Mom guilt and the idea of the perfect mother

What is it and how can we as mothers deal with it? A conversation with Jessica Tariq of Little Nomads Consulting.

Mother holding her baby's hands
Mother and baby

Who is the perfect mother?

That is a great question to start as we can come right to the point: The perfect mother is a myth. Society, traditional as well as social media, books, movies, etc, however, still pertain this myth and that puts huge pressure on mothers. In the portrayal of the ‘perfect mother’ women are shown to be always happy, blissfully fulfilled with caring for their children while also looking great, leading a fantastic social life and ideally having a successful career. In this way I actually find it very relevant to look at this false portrayal as it sets mothers up for failure.

A study by The Ohio State University (May 22)[1] reported that a whooping 66% of parents are stating they are burnt out – most of the mothers. This fact must not be overlooked, in my opinion. We need to address these issues and do more to support mothers. In my eyes no mother is perfect, because we are all humans and it is part of being human to make mistakes, have flaws and be imperfect. However, I believe that the vast majority of women with children are really good mothers…and good is really good enough.

[1] https://wellness.osu.edu/sites/default/files/documents/2022/05/OCWO_ParentalBurnout_3674200_Report_FINAL.pdf

Mom guilt

Mom guilt is defined as the pervasive feeling of not doing enough as a parent, not doing things right, or making decisions that may “mess up” your kids in the long run.

I am sure you know this feeling. I am a mother of two and I certainly know mom guilt. The reasons are manifold. Often mom guilt creeps in as soon as we find out that we are pregnant. Did you forget to take your daily dose of prenatal vitamins? There comes your first bout of mom guilt. Then it goes on and on. Honestly, there is so much information out there and so much is contradicting that it is hard not to feel like you are failing or even harming your kids. Didn’t have a blissful natural birth? Don’t want to breastfeed for at least 6 months? Choose not to co-sleep? Leaving your baby in the care of a babysitter for a few hours so you can have some social time? Dropping off your 3-year-old at nursery even though he is crying? Sending your child to school when she is under the weather because you have to go to work? 

And it actually never stops, even when they become teenagers (too much screen time? Too few organized activities? Too less reading time?). Often mothers feel guilty when they look after themselves and their own well-being. When they need to go back to work or get out there again to mingle with friends. Or they feel guilty for having (very normal) thoughts of missing their old life, their hobbies and the kind of person they used to be before they had children. Personally, I feel it is so important to do things that make you feel whole and good. I am all for going on a holiday by yourself for some days if you have someone trusted to look after the baby. And I also feel strongly about listening to your own inner voice. Especially first-time mothers can get easily overwhelmed by all the advice that is out there and start to doubt their every decision. In my opinion, it would be really helpful for many mothers to start simplifying parenting again and ignore a lot of the voices that tell them about what they should or should not do to be a perfect mom.

However, sometimes mom guilt is rooted in internal processes rather than external ones. For example, if you feel a strong sense of perfectionism that shows up across different aspects of your life,  it might be really useful to get someone on board and address these tendencies so you can overcome the

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Mom and child

Why do you work so passionately on mental load and mom guilt?

That is true, I am really passionate about emotional and mental wellbeing in general and about raising awareness for mother’s topics like mental load and mom guilt. For the first 20 years of my career I worked in education and social work and spent a lot of time working with families and moms in particular. While I always felt that mothers were treated unfairly and in this way were often blamed when their children did not “function” as it was expected of them, the real turning point was when I myself was on the brink of mom burnout. I had two kids under the age of 6, worked full time in an emotionally demanding job and my husband worked in a different city and only came home for the weekends. I had next to no support with the kids during the week and all I did was working and taking care of them. I did not do anything just for myself. It was at this time, that I realized that something had to give and I needed to take better care of myself. 

The first step was to reduce my work hours and then I added value into my life by going back to university and studying Counselling. That was something I had always wanted to do and it gave me great joy and a new perspective.  And since the degree was part-time and in Berlin (we lived in Frankfurt at that time) it meant that I spent one weekend a month without any family obligations and could fully focus on myself. Towards the end of my degree, I decided that I would move into counselling and coaching as a career and I knew I wanted to espescially support mothers. I had seen so many mothers struggle in silence- first in my work in education/social work, then my friends when we they became mothers and finally I experienced this ‘ugly’ side of motherhood myself.

How to cope with mom guilt

This is a topic that comes up all the time with my clients. Honestly, I don’t know a single mother who doesn’t feel mom guilt at least occasionally. Somehow it comes with the role and it can also be a good motivator. However, the extent to which we feel it needs to be monitored. Also, we need to ask ourselves: does it come from external factors (for example: your family shaming you about your parenting choices, you comparing yourself to momfluencers, etc.) or internal factors (for example: low self-esteem, your harsh inner voice or your own high standards).

Gaining awareness of the sources of our mom guilt and the aspects of our role as a mom you feel particularly guilty about, is the first step to dealing with it.

There are two roads to combat mom guilt that haven proven very effective for my clients:

It is increasing self-compassion and living by your values.

Let’s first look at values. They are powerful as they serve as an inner compass and help you to be the mother you want to be. When you are aware of your own values and certain about implementing them, you stop doubting your own decisions and choices and the opinions of others don’t matter so much to you any more. That is especially useful if you suffer from this constant chatter of parenting advice on social media and from so called experts. Knowing your own values will make you stronger in the face of those. Remind yourself that the parenting industry is huge. There are many people and companies out there that have lots to sell. Don’t step into the trap of believing you need all of their advice or products to be a good mom or to raise your kids. Ask yourself what hopes, goals and dreams you have for yourself as well as for your family. Reflect on those, write them down and then start slowly integrating them into your daily life.

Secondly, by learning to be more compassionate with yourself you will change the ways you see yourself, the ways you talk to yourself and you will eventually learn to be kinder to yourself. You will stop beating yourself up constantly about your perceived short-comings as a mother or, indeed human, and you will be able to slow down, focus on what really matters to you and care for yourself better.

As Kirsten Neff puts it:

 “Remember that if you really want to motivate yourself, love is more powerful than fear.”

Allow yourself to make mistakes, to be imperfect and stop chasing the ideal of the perfect mother- It’s a myth.

 

Jessica Tariq is a counsellor and coach, specialising in mental and emotional wellbeing of mothers, children and teens. Her passion is working with mothers to prevent parental burnout, reduce mental load and tackle mom guilt.
Jessica has been trained in Psychosocial Counselling, Acceptance-and-Commitment Therapy and Mindful Education.  After nearly 20 years in social work & education, most of which she spent in the UK, UAE and Namibia, she founded ‘Little Nomads Coaching’ in 2019. 
Jessica currently lives in Dubai with her 2 sons, husband and labrador Bob.

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