Adjust Your Expectations to Overcome Mommy Guilt: 5 Strategies to Start Today

motherhood guilt

It’s hard to imagine motherhood without a heaping dose of mommy guilt.  Moms start judging their choices and behaviors from the moment they begin referring to themselves as moms.  And, typically, they judge themselves as coming up short or outright failing.

In the previous Linden Blog post, we point out that not all mommy guilt is a bad thing.  We can learn from the experience of guilt to guide our behaviors and make choices that better match our values.  Yet all too often, moms feel such frequent guilt that it leads to low self-esteem or low self-confidence.  Instead of feeling a brief moment of guilt for letting our kids spend the entire day on their screen devices, we begin to feel like “bad moms” in a broader sense.  We feel like major failures as mothers…wives, daughters, sisters, friends, people.

Mommy guilt becomes an unhealthy burden when our expectations are unrealistic and/or unrelated to our values.  Adjusting these expectations is a key step in overcoming the negative impact of mommy guilt.  Setting healthy expectations will allow you to unburden yourself from this cycle of guilt so you can actually parent better.

5 Strategies to Create Healthy Expectations:

  1. Quiet the inner critic.  Many moms are a hundred times harder on themselves than anyone else.  The bar for our own mommy success is so high that we constantly feel like failures.  This is not helpful for anyone, actually preventing healthy change.  Instead, recognize that critical voice in your head and tell it to take a break.  Then create more positive self-talk by speaking to yourself as your own best friend.  Most women are more compassionate toward their mommy friends than themselves.  Honor yourself this same compassion.  Encouragement and understanding are much greater motivators than criticism and punishment.
  2. Accept the mother you are.  It’s important to be your real self with your children rather than pretending to be the kind of mom you think they want.  You don’t have to mother like your sister, neighbor, friend.  Create your own version of mothering that plays to your strengths and matches your values.  Perhaps you enjoy being the room mom who brings homemade cookies to every school function.  Maybe that sounds stressful and hard for you.  You might be the energetic mom who plays tag at the park.  Maybe that sounds exhausting to you.  However you choose to approach motherhood, accept who you are so you can be authentic.
  3. Stop trying to make your kids happy.  This is by far the most common goal moms say they aim for in parenting.  But it is a recipe for failure.  When children are unhappy (as naturally happens throughout the course of a day), moms often view themselves as failing.  It is important to remember that happiness is a transient emotion that comes from within.  No one sustains happiness.  Instead, you might focus on creating a safe, supportive environment where all feelings are acceptable.  Allow your children to experience a full range of emotions, including disappointment, because this gives them the opportunity to learn the skills needed to manage these feelings.  You can give your children the gift of developing emotional resilience by tolerating their upset moments without the pressure to fix the situation for them.
  4. Focus on one thing at a time.  We simply cannot be beautifully successful in all aspects of life at the same moment.  It is impossible to always be a perfect mother, wife, friend, daughter, sister, employee, etc.  Allow yourself to focus on one part of your life at a time.  Sometimes you may slack as a friend because you’re energy is spent on mothering and working.  At other times you will give your friendships more attention.  Give yourself permission to focus on these different aspects of yourself at different times, aiming to balance it out over the course of a month or two rather than a day.
  5. Learn from your tough moments.  Every mom has a particularly stressful time of the day when it’s especially hard to remain calm and perform optimally.  For you it might be getting everyone out the door in the morning or at dinner time or when putting everyone to bed at night.  Notice the predictable times when you may not be your best and make adjustments.  If you find yourself never meeting your own expectations (e.g. sending kids off to school happy each day), this is a signal you need to adjust your goal (e.g. kids are fed and no one is in tears at the bus stop most days).  You can also prepare for these tough moments by taking better care of yourself ahead of time.  Maybe you take a rest or call a friend or meditate right before the bedtime process starts.

Many people resist adjusting their expectations of themselves because this feels like giving up or giving in.  Yet this constant cycle of setting unrealistic goals and falling short only leads to guilt, disappointment, and low self-confidence.  Aim to be a good enough parent rather than a perfect parent. We know that success builds upon success.  Give yourself and your family a chance to be successful.

Please note, this is the second blog in a three part series. Part three will focus on getting support for guilt.

Written by Suzanne Smith, Ph.D. for the Linden Blog. If you are interested in receiving Linden Blog updates with original articles about parenting, families, mental health, and wellness, subscribe using the field below. If you are interested in scheduling an appointment with Dr. Smith at Linden BP call 440/250-9880.