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The Mom Guilt Epidemic

Marlowe Martino with a teddy bear

As a working Mom, I’ve been structuring my time between my home life, my work life, and my personal life ever since Marlowe was an itty bitty baby.  In a postpartum moment of delirium, I actually went back to auditioning two weeks after Marlowe was born – which definitely backfired and is not something I would ever recommend.  But navigating the waters between what we need for ourselves personally or professionally – and our role and identity as Mothers is ever easy – even for Mothers who do not work outside the home. I think as Moms we get pulled in so many directions – and when we feel conflicted about where we are letting our energy land at a certain moment, it can translate directly and immediately in to all-consuming Mom Guilt.

Any Mom knows the concept of Mom Guilt well, and I think different people get it for different reasons – a choice or dynamic that might make me feel guilty as a Mom may not trigger another woman in the same way or vice versa.  I think our triggers for Mom Guilt actually have a lot to do with our own childhoods, and our own understanding and projections about Mothering and/or about children and their needs.  But I think that one thing all Moms can agree on is that Mom Guilt is one of the worst feelings in the world.  It’s that anxious pang, that “is this right?” question in the back or front of your mind, the heartache of imagining your child’s unhappiness or fear, or the self-judgement for allowing your attention to to land on somebody or something other than our children – even if that somebody is ourselves! I truly feel that no matter what our personal Mom Guilt triggers are as individuals, that no Mother is fully immune to the feeling – and that the uneasy feeling of conflict that this triggers has become a total epidemic that seeps in to all areas of our lives when we’re feeling it.

Eva Amurri Martino cradles her daughter Marlowe while holding a teddy bear

And then, a few months ago, I went to an event and heard Esther Perel speak, and I had a total “Aha!” moment.  She made me realize that Mom Guilt is not just an epidemic that is shared by Moms as a sometimes debilitating collective experience.  Mom Guilt is also an epidemic because the behavior, emotions, and feelings of self that Mom Guilt demonstrates to our children is actually seriously effecting them and their futures.  And not remotely in the way we imagine.  Esther Perel is a mother, a relationship expert, and an author.  She has written two really fascinating books (I’m currently halfway through “Mating In Captivity”), and has a podcast that I HIGHLY RECOMMEND.  When I heard her speak, it was on a panel that was discussing the pitfalls and difficulties of the transition in to parenthood– and lots of topics were coming up surrounding self-care and supporting the parental relationship.  Esther introduced a concept that totally rocked my world: “The thing about parenthood these days– and it’s not a problem necessarily, but it is something to look at– is that it has become all about the child.  It is completely child-centric and is not at all about the parents.  It’s about what the children need, and what the children get, but the parents don’t realize that they are the models for the children.” I was on the edge of my seat.  As somebody who watched my relationship with my husband change, my social life change, and my work priorities shift when I had children, I could definitely relate to this.  I would say in my life how the parent (me) was doing was normally at probably the lowest rung on the ladder. 

She went on to explain how important it is for children to see parents making choices that they feel confident in and that make them happy.  She explained that when a parent is unsure of a choice or action (whether it’s working outside the home, going out to dinner with a spouse and leaving the children, or even a Mom having drinks with her girlfriends or attending an exercise class) that the child picks up on this and translates it in to a fear of the world and the unknown.  In the child’s mind, they are watching their parent make a choice to part with them, but then feel unsure of that decision– and then the child translates that questioning in to fear.  If we say “Mommy and Daddy are going out to dinner and Sarah will be babysitting you”, but then we apologize, or seem apologetic– this is translating directly for our children in to self doubt.  Then our child is worried for us, they don’t believe that the choices we are making are safe for us, and thus it makes them worry about us.  Basically, when we make choices and then feel guilty about them we are creating a dynamic in which our children feel the need to take care of US.  Cue the music: Unhealthy. 

Marlowe Martino cradling a teddy bear

I literally had an epiphany.  In my mind, countless times when I would apologize to my kids for having to dash to a work event ran through on a loop.  Times when Kyle and I were going to miss bedtime and when they would complain I’d say something along the lines of “I know, but we’ll be back soon, and I’ll put you to bed tomorrow.”  Apologies, apologies, guilt, guilt, guilt.  Basically I was saying to my kids: “Mommy made a decision but I don’t feel great about it, so you shouldn’t either.”  I felt more aware of myself and my pitfalls as a parent than I ever had before, and I was totally and fully ready to learn as I listened more to what Esther had to say about how to fix it. 

Her advice to avoid this, as she puts it, is to make your choices and live your life in front of your kids “in full glow”.  I’ve never loved a phrase more. Do things that make you happy, whether it’s working or not, going to a class, going back to school, going out with Daddy, or spending time with your friends– but emphasize to your kids how much those things fill you up and make you happy.  Make sure they know how important those things are to you, and how regenerative they can be for you.  Share with them why doing those things for yourself matter to you.  She went on to explain that modeling a lifestyle for your kids in which you are unafraid to be the person that you are will only work to make them self confident and brave individuals who will then go out in to the world and take care of THEMSELVES without guilt when the time comes.  I honestly wanted to kiss Esther, I felt so enlightened. 

Eva Amurri Martino laughing with her daughter Marlowe

After hearing her speak, I put it in to practice immediately.  Whenever I speak about my work, I make sure to share what I’m liking about it– or why an event is interesting that is taking me away from bedtime.  Instead of working some kind of verbal or nonverbal apology in to my explanation about why Mommy and Daddy are going out, I start by saying “Guys, Dad and I are so excited because we’re going out tonight!”  I do the same for times when I venture out on my own to do something I want to do for me.  I always frame it in a way where my kids can hear how excited I am to be doing what I’m doing.  And then when I return to my kids afterwards, I always greet them with love and excitement to share about my experience.  I was missing that glow, big time.  And what I realized when I started bringing it back was that stepping in to time away from my kids “in full glow” actually totally improved my experience during my time away.  Instead of sitting there feeling badly, I would really find the beautiful moments to share with my kids when I got home. 

I’m by no means perfect when it comes to avoiding Mom Guilt– and I still get it sometimes around tons of different triggers, but I have found that realizing how much my guilt could effect my kids long term really helped me reframe it for myself.  I do fully believe that our kids consciously and subconsciously look to us to define their own experiences, and I want them to see me enjoying and experiencing my life as an individual as well as in my role as their Mom.  I’m a work in progress, but this new approach has really inspired me!

Do you have any stories or feelings about Mom Guilt or how to avoid it? Please share in the comments below!

Eva Amurri Martino laughing with her daughter Marlowe

 

Photography by Carter Fish.

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49 Comments

  1. melanie says:

    Bonjour Eva,

    Je suis maman de deux enfants!Une fois par mois nous allons au restaurent en amoureux et la gardienne garde nos enfants!

    Et deux après-midi par mois,nous prenons deux heures ensemble a se balader et être en amoureux!

    Il y a 7ans ,je ne voulais pas me séparer de mes enfants,mais avec le temps,développer l’équilibre et prendre du temps pour soi et en amoureux ses super important!

    Toujours un plaisir de vous suivre 😉
    Bonne journée 😉

    04.16.18Reply
    • Liz says:

      There is a really wonderful book written by Pamela Druckerman observing how the French seem to approach raising their children (“French Children Don’t Throw Food”) and it really highlights the importance of “living your own life” and allowing your children to do the same, instead of making everything about them.

      04.16.18Reply
      • Carole says:

        Yes!! Eva’s text reminded me of that book, my favorite about parenting!!

        04.16.18Reply
      • Oh I must read that! Bringing Up Bebe is one of my favorite parenting books, and this seems right up that alley! 🙂

        04.20.18Reply
  2. Ruslana says:

    Hi Eva!
    Thank you for bringing up such an important topic.
    I really felt this mom guilt after I got back to work when my daughter was only 1.5 months old. It was my own decision as I like my job. Since then I felt like I was not a good mother as I spent my time on something else. Plus, my girlfriends with kids devoted their time to their families, and didn’t really understand what I was trying to prove. It put a ton of pressure on me. But when the time passed, I realized that my job makes me happy and I feel not only as a mother/wife, but also as a valued professional. So my rule of thumb is “Happy mother – happy child”.

    P.S. best wishes from Ukraine.:)

    04.16.18Reply
    • That’s an amazing rule of thumb! Get it, Mama!!!! 🙂

      04.20.18Reply
  3. Kate says:

    Thank you so much for this post! I have an 11 week old and I’m heading back to work in a couple of weeks and am feeling the mom guilt big time. This post really hit home for me in regards to working, working out, and making time for dates with my husband. I am definitely going to work on taking care of myself and my marriage without feeling guilty. I really appreciate you sharing your insight!

    – Kate

    04.16.18Reply
    • It’s so normal to feel really emotional about going back to work when your baby is tiny. Just allow yourself to feel emotional without attaching guilt or self blame. Your baby will do great!

      04.20.18Reply
  4. We know all Moms are working Moms, no matter what they do outside of raising children and managing their households. Our culture needs to come back to that fact and make Moms and children the center of our world. Reverence for all starts with caring for Mother Earth. I honor the work you do to raise the future generation in a healthy way.

    04.16.18Reply
    • We could definitely do with honoring the Mother more in our culture!

      04.20.18Reply
  5. Tara says:

    So so true!! I have been trying to stop projecting my own guilt on my kids… and it is true that they appear more capable and confident as a result! For example, instead of apologizing that they have to go to (pre)school because I have to work, I have tried be excited… they genuinely seem more excited about it too. Now to work on stopping the guilt in my own head…..

    04.16.18Reply
  6. Alisha says:

    I think it’s all in the way you communicate with your child. If you communicate with constant regret then yes of course the child would pick that up. If you make it fun like Mom has to go to work today but so and so is going to come play. The child will look forward to someone coming to play.

    Also, just today I could tell my toddler was suffering from the Monday’s. I want to tell her yeah girl Monday does stink! Do I like going to work everyday? No I miss my kids. I think that’s perfectly ok to say.

    04.16.18Reply
  7. Shelley D. says:

    My sons are adults now,but I clearly had Mom Guilt whether venturing out w/ hubby,alone,or w/ friends.
    I was apologetic & the kids fed into it,so my guilt was magnified.
    I wish I had Esther’s sage advice all those years ago.

    04.16.18Reply
  8. Vicki Zangl says:

    Mom guilt includes moms with grown adult kids. It also includes being a grandparent. My mom guilt and my GLAMA guilt gets the best of me. I have struggled with this since my first child was born. This was a fantastic post.

    Thank you for sharing.

    04.16.18Reply
  9. Anne says:

    Thank you so much for this! I guess I had never thought about how I might be projecting my guilt onto my kids when I/we leave the house, whether it be to go for a run/workout or going out to dinner. Going to change that now!!

    I did have one question. I know Kyle travels a lot for work – have you talked to him about the guilt he feels when he’s not there? Maybe you’ve thought about talking about this for one of your “Conversations with Kyle” posts? I’m really just curious. I know my husband feels guilt when a work function takes him away from home for dinner/bedtime. I’m sure Kyle does, too!

    04.16.18Reply
    • Laura says:

      This is an interesting point, and I would be keen to hear Kyle’s views too.

      One of the lightbulb moments for my Husband and I in the first two years of being parents was that I felt guilt at being away from our children, but that he did not. He’s a loving and very involved Father, so I was surprised (and a little hurt) by this at first. But he explained to me that he had balanced work, parenting and hobbies ever since our children were born – this was his normal and he had never known any different. He found it hard to relate to the guilt I felt, and couldn’t understand why I was so hard on myself when I chose to spend time away from my children. Seeing this difference really helped us.

      04.17.18Reply
      • Laura says:

        PS. Fantastic post Eva. As a full time working Mum with a big job that I love, and two beautiful children at home that I love even more, this really resonated with me.

        04.17.18Reply
    • Kyle actually feels ZERO guilt whenever anything takes him away from the kids, which was a whole other thing I had to come to terms with. At first I was resentful, now I envy him! LOL. Every person and every parent is different, but in general I feel that our culture puts so much more pressure on Moms than on Dads to always always be around

      04.20.18Reply
      • Jena Endaya says:

        My husband is the same!! Had to leave the country for a week without the kids and I was overcome with major separation anxiety and he was like.. I feel fine!😂 😬 resented him a bit for that but come to realize that we just “parent” differently😁

        04.20.18Reply
  10. Sarine says:

    Yes!

    My mom guilt: not having any ANY energy or creativity left to play with them after they get home from preschool.
    Why? Because….
    My day when they are at school: work work work because I have to use every second productively for their future benefit because of my choice to sign them up for preschool while they are only 4.5 and 2.5 years old.
    I don’t work out, my body is diminishing, my mind can only plan work, not fun.

    04.16.18Reply
  11. Elana Street says:

    Incredibly enlightening. Isn’t it funny how something that seems SO obvious isn’t? Instead it’s buried underneath all of those deeply personal issues that really comes down to wanting to be loved and wanting our children to feel loved. I love this whole “flip the switch” mentality. Let’s celebrate having interests and passions and wants and needs. It’s what makes us happy humans!

    04.16.18Reply
  12. Kulsoom Jafri says:

    Full time working mama, so the mom guilt is definitely something I can relate to, and single mom on top of that so that piles on more guilt. I really loved this, thanks for sharing and I definitely hope to try this more as I do just what you say you used to do in the past, lots of apologizing when I can’t be around. I never thought of it in the way that it could be affecting them. This was great, thanks!

    04.16.18Reply
  13. Leslie says:

    I love that advice to show yourself excited or sure of yourself instead of apologetic. My daughter is 14 months and doesn’t care if I leave her (which still makes me feel odd and guilty) but I have trouble also not spending every waking moment playing with her. Trying to find the balance of encouraging her to play on her own and not feel bad.

    04.16.18Reply
  14. Jennifer says:

    This was really great!! I do pretty well keeping mom guilt in check – I stay home & feel my kids get plenty of time with me. But I loved reading g how it helps them become more secure “stepping in your glow”!!

    04.16.18Reply
  15. Margherita says:

    While reading this post I realized that Mom Guilt is actually deeply affecting my life and ability to be happy.
    This is very personal, but I think the first step towards making a change is admitting there is a problem by saying it out loud.
    I became a stay at home mom even if it was never my goal. My husband said it would be cheaper to stay at home with the little one because daycare is so expensive and you don’t really want someone else to raise your child in this early stage. I agreed, and I still think it was the best choice for our family, but at the same time I feel like I ended up giving up on my professional ambitions. I gave up on being happy as an individual to do what was best for my family. I think I avoided Mom Guilt all together this way, I wasn’t having to part with my kid to do things for myself and therefore there was no guilt.
    But, I think I started to blame myself and my family for my unhappiness. I don’t feel fulfilled as an individual, all I do is always for my husband and our daughter. This is not their fault of course, but I figured out that in the long run it affects my relationships with them.
    Bottom line is: I need to be happy first, to be able to be a good wife and mother.
    I need to work on this. Thank you for your post and for making me think about these issues.

    04.16.18Reply
    • I’m so proud of you for voicing this, Margherita!! I know you will make the changes that are right for you and your happiness and the happiness of your family. But know that you are a great Mom, and you deserve to have happiness for yourself as well!

      04.20.18Reply
  16. Camryn says:

    This is amazing! It makes so much sense and I will be sharing with my husband. Both of us need to stop feeling guilty.

    04.16.18Reply
  17. Amber says:

    This was a great reminder! Just today my 18month old went to preschool for the first time. As she waddled off to play I saw a sadness set in my eyes and all I wanted was for her to know how sorry I was! But, she was happy and Mom is happy for that! Great post!

    04.16.18Reply
  18. Natalie says:

    This is GAME CHANGING. Thank you for sharing. About to get my glow on…

    04.16.18Reply
  19. Laura says:

    Fantastic post! This really opened up my eyes to see different ways of handling a situation. I have a 3 week old baby and I think this is just something I needed to read. My husband and I need to remember that we are all important, not just our beautiful baby. Thank you 🙂

    04.16.18Reply
    • Ann says:

      It’s so easy to make it all about the baby because that’s what we are fed over and over. Make time for you and hubby. You blink, that baby is in college and you want to look at hubby and still recognize the man you fell in love with. Blessings.

      04.16.18Reply
  20. Kerry dewitt says:

    I left my job to raise my children which I was happy to do. I didn’t realize that my husband would then take everything I did for granted and spend all of his time at home relaxing from his stressful job while I never took a break. I felt guilty to take me time! I woke up and got divorced and went back to schoool and have a whole new career. I have a supportive husband now too. It has helped my kids to see my not as s doormat slaving to their fathers every need and I believe they have much more respect knowing I’m doing something I feel passionate about. The saying that if mama ain’t happy nobodies happy really is true.

    04.16.18Reply
  21. Lindsay says:

    LOVE THIS! We’re out best moms when we’re our best selves. Totally embracing the ‘in full glow’ from here on out <3

    04.16.18Reply
  22. Dominique H says:

    Thank you for writing this! I work outside the home and I always feel bad if I do anything extra. I hadn’t thought about how my guilt was shaping my kids. I will try this for sure!

    04.16.18Reply
  23. Heather says:

    My kids are all grown but I still needed to hear this. I’m in a relationship that makes me very happy but takes me away from my adult son and 3 year old granddaughter for 2 days a week. Just two. But my son is mildly autistic and finds single parenting overwhelming at times. I feel such mixed feelings about leaving them every week. Another adult son who lives several hours away tries to guilt trip me for getting away overnight with the boyfriend and not spending the night with his family. So here I am at 50 feeling grandma/mom guilt. Set healthy expectations when they’re young otherwise… it never ends!

    04.16.18Reply
    • I’m sorry you get guilt tripped for having your own things going on, that never feels good 🙁

      04.20.18Reply
  24. LOVE this post Eva!!!

    04.16.18Reply
  25. Ann says:

    Love this post so much Eva. I get my glow on by going to regular yoga classes. It took me years though to get to this point. I’m embarrassed to admit I waited until my eldest went to college. My youngest just started high school. It’s so easy to get sucked into the kids after school activities that you don’t set the time aside for yourself. Where were you 20 years ago when I was getting started?

    04.16.18Reply
    • It’s so easy to fall in to a routine with zero self care for Mom. I’m proud of you for investing in yourself!

      04.20.18Reply
  26. Thanks so much for this post! I feel guilt every day i go to work and i see my son through the window, i can not stay home for finacial reasons, but i would love to be home with him… my mom babysits wich im so grateful for, and what better babysitter than grandma, but still would love to not feel the way i feel every day! 🙂 thanks Eva

    04.16.18Reply
  27. SAMANTHA says:

    This is an amazing tool. I will be implementing this with my children immediately! Uou have changed my entire outlook on llife!!!!

    04.16.18Reply
  28. Danielle says:

    I just read this blog post and can’t believe I didn’t figure this out for myself! It makes so much sense!
    Total aha moment – Thanks 🙌🏻

    04.16.18Reply
  29. Carolyn says:

    Eva,
    This is exactly what I needed to hear! I felt bad leaving my boys tonight but needed a better way to approach my departure as the new routine is crying their eyes out before I leave which then turns into MAJOR Mom Guilt. Thank you so much for sharing!

    04.20.18Reply
    • Never feel guilty for having a life outside of being Mama! It’s important for you to thrive so they can thrive!!! xoxo

      04.20.18Reply