What’s Behind Mom-Guilt?

Special needs mom, Clinical and School Psychologist
05/26/23  10:31 AM PST
mom guilt. silhouette of a depressed mom struggling with guilt.

What’s Behind Mom Guilt?

Mom Guilt. Ugh. It comes with the territory of being a mom. But why? Why is it so ingrained in us, as parents and as moms, to care with every ounce of our soul, until our physical battery is at 0% – and yet we still feel guilty?  How many moms wake up each morning, or sit with themselves at the end of each day and say, “I did a great job today! I did the best that I could and that was more than good enough!” I’m going to guess that the answer is not many, if any at all.


Where Does This Come From?

Poor Boundaries

Boundaries. Dictionary.com defines a boundary as a “a limiting or bounding line.” Boundaries apply to the imaginary lines between states, for example, and they are also the imaginary lines we set in our relationships with others. At a young age and in our home of origin, we learn what our boundaries are and where we need to stop. We learn, by seeing how boundaries play out in the relationship between our parents, or our parents and their parents, with our parents and their siblings, our parents and their friends. During adolescence, our children “push the boundaries” to see where we set that imaginary line for them and they know the limits of their space and freedom. It creates a sense of safety and belief that they are cared for by their authority figure. It also creates a sense of balance in their world so that it doesn’t feel endless and boundless, which can be scary if there aren’t end points in their world.

Think about your boundaries. Where do you set that imaginary line for yourself in your relationships, physically and emotionally? When do you say “No” or “No, thank you?” Do you have a clear idea of that limit? If not, it’s time to set it.

Brenee Brown, in her book, “The Power of Vulnerability” asks us, as humans, to ask ourselves a question before we agree to taking on other “things” to do because it’s easier to say “yes” than it is to say “No.” I am so inclined to say “Yes” when asked to do something and have often said “Yes” only to become angry and resentful later. Dr. Brown asks us to set our mantra as, “Choose discomfort over resentment” and to practice saying, “I can’t take that on” or “My plate is full right now.” I, personally, like to add “But thank you for thinking of me.” That statement makes me feel better, so I say it.

It’s okay to say “No.” It doesn’t mean you’re lazy, that you don’t care about the welfare of your children or the other children, or that you are not a team player. It’s okay to say “No.”


Low Self Value

One reason why it may be so difficult to set boundaries and stick to them is because we may feel that we are not worthy of them. We may not feel like we deserve to be respected by others. Perhaps it’s because of a message we internalized when we were  children. Many of us grew up in homes where there was a decent amount of criticism, and we ultimately internalized that voice that told us we weren’t doing this right or well.  Whatever the reason may be, recognize that there are parts of you that you criticize, judge and belittle vs. acknowledge, validate and praise.


High Standards

Right along with feelings of low self-value comes the high standards to which many moms hold themselves. They are unrealistic and unachievable. Somewhere along the line, we believed that we needed to be “perfect” moms where anticipate our children’s needs, we fix their problems before they even become a problem, take away their disappointment or sadness, and give them fabulous life experiences. We pack cute snacks and lunches and healthy dinners with handwritten notes, we sit at the table for each meal, and the list goes on and on and on.

Perhaps you were a perfectionist coming into the motherhood domain. Perhaps you felt that in order to be valued, you needed to also be perfect. Perhaps that’s where you gained your validation when you were growing up. You had to “do,” and “produce” in order to be recognized in your family of origin. It’s hard to maintain such an unsustainable standard within the domain of motherhood. In fact, it’s impossible.


Where Do We Go From Here?

Listen, Identify and Challenge

Listen to that voice that tells you that you aren’t doing a “good job” as a mom. Many of us grew up as, and continue to be, “people pleasers” and are highly empathic. Parenting is a job where you will challenge your children and they will be upset with you. It’s very difficult to sit with how unhappy your child may feel with you in that moment. You may want to make it right by taking away that boundary so they can “like” you again and be “happy” with you.

If your child is happy with you all the time, you may not be setting enough boundaries. Your child is supposed to be upset with you at times because you will need to set limits and boundaries, and they won’t like it. However, in the long-run, it will serve them well to know where to stop. It informs our children’s decisions and the inherent message in a boundary is that they are cared for, and someone else “has their back.” They may not like it in the moment, and that’s okay.

Each time you’re struggling as a mom, write those negative messages either in a journal or a Google Doc or your notepad on your phone. Now, assess – are these thoughts accurate or are they self-defeating?

If they’re self-defeating, try to replace them with more positive messages about who you are and your worth:

  • I show up every day for my kids.
  • I try my best every single day.
  • I am a good mom.
  • I am a good daughter.
  • I am a good friend.
  • I am a good sister.
  • Sometimes, I need a break too.
  • It’s okay if I can’t take something on right now.
  • It’s okay if I didn’t get to everything that I needed to today.
  • I’ll try again tomorrow.


Self-Care Isn’t Selfish

Many parents won’t stop until “everything” is taken care of for everyone around them. Perhaps this is a life-long pattern, and perhaps this is part of your “mommy-hood identity.” I have said it before and I’ll say it again – motherhood is one of the hardest jobs I have ever had. It’s exhausting, overwhelming, and I don’t know if I’m doing it right most of the time.

Take time for yourself. I know, that’s a vague statement. Think about what you need to decompress each day. Think about what fills your physical and emotional battery. Is it to sit in isolation and read or watch a show or movie on NetFlix? Is it physical movement (e.g., taking a walk, going to the gym, yoga, pilates)? Is it to through a massage or a manicure/pedicure? Whatever it is that brings you calm to your body and mind, do it.  Schedule time daily to have 5 minutes (or however long you need) to sit with your thoughts.

  • Look out the window
  • Take a walk without headphones or AirPods
  • Journal (using a physical journal and pen, or via a Google Doc that you can password protect)
  • Listen to a guided meditation
  • Draw or color a mandala page or a part of it

Believe me, I recognize that this may not be a daily act; however, once you engage in a little quiet time, even if it’s only for a few minutes, you will crave that time again and again because it will give you the mental energy to handle the decisions that you need to make for your family and everywhere else.



As a mom, we are used to handling a lot of details and quickly. In order to help you build in those moments where you can make solid decisions rather default to the desire to please or to get an answer out as quickly as possible, pause when you are being asked something by your children, your significant other, your co-parent, your coworker, your supervisor or anybody else. Build in that pause so that you can avoid saying “Yes” without thinking through what you can actually handle or if you are comfortable with that proposal or request.

For example, “Mom, can I go to the park with my friends?” Your natural instinct may be to say “Yes.” Pause and think about how your child will get there and get back, and if you or your significant other have time to be able to drive back and forth. It will also give you the chance to think about asking other questions, such as “Who else will be there?” etc. If you are managing other information or tasks, and can’t make a decision in the moment, begin to add “Let me think about it and get back to you,” into your repertoire of responses, rather than giving a reflexive, “Yes.”

Mom guilt is real. We all want to be the best parent to our child and to raise happy, well adjusted little people. Parenting is a tough job and it’s time for us to recognize the source of our guilt and begin to make changes so we don’t burn out and enjoy the beautiful relationships we have worked diligently to cultivate with our children and family.


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