuring up to some standard of expectations that were set for us. It’s when we beat ourselves up because someone else says what we did was bad – but then closer reflection reveals that it didn’t actually violate our values, ethics or morals and personal boundaries. 

For example, many working moms face criticism for not being with their kids constantly. But if you are doing what’s right for your family, providing for your family and taking care of your mental health, you shouldn’t feel guilt – I know, because I’ve been there myself.

Mother safely holding her toddler but looking emotionally burdenedMother safely holding her toddler but looking emotionally burdened

What About Shame?

Shame is when guilt (real or fake) tells you that your thoughts, feelings and actions are bad, which makes you a bad person. Shame doesn’t just attack the action itself, but rather the actor. When I internalized the criticism I received as a working mom, it made me feel like a bad mom and like my children deserved a better mother. But, that was not the reality at all. If you’re feeling shame, you are not alone. I’d encourage you to talk with someone, whether that’s a close friend or family member or a professional. 

The Bottom Line

Mom and young child playing and laughing together on the beachMom and young child playing and laughing together on the beach

True guilt falls into two main categories: guilt that you can live with and guilt that you can’t live with. Determining what real guilt we can live with is helpful, because sometimes we have to do things that make us feel guilty in order to properly care for our children. I can live with the temporary guilt of causing my child pain while I clean a scrape easier than I can live with the guilt of NOT cleaning the scrape and allowing it to become infected.

The bottom line is this:

  • Guilt is valuable, when it is legit.
  • Guilt that is legit and that you can live with is guilt you can let go of.
  • Guilt that is legit and that you can’t live with is guilt that brings about necessary change.
  • Guilt that is fake isn’t helpful at all and can be released.
  • Shame doesn’t do anything for anyone and doesn’t make anything better.

If your mom guilt inspires you to be a better mom, then maybe it is real and can serve you well in reaching your parenting goals. But chances are strong that it isn’t real, and letting it go can serve you and your family better. If it isn’t helping you, then you don’t need it at all.

Interested in reading more about mental health during those early parenting days? Check out this blog post: Baby, Sleep and Your Mental Health. 

Drawing from a diverse background in the performing arts and midwifery Jessica Martin-Weber supports women and families, creating spaces for open dialogue. Writer, speaker and relationship and parenting coach, Jessica is the creator of, co-creator of, freelance writer and mom. Jessica lives with her family in the Pacific Northwest and co-parents her 8 daughters with her husband of 25 years.