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Got Mom Guilt?

Got Mom Guilt?

From Nanny's 80s-style-parenting on The Muppet Babies, to Maggie Gyllenhaal's characters' attachment-parenting-style in Away We Go, there are all sorts of takes on motherhood.  One thing that connects them all is that healthy dose of mom guilt:  

Am I making the right decision for my kids?  Do I give them enough quality attention?  Would I be a better example for my daughter if I worked outside of the home?  If I work outside of the home, will I miss out on my kids' childhood?  

[Parenthood] It’s all those good things you have in you. The love, the wisdom, the generosity, the selflessness, the patience. The patience! At 3 a.m when everyone’s awake because Ibraham is sick and he can’t find the bathroom and he’s just puked all over Katki’s bed. When you blink, when you blink! And it’s 5:30 am and it’s time to get up again and you know you’re going to be tired all day, all week, all your [fudging] life. And you’re thinking what happened to Greece? What happened to swimming naked off the coast of Greece? And you have to be willing to make the family out of whatever you have.
— "Away We Go", 2009

I used to feel so guilty taking time to myself.   My hangup was that I wanted to do everything.  To be the one who was there for every bedtime and every scraped knee.  I especially wanted to be there for all of the first experiences, the laughter, the fun stuff.  

When your job is literally 24/7, even when you LOVE it, you need time to recharge.  And I learned I actually could not split myself three ways as a mother of a one-year-old, four-year-old and seven-year-old, with two different schools and burgeoning little social lives, school conferences and room parent meetings.  

I needed to learn to depend on trusted babysitters, and really ask my husband and mother-in-law for help driving the kids or watching the baby.  All of these things were always available to me.  I didn't have the perspective to see it, to ask for it. 

What I finally realized after more than seven years of motherhood, is that it doesn't make me weaker, or less of a mother to let go of the guilt of not-being-able-to-do-it-all (or do it all perfectly). 

Keeping that urge in check has been so freeing.  I don't have to be perfect.  In fact, there's no such thing.  But I do have to do what's best for myself AND for my family.  

It's okay for me to take care of myself, too.  To listen harder to what I want and need.  And to really fudging enjoy myself when I get an hour, a lunch date, or a whole night off.  Because the people I leave my kids with are trustworthy and care about them, too.  

I've interviewed Los Angeles based psychotherapist (and mother of grown twins), Dalia Kenig on her take on Mommy Guilt, the origins, and how moms can balance it all out.  As Dalia says, "[everyone] has a healthy dose of mom guilt.".  But balance in all things, including self-care, is essential to being a human and mother.

Dalia's words are so valuable for every single parent out there.  I'm going to step aside and let this pro on #momlife shine on.  

Q&A with Dalia Kenig, M.A., MFT.  

Polite As Fudge:  As both a mother of grown twins as well as a psychotherapist, what is your take on mommy guilt?

Dalia Kenig:  Mommy guilt is such a familiar feeling to me personally as a mom of twins as well as for many moms from all walks of life.  It comes in many forms and anything can turn into a reason to feel guilty.

There are common mommy guilt themes I recognize from my own experience and I am sure you will identify with:

  • I didn’t do enough for the kids
  • Second guessing my decisions and actions
  • Feeling less than a perfect mom
  • Blaming myself for my kids' issues
  • Not enjoying motherhood all the time
  • Missing my old life before kids
  • Guilty about having “me time”
  • Feeling bad being a working mom
  • Not good as the mom next door

And more….

This tendency to feeling mommy guilt might seem neurotic and excessive, but when you dig deeper into this experience you will start to understand and appreciate it.

The origin of maternal guilt comes from the drive to protect and take care of our offspring in the best possible way. Mommy guilt certainly doesn’t let us stay idle or indifferent.  It pushes us to do the best for our baby. 

You can witness this "maternal behavior," in nonhuman mammals as they care for their young ones with such devotion.

Moms display bonding behaviors towards their baby at the infancy stage.  These behaviors are both physiological and psychological driven and are designed to ensure mom is focused on infant survival, protection, and care, above all.  Mothers become intensely tuned in to baby's pain and pleasure, discomfort, and needs.

In mammals, these maternal behaviors cease anywhere between weeks to months, whenever their offspring mature and take off.  Humans, however, take years to acquire physical and psychological skills until they become independent.  This keeps our maternal drive and behaviors including mommy guilt stay around for much longer.

A healthy dose of mommy guilt keeps us attached and engaged with our kids.  It drives us to do our best as moms. When mommy guilt is out of balance it’s no longer serving its purpose effectively.  Instead, it becomes stressful causing physical, mental and emotional burnout, less joy, self-blame, and insecurity that if left unchecked can lead to the development of anxiety and depression as well as parenting problems.

Polite As Fudge:  What’s the most important thing for moms to keep in mind when it comes to keeping mommy guilt in check?

Dalia Kenig:   Keeping good connection with your kids is far more important than trying to achieve perfection.

It is easy for moms to feel like they don’t do enough with their kids and for their kids.  It puts so much pressure on everyone.  Less can be more.  Time and again, research has found that having a good connection with your kids is much more important than focusing on being perfect and having it all.

Motherhood is not fun all the time.  You are not going to feel happy all the time -- that’s normal.  There are many moments of joy in motherhood but let’s face it, we work hard and all the juggling we do can easily become demanding and exhausting. So, don’t feel guilty if you find yourself wanting to be somewhere else sometimes or you can’t wait for the kids to go to bed.  Let’s embrace the pain and difficulty of motherhood without guilt or shame.

Parenthood is a journey of learning.  Realizing you made the wrong choice will happen a lot. That does not mean you are a bad mother.  It only means that you are like everyone else – human and learning.  Think of mistakes as learning lessons that can make you better if you will use it to improve yourself. 

Think of mistakes as learning lessons that can make you better, if you will use it to improve yourself. 
— Dalia Kenig

Taking care of your needs makes you a better mommy.  You are more than a mom, and it's easy to forget that you have needs too when everyone around you has needs all the time.  From things like taking a shower, sitting down to eat, resting or sleeping, to taking time out for yourself to do what makes you feel good.  Make time to connect with people other than your kids; your husband/partner and friends, bring in more intimacy, connection, and support into your life.  The bottom line is when you are rested and more fulfilled, you will feel more joy in your everyday life, will deal better with stress, be in a better mood and so will your kids.  By taking care of yourself and “filling yourself up”, you will find that you will have so much more to give to your kids and family and feel better about yourself as a mom.  It’s a win-win!

Don’t beat yourself up.  As moms we juggle so many things, deal with countless situations that come up that we need to solve.  Not every day will be the greatest day for you or your kids. We’ve all been there.  Accept it. We tend to focus on what we didn’t do well and magnify it. Instead, try to acknowledge what you did do OK and move forward.  There is always a new day waiting to start over again.

There is always a new day waiting to start over again.

Moms can be very hard on themselves in situations even when they have no control over it.  For example having a premature baby, feeling overwhelmed or depressed, having to stop breastfeeding, coping with a child's health condition and more.  It’s not your fault!  Don’t beat yourself up with mommy guilt, get support and release self-blame so you can feel good about yourself and enjoy your motherhood.

Q.  Is mommy guilt universal?  Has it changed over time? 

It’s because we love and care so much.

Dalia Kenig:  I believe that all women experience a healthy dose of mommy guilt.  It has to do with questioning if our decisions and choices for our kids were right.  It’s because we love and care so much.  

Mommy guilt is different in different cultures and countries.  It depends on the cultural values and expectations of moms and how they view working moms, stay home moms, roles of extended family in raising kids and more.  In our society, we have so many more options than previous generations when it comes to raising our kids. 

We are also exposed to so much information from “experts” books, internet and the media that tell us what is the right or wrong way to parent and it can be crazy-making.  It definitely triggers insecurity and guilt in moms I talk with. 

Another sign of our time is the growing number of moms who find themselves isolated which can only magnify the mommy guilt.  It takes a village to raise a mom, not just a child.  There are helpful things you can learn from other moms about the experience that can help you normalize your experience and lessen the grip of mommy guilt. 

Over time, there has been a movement from adult-centered parenting towards child-centered parenting which has relevance to mommy guilt.  Child-centered parenting is focused on nurturing needs and interests of your child.  Moms who parent with this approach run the risk of feeling guilty about not meeting high expectations they set for themselves and feeling guilty about accommodating parental needs.  I believe that every mom has to choose a parenting style that fits her personality and values.  Balance is so important when it comes to motherhood. 

We mothers are like marathon runners.  We have to sustain our vitality, physical health, and mental wellness in order to function well, day-in and day-out, sometimes 24/7.  We have to take care of our own needs as well so we enjoy motherhood and spread that joy within our family.

Q.  Why don’t we hear about “daddy guilt”.  Do dads question themselves and their decisions the way moms do?

Dalia Kenig:  When it comes to dads, they certainly experience guilt but not necessarily over the same issues that moms do.

Today, many dads are much more involved in parenting.  They are more hands-on, which makes them feel more conflicted about balancing work time and family time.  They often feel bad for not spending enough time with their kids, missing special events, coming home late at night after the kids are asleep, and missing out on everyday moments because of work.

When dads are the breadwinners, they tend to feel daddy guilt for not making as much money as they think they should for their kids. 

Dads, in general, tend to question their parenting less than moms, focusing more on problem-solving.  They worry less about what others think about their parenting. 

A few dads have confided in me that they, at times, find themselves feeling guilty about the close intimacy their wife has with the kids that they wish they could have.  

Polite As Fudge:  The age-old “grass is always greener” situation seems to come into play here:  working moms feel guilty for not being home, stay-at-home moms feel guilty for not constantly engaging their kids or for not working outside of the home.  How can we keep ourselves from comparing our motherhood experiences to other peoples or society’s portrayals of what motherhood should look like?

Dalia Kenig:  Every mom has her own way.  To me, it doesn’t make sense to compare motherhood experiences and judge them.  Each mother has a different style, values, abilities, and a different background and all of that makes her motherhood unique unlike anyone else's. Every family also has to deal with its unique situations and challenges which also affect a mom’s choices and parenting styles.

My best advice to moms is to filter out the outside noise about perfect motherhood which includes a barrage of opinions, information, and criticism about the right way to be a mom. Television, parenting magazines, social media, other mothers or friends and mothers-in-law, anyone.  Take in what you feel is right for you and discard the rest.  I say mostly tune inward to find the wonderful mom you want to be and get inspired by women who you consider role models of motherhood.

I say mostly tune inward to find the wonderful mom you want to be and get inspired by women who you consider role models of motherhood.

Polite As Fudge:.  Can you tell us a little bit about what it means to take care of yourself as a mother?

Dalia Kenig:  The first thing that comes to mind is to stop self-sacrifice.  To be a good mom you have to be committed to taking good care of yourself, not just your kids and family, not once in a while but on regular basis.  Remember it’s not just for yourself -- it's for your family!

When you have more within yourself you have more to give to your kids and family.  This includes your basic needs: eating, resting, sleeping, personal care, etc. Taking time for yourself, connecting with other adults, spending time with your husband and when possible pursue hobbies, passions and finding interest beyond motherhood.

As a mom of twins, I know how much of a challenge it can be to find time and energy for self-care.

To enable myself to take care of me, it meant opening myself to accept help from my husband and other people I trusted.  This allowed me to take longer breaks, go out and do the things that made me feel good.  I also learned to take little self-care breaks during the day when I could.  A tea break for 10-15 minutes in between chores, or a walk in the park before I picked up the kids from school.

As they say, where there is a will, there is a way.  When it comes to self-care, it’s up to you.  Noone else can do it for you.


Dalia Kenig, M.A., MFT

Holistic Psychotherapy Center

Phone:  (818) 501.8092

E-mail:  dalia@myholistictherapy.org

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