By Thrive Reno Therapist Ann Edgington, LCSW
Guilt and shame are widely experienced by caregivers of children. In a study of 2000 American parents, participants reported feeling an average of 23 pangs of guilt every single week, and 75 percent reported feeling pressure to be “perfect” from friends, family, and social media. Another study showed that compared to non-parents, parents are more likely to feel guilty about allowing themselves time for self-care. In a society that places immense expectations on parents, guilt and shame can cause caregivers to doubt their decision-making and neglect their own well-being.
Although the term “mom guilt” singles out moms — likely due to societal norms that hold moms as the primary caregivers to their children — guilt and shame are common emotions that parents of all genders can and do experience. In this blog, we’ve used the well-known term “mom guilt” to describe any parental feelings of guilt and shame that can be felt by all caregivers, regardless of gender.
Further, people who identify specifically as moms aren’t by any means the only individuals that can face the circumstances outlined in this blog, and neither are they the only ones who can benefit from our suggestions for mitigating guilt and shame. We hope this is a resource that can provide helpful insight to all parents and caregivers.
“MOM GUILT” AND SHAME
Caring deeply for their children and wanting the absolute best for them, almost all parents experience some level of guilt related to their caretaker roles. Parenting is overwhelming as is, but the pressure is only made worse by the current culture of parenting which can be highly judgemental, full of conflicting information, and often leaves little space for self-compassion and self-care — a perfect equation for feelings of guilt and shame.
“Mom guilt” and shame can be defined as feelings of inadequacy about meeting the demands of one’s:
In my clinical practice, many of my clients express just as much shame around being a mom as they do guilt. Guilt is feeling as if you did something bad, shame is feeling as if you are bad. When a person experiences shame, they may mistakenly feel that they’re inadequate as a parent.
Sources of “mom guilt” and shame may be internally-fueled by expectations one had for themself before becoming a parent or externally-based on outside opinions and expectations.
Internally, parents may be influenced by:
- How they were raised: Many parents naturally draw on childhood memories of their own caregivers to help inform their parenting. If they feel as if the quality of their parenting falls short of these memories, they may spiral into feelings of guilt and shame. Alternatively, if they feel their caregivers didn’t meet certain physical or emotional needs, birthing parents may feel heightened pressure to provide better care than they received.
- Internal expectations: Striving for perfection, parents may overextend themselves and feel guilty or ashamed when they aren’t able to meet their own expectations. In striving to meet these sometimes unrealistic expectations, parents may be sacrificing their own needs, desires, and well-being.
- Desire to return to life before their babies: Birthing parents may be influenced by ideals of returning to the body image, energy levels, and activities they had before having their babies. They may misplace blame on themselves when the characteristics of their life as a birthing parent don’t match the elements of their life before child(ren).
Externally, parents may be influenced by:
- Personal relationships: The outward expression of others’ opinions on parenting, especially when coming from loved ones, can greatly influence parents.
- Media: While often misleading and inaccurate, media portrayals of being a parent can have a strong influence on parents.
- Societal expectations for birthing parents to do it all: Unreasonable pressures for birthing parents to be responsible for and in control of all aspects of their families’ lives set birthing parents up for failure.
- Stigmas around being a stay-at-home parent vs. a working parent: The conflicting perspectives and judgments about being a stay-at-home parent vs. a working parent can overwhelm parents.
Left unaddressed, guilt and shame can become so cumbersome that they impact parents’ abilities to manage activities of daily living and intensify any other mental, behavioral, and physical health struggles.
RISK FACTORS FOR “MOM GUILT” AND SHAME
- Exposure to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), or potentially traumatic events that occurred during one’s childhood
- Personal or family history of mental health challenges
- History of self-esteem or body image challenges
- Existing tension in important relationships, such as with one’s partner, other children, or support system
- Traumatic stress from previous life experiences
- Any other risk factors associated with perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs)
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF “MOM GUILT” AND SHAME
- Negative self-talk
- Feelings of inadequacy
- Heightened irritation with oneself and others
- Difficulty sleeping, resting, or settling down
- Black and white thinking patterns, such as, “I’m a good parent” or “I’m a bad parent”
- Feelings of anxiety and depression, especially concerning one’s sense of self
- Always feeling like they’re not doing enough
- Feeling selfish when meeting one’s basic needs, such as showering, eating, resting, or having alone time
EXAMPLES OF “MOM GUILT” AND SHAME
The challenges of adapting to parenthood are unique for each individual. As one assumes a new or renewed role in caring for their child(ren), it’s realistic to experience guilt and shame, especially while navigating the natural shift in priorities, energy reserves, and stress levels. As evidenced below, there are many circumstances that may evoke feelings of guilt and shame for parents as they assume new and different responsibilities.
Attention and Availability
Many parents feel guilty about not being as available or attentive to their relationships as they were before the birth of their babies. These relationships may include:
- Their partner
- Their older child(ren)
- Extended family members
- Employer, coworkers, or other professional relationships
- Church community or other social groups
- Any other relationship they previously felt a part of
Body Image and Appearance
Birthing parents also commonly feel guilty or ashamed about not looking a certain way both during and after pregnancy. There are many culturally misleading messages about what a “healthy” pregnant and postpartum body should look like. Many individuals have been exposed to these messages long before becoming pregnant. Additionally, parents may find themselves putting less emphasis on their appearances as their priorities shift and may feel self-conscious about those shifted priorities. This is an experience that birthing parents of all genders may struggle within postpartum.
Intimacy and Sex
Birthing parents may experience guilt or shame about having a diminished interest in intimacy and sex. They may be feeling like they should be more “into” intimacy or sex with their partner. Or, they may feel as if they’re not giving their partner enough intimate or romantic attention.
There are many possible reasons that birthing parents may feel less interested in intimacy and sex, including:
- Feeling “touched out” or physically overstimulated from caring for their child(ren)
- Having a traumatic birth that is impacting their relationship with their body
- Experience of pregnancy and/or birth triggered memories of previous sexual trauma
- Feeling violated or unheard by medical providers during pregnancy or childbirth
- Still healing from the physical effects of giving birth
- Experiencing pain during sex because of birth-related circumstances or injury
- Feeling exhausted from lack of sleep
- Feeling emotionally disconnected or resentful of their partner
Traumatic Birth Experience
When births don’t go as expected, birthing parents may feel somehow responsible. For parents with babies in the NICU, feeling a lack of control over their situation may also contribute to intense feelings of guilt and shame.
Household Cleanliness and Visitors
Parents may feel as if their homes should be cleaner or more organized. They may have thoughts such as, “Why can’t I just keep the house clean?” or “People want to come visit the baby, but the house is a mess.” Similarly, parents may experience guilt or shame about feeling too tired to entertain visitors.
The Baby’s Sleep Quality
Many parents experience guilt or shame related to the way their babies are sleeping, where they’re sleeping, how long they’re sleeping, or the process of putting them to sleep. Often, the immense amount of information on the internet about infant sleep combined with the opinions of others fuels this guilt and shame, when in reality, what works best differs baby by baby and family by family.
The Baby’s Method of Eating
Parents who find that their method(s) of feeding their babies differs from what they expected may experience guilt or shame. Other times, parents may hear messages about how they “should” feed their babies that can foster feelings of guilt and shame. Just as with sleeping, feeding styles, preferences, and solutions can vary greatly between households.
Parents sometimes feel guilty or ashamed when their children don’t meet developmental milestones exactly “on time.” The societal narrative around parenthood largely holds parents responsible for exposing their children to enriching activities, propagating the thought pattern of, “If my child isn’t meeting milestones, it’s because I’m not doing enough for their development.”
Parents may feel guilty about experiencing exhaustion and boredom around caretaking for their child(ren) and jealous if their partner returns to work outside the home. Throughout their day, a parent staying home may not have the opportunity to talk to anyone but small children. If they have an infant, they may not even have a chance to speak with anyone all day.
When reacting to their children, such as in soothing, bonding, or setting limits, parents may experience guilt about making any mistakes, not feeling present enough, or feeling irritable.
STRATEGIES FOR MITIGATING “MOM GUILT”
When experiencing feelings of guilt and shame as a parent, it can be beneficial to approach parenting with self-compassion by extending yourself the same kindness you would to others. Consider the strategies below for managing “mom guilt” and shame, while also knowing that perfection is impossible and doing your best is enough.
- Make yourself aware: Seriously examine the cultural messages about parenting you’re exposed to, and recognize when you’re telling yourself what you “should” or “shouldn’t” be doing.
- Sleep and eat: Prioritize your sleep and nutritional needs however possible. When you’re well-rested and nourished, you can be more present for your child, which is the most enriching element for their development.
- Be honest: Communicate openly with your partner about how you’re feeling physically and emotionally. Together, explore ways that your partner can support you, including giving you more time to be ready for intimacy. If you’re a single parent, make sure to be honest with your friends, family, and support system about the state of your mental well-being. That way, they can know how to best assist you in navigating single parenthood.
- Try an alternative self-care practice: Activities such as postnatal yoga and pelvic floor physical therapy can help the muscles of the pelvic floor return to normal functioning post-partum.
- Learn more about your sexuality: The book Come as You Are by Emily Nagoski is an excellent resource for exploring intimacy-related challenges.
- Forgive yourself for feeling less present with your baby: Know that your bond with your baby is strengthened over the course of many interactions together. The connection can’t be broken just because you feel less present than you typically do at times.
- Process your birth story: It can be helpful to speak with a trusted person or professional about your pregnancy and birth experience to gain a better understanding of how the experience affected you.
- Ask questions: If there are aspects of your pregnancy care or birth experience that you’d like more information about from your provider, know that you’re always entitled to ask those questions.
- Consider community support groups: Attending a parent support group can help normalize the guilt and shame you may be feeling and can allow you to foster meaningful connections with others who can relate and empathize. Thrive Wellness Reno offers a weekly virtual perinatal mental health support group to help parents confidentiality embrace their roles.
- Resist the urge to isolate: Speaking with people you trust can help validate your emotions while providing you with a more compassionate perspective.
- Consider seeking mental health treatment: A therapist can guide you in processing your experience, normalizing your feelings, and reducing the intensity of your symptoms.
MENTAL, BEHAVIORAL, AND PRIMARY HEALTH CARE FOR PARENTS AT THRIVE
At Thrive, we specialize in perinatal mental, behavioral, and medical care. Our perinatal experts can support your parenting journey through psychiatry, therapy, medical care, as well as nutrition and movement support so you can approach parenting with self-compassion, empowerment, and excitement. Our health care services for parents vary by location. Reach out to learn more about our offerings.
About the Author
Thrive Reno Therapist Ann Edgington, LCSW
Ann Edgington, LCSW, is originally from Chicago, Illinois, and received her master’s degree in social work from Loyola University Chicago. For nearly a decade, she has been working with children, families, and adults who have experienced trauma. Currently, Ann also supports adults and family systems who are experiencing perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.
Her background in infant and early childhood mental health combined with previous roles as a health educator, child welfare case manager, and clinical social worker in middle and high schools led her to further explore family and perinatal work. She has completed training and national rostering in Child-Parent Psychotherapy (CPP) and is currently working to obtain a certification in perinatal mental health (PMH-C). Ann is passionate about working with children and adults to process life experiences, explore how trauma lives in the body, and heal relationships through attachment-focused and evidence-based practices. With compassion, she helps children, parents, and caregivers with issues of attachment, parenting, and children’s mental well-being.