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Mom Guilt: Overcoming Feelings of Parental Inadequacy

when new moms lack an immediate emotional attachment to their newborns and what experts say you can do to battle those feelings

Within hours of giving birth to my daughter Genevieve, I took to Facebook to announce her arrival. The post read, “So in love.” It was a lie I felt obligated to tell. The truth? How could I be in love? I barely knew her.

To be sure, my pregnancy was planned and I anxiously anticipated her arrival, but I never felt the bond that books, websites and doctors told me would start while my baby was in the womb. I tried. I rubbed my growing belly and occasionally talked, even sang to her as I had been instructed. But truth be told, I felt more meh about beginning some sort of relationship with someone I had yet to meet.

When Genevieve was born, I wanted to protect and care for her but more out of a sense of responsibility — like nurturing a new puppy or a sick dog — than maternal instinct.

Other moms urged me to relish the newborn stage because it goes by so fast, but I hated those early days. Genevieve and I struggled with breastfeeding. A lot. Experts say that by six weeks, breastfeeding should be a breeze. My baby wasn’t even three weeks old at that point. They may as well have told me that things would get easier when she was 17, because three more weeks of what I was experiencing felt like a lifetime.

RELATED: Sound Advice: How Long Should I Breastfeed My Child?

The same way I wanted my golden retriever to quickly master potty training, I wanted Genevieve to figure out nursing. I did what I was supposed to (fed her, changed her and cuddled her) but I didn’t feel like I was bonding with her. I wasn’t soaking in her newborn smells and trying to commit to memory the sounds she made when she slept. No. I was doing my job as her mom and counting the days until my baby was beyond this horrible newborn stage.

Why Do I Feel I’m a Bad Mommy?

But I didn’t dare utter these thoughts and feelings out loud. I didn’t want to be judged by my mom, my in-laws or friends. I felt like a horrible mother. Was I missing the mothering gene?

According to Cheryl Rayl, a therapist with Grace Counseling in Lewisville, research shows that roughly 20 to 30 percent of new moms lack an immediate emotional attachment to their newborn.

“It takes a lot of energy for our bodies to heal after giving birth and for our minds to adjust to the physical changes we’ve experienced,” says Paula Miller, a licensed professional counselor in Dallas. “Having ambivalent thoughts about being a mom is completely normal, because those feelings do pass and become a distant memory — kind of like the pain of childbirth.”

Of course, if that feeling doesn’t go away, you may be suffering from postpartum depression (PPD) or clinical depression.

Caroline Belanger, a Dallas mom to 3-year-old Fleur, bonded with her baby quickly but carried a tremendous amount of anxiety about being a good mom. Belanger cried a lot and couldn’t seem to shake the sick-to-her-stomach feeling. “Because of it, I wasn’t being the mom I wanted to be,” she says. Belanger’s husband and mom eventually intervened and advised her to get help from a PPD specialist. “I stopped judging myself, stopped isolating myself and started being better to myself — and a better mom to my daughter,” she shares.

But new moms aren’t the only ones who experience negative feelings toward their children. Rayl notes that it’s very common to get annoyed with children, even fantasize about life without them. But feelings like, “What have I done? I miss my old life” and “I can’t stand my kids,” leave us feeling ashamed and awful.

Kelly Love, mom to two boys, Brady, 5, and Trent, 3, feels super guilty when she doesn’t love or sometimes even like her kids. “After a long day at work, I just need a little down time, but I have two little dudes who need attention — and sometimes discipline — and there are days when I am not in the mood to handle either scenario,” the Coppell mom confides.

She’s entertained the thought, “What would my life be like without kids?” because it would be so much easier; and she admits that she hates thinking like that. But instead of running for the border, she plans mini escapes, taking advantage of occasional after work happy hours and dinners to wind down and skip the dinner-bath-bedtime routine at home.

“I wish I could be the ever-loving mom, who always gives kisses and hugs and wants to do everything to make her child happy,” Love says. “But I think it’s better to admit my weaknesses, that I sometimes can’t handle my kids and the stress, that I am not always the best mom or that sometimes I wish they weren’t around for a while.”

Miller explains that negative thoughts about kids and the fantasies we have about life without kids is our mind’s way of relieving the overwhelming pressures of motherhood — like venting. But when our thoughts go this way, “we feel shame and label ourselves bad mothers,” she affirms.

Love can attest to that. As a working mom, she feels guilty even when she’s with her kids about the quality of the time. “On weekends, instead of playing or working on something educational together, I bring them along on all the errands I need to get done before the next week begins,” she says. “I feel like I’m always running around and cutting corners as a mom, which then gets me worked up and I stress about all the things I think I mess up as a mom.”

Beating ourselves up takes so much energy. I spent a lot of time crying about my insecurities as a new mom. I read way too much on the Internet, and in my sleep-deprived state, I convinced myself that I wasn’t doing enough, giving enough or being enough to my newborn baby.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we put this kind of pressure on ourselves?

“We live in a culture where society thinks we either do too much for our kids or we aren’t involved enough,” says Dr. Theresa Kellam, a psychologist in Fort Worth. These cultural taboos, coupled with what we see and read in the media — thanks to blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest — mold the standards by which we hold ourselves, and we have this internal drive for perfection. “We feel guilty when we don’t meet these unrealistic, unattainable expectations, and we’re left feeling forever inadequate,” Kellam explains.

It’s never been easier to find examples of what raising a child “should” look like. The media is filled with aspirational (and mostly unrealistic) pictures. Dallas mom Amanda Roberts, who has a 16-month-old son named Carter, blames virtual peer pressure for the self-inflicted mom competition she’s unintentionally entered. Her son was the last in his daycare class to crawl and walk, both completely normal according to his pediatrician.

“But I find myself scrolling through my Facebook feed, watching friends’ babies reach developmental milestones way before Carter, and it makes me question my parenting, like I’m not challenging him enough, not engaging him correctly,” she laments.

How to Battle the Feelings of Mom Guilt

The guilt we tend to carry as moms — for whatever reason — is normal but can be overwhelming and emotionally exhausting. It’s time we remove these feelings of inadequacy so that mothering doesn’t become a long exercise in never measuring up. To do so, we have to forgive our faults and actually take care of ourselves first.

Mental health experts agree that we have to embrace our shortcomings as moms (we all have them) and refocus our energy to help shed the mother lode of self-doubt we sometimes feel. Here are some healthy practices they recommend for moms at every stage.

1. Stop Comparing Yourself

Not an easy thing to do. Laura Elpers, a marriage and family therapist with Insights Collaborative Therapy Group in Dallas, says that you have to change your relationship with what you hear and see. Remind yourself that what you witness on the Internet is not necessarily reality. Don’t we feature our proudest Mom moments? Most of us don’t post when the kids are fighting and we’re feeling defeated by motherhood. No, we post the fun family baseball game and the perfect day at the beach.

“Remember that parenting is not a one-size-fits-all program, and that what works for one family might not work for yours,” Elpers explains. “It’s hard to do, but practice celebrating other moms’ victories.” Give that mom who spent the day crafting with the kids a genuine like. Or share heartfelt praise with the mom making meals from scratch.

Take time to relish in your moments too. We’re all guilty of snapping pictures of the kids with our smartphones so we can instantly share the story with our social media network. “Don’t take photos just to show off what you were able to squeeze into the schedule today,” Elpers advises. “Snap a photo to capture a great moment with your kids and don’t share it with a soul.” OK, maybe email or text it to Daddy and Grandma.

2. Lower the Bar

Stop holding yourself to a standard of perfection. If we really take a look at the standards we’re holding ourselves accountable for, we’ll likely realize that we’re basing our standards on society’s expectations and not our own. “Get clear about what it means to you to be a good mom,” Miller suggests. “If giving your kids more of your time is what’s important to you, then dishes, laundry and a clean house may not be.”

Replace the shoulds in your vocabulary with coulds. Doing so removes the judgment and gives you permission to do what works for you and your family. For instance, according to Grandma, your house should be neat and orderly. Unless you employ a housekeeper, you could spend your weekends cleaning, but you’ve decided a day with the family is more important.

3. Find Support Among Friends

“It’s hard to be vulnerable and weak,” Miller explains. “So it’s important to find an outlet where you can truthfully discuss the hard stuff and not feel like you’re being judged.” That support comes in different forms. Maybe it’s your best friend, maybe it’s your mom, maybe it’s a professional or maybe it’s a bunch of strangers in an online community dealing with similar issues.

I mentioned that breastfeeding was hard for me at first. Really, really hard. I felt so alone in my struggle. I joined an online forum of moms with babies, something I found while searching Facebook groups. It was a safe place where I could ask my questions, vent my frustrations and not be criticized. Moms empathized with me and shared strategies that worked for them. It was such a sanity saver. It normalized what I was experiencing.

Communities offer groups where educators, social workers or mental health professionals lead discussions and offer advice and reassurance. Check your kids’ schools, parenting centers, places of worship, nearby universities, even local government agencies to find groups in your area. See our sidebar for more information.

4. Take a Time-Out for Yourself

Rayl gives this example: “On an airplane, flight attendants tell you to put your oxygen mask on before putting one on your child,” she says. “In order to be the best possible mom, you have to take care of yourself first.”

But Roberts feels guilty when she needs a break from her son. “It’s hard to admit that Carter gets on my nerves and that I would rather get a pedicure or go shopping than spend time with him.” She says she doesn’t allow herself the time she knows she needs because she’s afraid of missing one of those developmental milestones that Carter’s peers have already mastered.

It’s OK to exercise, read, have lunch with friends, do something that’s important to you — and doesn’t involve the kids — at least once a week, advises Rayl. “Mothers who don’t take care of themselves and let their worlds revolve around children lose their identity,” she warns. “Then all those motherhood insecurities are exacerbated because they don’t have an outlet.” Mentally, we all need a break and time to refuel. “You need to prioritize this time,” Rayl urges. “Get up an hour earlier or stay up an hour later to carve out your time.”

Holly Mason owns MasonBaronet, a marketing firm in Dallas, and has a daughter, Mia, 11. The working mom knows that committing time to herself, her spouse and her friends makes her a better mom. “As much as I want my daughter to feel like she’s the most important thing in my life, I want her to see me as a role model and that to create a positive life-work-family balance, you have to dedicate time to all important aspects of your life,” Mason says.

5. Be Fully Present in the Moments

Turning off distractions and minimizing the multitasking when you’re with your kids is easier said than done. Believe me. I know. But sit and indulge in child-led play at least once a week. Make a conscious effort to put the phone down and quiet your racing mind. “Practice living in the moment and not thinking about the future,” Miller suggests.

If the house is a mess, for instance, stop mentally preparing your cleaning to-do list while you’re playing Barbie or Legos with the kids. “Thinking even 10 minutes into the future prevents you from being present, can raise your anxiety level and, in turn, make you feel guilty,” she says. You’re supposed to be spending quality time with your child, but you’re vacuuming baseboards in your head instead.

And know when to relinquish some control and ask for help. When Mason’s daughter was younger, the after-school care program was a no-brainer. But as Mia got older, her activities multiplied and no longer took place in one location. Mason spent late afternoons and early evenings in the car shuttling her daughter around and running necessary errands to buy kids’ birthday presents and team snacks. Time together felt rushed instead of fun. So Mason hired a full-time nanny to take over pickups, drop-offs and mundane tasks, such as shopping for new soccer shoes. “It took me a long time to get comfortable with delegating, but I had to prioritize because I was sacrificing real, quality time with my daughter,” Mason says.

Remember What’s Important

Society paints a picture that mothering should come naturally and be a blissful, self-sacrificing experience. “The reality is that being a mom is an emotionally challenging, labor-intensive job that you have to learn as you go along,” Miller stresses.

It’s a rare mom who never experiences self-doubt. We need to trust ourselves, cut ourselves some slack, accept our limitations and do the best we can.

“There are some things I know that I nail,” Love says. “And there are a lot of things that I know I don’t do so well, but I really love my boys and I think they know that.” And that’s what’s important.

It took a little time, but Genevieve and I bonded. As clichéd as it sounds, it happened with that first smile she flashed at me when she was six weeks old (just like everyone said). The first six weeks had really felt like an eternity of struggles to this self-doubting mom, but the first wide grin I got — the one that I knew with 100 percent certainty wasn’t just gas — made my heart melt. It was Genevieve’s way of saying thank you, my first reward for all my efforts as a new mom. That little smile really did erase those torturous first few weeks. And it was at that moment that I fell madly in love with my sweet baby girl — finally!

This article was originally published in May 2015.


Illustration: iStock