May 6, 2021

We Will Never Solve “Mom Guilt” by Saying It Shouldn’t Exist

By Anna Mussmann
 
My son had trouble falling asleep last night and came downstairs to tell us the shadows in his room looked like ogres.
 
When he’s afraid of the dark, he is not comforted by a logical exposition designed to demonstrate the absence of monsters. Only two things really work. The first is praying with him. We ask God to give him safety and courage. The second is letting him select a pie server or rubber spatula from the utensil jar. He carries it upstairs so that if he sees a suspicious shadow he can stab it. After all, you never know, right?
 
I shouldn’t feel so impatient when one of my children wanders downstairs after bedtime. After all, there are a lot of similarities between childhood fears and “mom guilt,” and I know what it’s like to be afflicted by the latter. I, too, have occasionally lain in bed struggling with worries that might not even make sense.


The biggest parallel between fear of monsters and mom guilt, though, is that so many people try to solve both problems the wrong way. My son’s fears are not actually unfounded. The root of the issue is his sense that death and evil exist. In a way, he is right to be afraid. It is genuinely possible that something bad could happen to him or to our family on any given night. Arguing with him about shadows and flickering nightlights will never erase this truth.
 
In the same way, most attempts to erase mom guilt miss the point. You’ve probably heard the cultural message: you just need to decide you’re a great mom. As an article from Today’s Parent says, “If all moms feel guilty—and research shows that we pretty much all do—then there's no ‘better’ mother to compare ourselves to. Turns out mom guilt is a sham.”
 
This argument defines guilt as the product of being lower on the scale than someone else. It's not an uncommon attitude, and despite sounding reassuring, it fuels the tendency to criticize and tear each other down so that no one is “better.” It also makes it hard for moms to mentor and teach each other, because any suggestion that someone else might know enough to help you is immediately threatening.
 
That writer’s main point, though, is that moms "shouldn’t" feel guilty. Yet we do. Of course we do! Modern Americans don't acknowledge it in theological language, but we all know moms sin. Becoming aware of each other’s mistakes, weaknesses, and sins doesn’t somehow absolve us of our own.
 
If we are going to escape the slavery of mom guilt, we need constant reassurance that Jesus died for us. Yet as we try to repent, it helps to recognize that the issue is complicated. As a culture, we’ve mixed several disparate feelings and tendencies—not all of which are specifically sins--into one bundle and called it “mom guilt.” We, like my son, need our pie server-equivalents to test the shadows that creep into our minds at night. Questions make pretty good spatulas.
 
1. Is [this thing I feel guilty about] Something I Am Actually Supposed to Do?
 
One reason moms are so busy comparing ourselves to others is that, unlike in other times and places, our culture does not provide us with a uniform and cohesive view of what a good mom is supposed to do. We keep peeking around uneasily to see what everyone else seems to be doing.
 
Simply recognizing this gap is liberating. It frees us to examine our own assumptions, goals, and lives. What do we actually hope to do as mothers? What do our children truly need? What does God's Word say about this beautiful, natural, self-sacrificial vocation? Working through questions like these with our husbands can be helpful. (Maybe even check out a template like this one)Knowing what we are actually trying to do can help us avoid false guilt for failing to live up to other people’s priorities.
 
 
2. Am I Struggling with Pride?
 
We moms tend to frame ourselves as victims of mom guilt. Sometimes, though, we’re the perpetrators.
 
We want to feel skilled and successful at what we’re doing. We want—deep down--to paraphrase the Pharisee of Luke 18 and pray, “I thank God that I am not like other moms.” When events or our children show us up and ding our pride, we are prone to mislabeling how we feel as “mom guilt.” 
 
It’s healthy to ask ourselves whether our “guilt” is focused on our children’s actual needs or on other people’s perception of us and our children. If our feelings would be different if no one had seen what happened, perhaps we should repent of pride instead of complaining about guilt. 
 
 
3. Have My Fears Been Triggered?
 
A while ago, my two-year-old fell on the cement step that leads to our back door and bit his tongue. The poor little guy bled at lot at the time, and later he woke up in pain during the night. It made me feel guilty. If I had held his hand, he wouldn’t have fallen.
 
Yet I also know it would be damaging for him if I kept him tethered permanently to my hand. Why, then, did I feel guilty because he happened to stumble? Maybe my pride was triggered—maybe I like to think of myself as more powerful in my children’s lives than I really am—but I think the biggest factor was something else. I think fear is often mislabeled “mom guilt.”
 
Children are so precious and so vulnerable. Their pain triggers our recognition that sin, death, and evil exist—and that we do not have the power to overcome them for our children. A little accident reminds us that a big one could happen. 
 
In moments like this, I try to turn my attention away from “feeling guilty,” because the phrase isn’t accurate. What I really need to do is take my fears to Christ. I can pray for the courage to face suffering and danger. I can cling to His promises for me and my children. 
 
 
4. Am I Suffering Because I Love My Kids?
 
There is, of course, another reason we moms don’t like to see our children suffer. We love our children! It’s unpleasant to see anyone we love in discomfort or pain. There’s nothing wrong with this. There is no need to label our natural sadness “mom guilt” as if we need somehow to salve, cure, or erase it. It is OK to be appropriately sad. It is OK to love.
 
 
5. Am I Experiencing the Work of the Holy Spirit?
 
We moms sin against our kids. Quite frequently. Sometimes we develop long-term sinful habits in the way we mother. Sometimes we make life decisions that sinfully prioritize our own desires over the good of our children.
 
In these cases, our guilty feelings are good. They are the work of the Holy Spirit calling us to repentance. They are a sign of the mercy of the Savior who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to seek after the one who is lost. Mom guilt can be a blessing, because it reminds us who we are (sinners and saints, redeemed by God). We are the children of a Heavenly Father who never fails us, never sins, never feels guilty; but instead takes on our guilt and nails it to the cross.
 
We won’t solve mom guilt by telling moms that monsters don’t exist. They do. Even in us. Instead, let’s remember the Savior who has already defeated the monsters and given us His righteousness. Mom guilt is complicated, but Christ's mercy is not. He can forgive us whether or not we sort through, understand, and correctly label our feelings. He can step into the gap and save our children when we fail. 

Through Him, we can celebrate this Mother’s Day without the burden of mom guilt--not because we’ve erased our guilt but because He has. In that sense, modern American pop culture is right. You don't have to feel guilty.

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After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin, Anna taught in Lutheran schools for several years.  She now homeschools her children during the day and writes in the evening. Anna loves Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. She reviews the books she reads on Goodreads, and her work can also be found in The Federalist.


Image source.

2 comments:

  1. This is an unbelievably timely post for what I've been dealing with lately. This mother's day, I struggled with a really bad temper due to hormones. I knew this and yet still could not control it. This mom-guilt was not misplaced and a call to do better, to lean on Jesus and pray to him whenever I fall short.

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  2. I am helped by your comparison of mom guilt to your son's fears. Whenever I have it, I always am comforted by the idea that every single mom I know has it too. Misery loves company? But I think your reflections give me a better reference point to go off of. Thank you!

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