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Overcoming "Mommy Guilt"

It’s the “Holy Grail” of parenting—a way to lead a productive, fulfilling adult existence while raising happy, successful, well-adjusted kids. Is it the impossible dream? No, say the authors of Mommy Guilt: Learn to Worry Less, Focus on What Matters Most and Raise Happier Kids (AMACOM, 2005). Written by a triumvirate of experts — journalist and educator Julie Bort, educator Aviva Pflock, and social worker Devra Renner (all moms)—the book explains how parents, especially moms, can change their attitudes toward parenting and let go of unobtainable goals.

The authors’ strategies for mommy guilt-free living revolve around seven principles:

  1. You must be willing to let some things go.
  2. Parenting is not a competitive sport.
  3. Look toward the future and at the big picture.
  4. Learn when and how to live in the moment.
  5. Get used to saying “yes” more often and being able to defend your “no.”
  6. Laugh a lot, especially with your children.
  7. Set aside specific time to have fun as a family.

Mommy Guilt presents the results of an original nationwide survey of over 1,300 parents—a whopping 96% of whom reported feeling guilty about some aspect of parenting. Coauthor Julie Bort elaborated on the Mommy Guilt philosophy in the following exclusive interview.

Mommy and guilt—two words that go together like peanut butter and jelly. Did you find any moms who said they didn’t feel guilty about something?

Julie Bort: Interestingly enough, the answer is a qualified no. In our survey of 1,306 parents nationwide conducted for the book, 96% reported feelings of guilt associated with parenting. Of the 4% that didn’t, nearly all were men. So, statistically speaking, mommy guilt is a universal feeling. (There was one woman from Norway who said she didn’t feel guilty about anything—but I had to wonder, maybe she just wasn’t coming clean).

Why is the book called “Mommy Guilt” instead of “Parent Guilt?” Is guilt strictly a mom thing?

JB:  No – it’s more of a labeling thing. While men were twice as likely to report no feelings of guilt associated with parenting than women were, this doesn’t mean that men don’t feel the stress of parenting. Men are simply more likely to label that stress as “frustration.” Mothers, on the other hand, often think that they aren’t supposed to feel angry, resentful, frustrated, and so on, at the challenges that family life tosses at them, so they feel “guilty.”

But Mommy Guilt is somewhat different from Daddy Guilt. Dads are more likely to feel guilty over specific instances when their own behavior falls short of their expectations for themselves. Moms often bundle up all their negative reactions into more generalized “mommy guilt.” So when something goes wrong, big or small, they instantly think, “bad mommy!”

Now, most parents are happy and, of course, they love their children—this isn’t about that. It’s about trying to be perfect— superhuman, so to speak—which is an impossible goal. Some degree of falling short is to be expected. Resultant feelings should be used as a signal: “Hey is something going on here that I need to look at and possibly change?” The book shows moms and dads how to shift to that more relaxed attitude.

Your Mommy Guilt survey showed that stay-at-home moms and moms who work outside the home suffer equal amounts of guilt. This is so surprising—one would think that moms who work outside the home would have more guilt, as they try to balance professional and personal commitments. Why are both groups of moms so stressed out?

JB:  Yes, this is one of the amazing findings of the research. No matter the work choice, all moms feel the same level and frequency of guilt and over pretty much the same issues. Moms who work outside the home say that their #1 guilt-inducing issue is the amount of time they spend at work (though they also feel guilty over having their home lives interfere with their work lives). Yet stay-at-home moms say they feel guilty about the amount of time they spend doing the household management parts of their jobs (housework, paying bills, etc.) and not playing with their kids. Both groups feel guilty about working too much!

What this tells me is that the problem isn’t work choice but rather how we view the job of parenting. It’s time we thought about parenting in a new and better light. Happier, more relaxed mothers lead to happier families and happier children. Stress, resentment, and other negative feelings may be unavoidable, but they needn’t be a routine part of the experience. When you have those feelings, treat them as an invitation to change something and, more specifically, to prioritize your own needs more than you are currently doing.

What advice can you give to moms who work outside the home on how to juggle their many roles without dropping any balls?

JB:  My advice is to go ahead and drop some balls and to laugh about it as they fall. Where is it written that your role is to juggle a huge number of balls and to do it continuously and perfectly? You can’t. You won’t. Why beat yourself up over it? Instead, create a new paradigm for prioritizing the activities in your life so you can focus on enjoying those activities. While you are at it, put yourself at the top of that new paradigm, because, guess what? This is YOUR life, too, and you are entitled to create it as a happy existence. That’s why our #1 guilt-free principle is “You must be willing to let some things go.”

If you could offer just one tip for moms on how to ease their Mommy Guilt, what would it be?

JB:  Recognize that the feeling is trying to tell you to change something and that change always requires at least a two-step process. First, you have to learn to let go of the things that are causing you problems. Sometimes it’s just a matter of looking at a situation in a new light. Other times it’s a matter of getting the training you need to do your parenting job differently (like learning yell-free discipline techniques or meal-planning tricks). Second, you have to replace the old ways with new ones. This isn’t hard to do; in fact, it’s easy! Not only that, it is addictive in the same way that negativity can be addictive. Once you begin prioritizing the enjoyment of your parenting experience, you will want to create even more ways to do so. You will be modeling for your kids what it means to be a happy, balanced, well-adjusted parent—so your whole family will be better off.

Read a sample chapter from Mommy Guilt.