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Is "mom guilt" false guilt?

by Meagan Francis on April 27, 2010

After spending three glorious nights in New York City attending the ASJA conference and a few work-related meetings, not to mention making plenty of time for pleasures like taking in a Broadway show, eating the most delicious fish tacos ever, and using the rest room whenever I wanted without worrying about small people following me, it was time to come home.

As it turns out, leaving the kids was good for me. It was so refreshing to have some time away not tending to anyone else’s needs but my own, and there’s also something comforting–and, I admit, humbling–about realizing that my family’s world will not come to a complete standstill if I’m out of it for a few days.

I surprised myself by feeling very little guilt, even in the face of these three facts:

1) I didn’t miss my kids while I was gone. Not even the baby. As my sister cleverly defined for me, I missed the idea of her, and if I took too long out of the whirlwind trip to really think about her, I would wish for just a moment or two that I could be snuggling her and feeling her soft head. But I didn’t miss her, not really–not in that aching, sad way–until I was off the plane and still faced a 90-minute drive home. This surprised me. I spend a lot of time with my kids; they are a huge and constant part of my day-to-day life; I especially consider Clara and myself very attached.

2) While I was gone, Clara got sick. For the first two days it was just sniffles but by the time I got home Sunday night her eyes were red and goopy and she was spiking a pretty high fever. No, I probably could not have stopped her from getting sick by the sheer force of my breastmilk and snuggles had I been home, but still, I felt sad when I learned of it.

3) When I arrived at home, for the first five minutes Clara wouldn’t have anything to do with me. She looked at me and burst into tears, burying her face in Jon’s shoulder. For a minute I was disappointed–I’d expected a much warmer welcome home. But then I realized that she wasn’t feeling well, and was probably confused by my absence, and when she saw me she wasn’t sure what to do with her emotions. So she cried. Five minutes later she was happily sitting on my hip and babbling. It just took her a few minutes to switch gears.

So those three realizations brought up a few different emotions. I was surprised that I didn’t miss my kids more. I was sad that Clara had to be sick and deal with missing me at the same time. And I was disappointed that she didn’t immediately throw herself into my arms with a smile and a happy shriek as I’d anticipated.

What I wasn’t feeling?Guilty.

Still, it was hard to overcome the temptation to claim a dose of mother guilt. “Clara is sick,” I told a friend after hanging up the phone with Jon during a break at the conference. “…and I feel so guilty,” I almost continued, stopping myself only when I realized that actually, I felt no such thing. This happened several more times during and after the trip. How eager I was to lay claim to an emotion that seemed appropriate, even though I wasn’t actually feeling it.

I might not even have been aware I was doing it if not for an experience I had over and over at the conference. Friends and colleagues who knew how torn I’d been about leaving Clara would say “Do you miss her?”

“Oh, yes,” I said the first few times I was asked, without skipping a beat. Until I noticed that I actually didn’t. My knee-jerk response wasn’t a lie, per se. It was more that I had expected so fully to feel sad and to be missing my kids that I almost didn’t notice that I didn’t, and I wasn’t. Similarly, though leaving your kids is supposed to bring up a socially-accepted feeling of guilt, when I really looked at my feelings, well, I simply didn’t feel guilty.

I wonder how many times we moms do this in our day to day lives. We claim a feeling of guilt when in reality we’re feeling something else, but don’t recognize it because we assume guilt is what we’re experiencing. Or maybe simply fear of being judged if we don’t cop to the guilt we’re supposed to feel.

I think this is harmful in two ways. First of all, it dilutes the effect of true guilt. According to the dictionary definition, guilt is an emotion of remorse or regret you feel in response to a wrongdoing, whether real or perceived. So the emotion you’re experiencing can only be true guilt if you really think you did something wrong.

In that way, guilt can be a useful tool. It keeps us from making mistakes over and over. If I lose my cool with my kids and say something hurtful, guilt is an appropriate response. Next time, the distinctly uncomfortable memory of the guilt I felt will help remind me to think about what I say. But if there’s no wrongdoing, there can be no guilt. If I call every uncomfortable feeling I experience “guilt”, then true “guilt” stands out in my memory less sharply and serves as less of a deterrent or guide in the future. After all, if everything makes me feel guilty, does anything, really?

Second, constantly talking about our guilt perpetuates the idea that for moms, “guilty” is a normal state of being. The more we talk about how guilty we feel, the more it seems like we SHOULD feel guilty all the time. And as a result, whether out loud or to ourselves, we start to assign guilt to feelings that are actually something else: sadness, disappointment, or frustration, for example. And sometimes we say we feel guilty when we don’t feel bad at all about our actions (or non-actions).

I’m tired of hearing that guilt is just a normal, perpetual state of mommy-dom. We owe it to ourselves, to our kids, and to each other to examine our feelings more closely, and not to force or claim a feeling that doesn’t exist.

Next time you think you’re feeling guilty, look more closely. Is it true guilt? Do you feel remorse? Did you do something hurtful or use bad judgment? Could it be another feeling you’re experiencing, perhaps? Or do you just feel a free-floating sense that you should feel guilty because your child is unhappy, or because you haven’t been sufficiently self-sacrificing today, or maybe for no reason at all?

Real guilt is useful. False guilt helps no one.

Moms, let’s quit cloaking ourselves in it.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Denise Schipani April 27, 2010 at 6:23 am

{insert soundtrack of madly cheering crowd}

Yay, Meagan! Thanks for saying what I always feel. I joke that I must have been born without the guilt gene, because I seriously don’t have it. I never have. Like you, I feel a strong and painful tinge of guilt for a good reason, like the time I lost it with Daniel on a very, very hard day and gave him a swat. The mere thought of that horrible day is like shock therapy keeping me from ever even slightly hurting my children. But guilt over working, leaving them overnight, not saving artwork, not playing a game when I don’t feel like it, and on and on? No, no, and no.

I could claim this as a personal victory, but what I’d rather do is get the message out that this collective pool of guilt we moms often swim around in does none of us, or our kids, any good. Climb on out into the guilt-free sunshine!



Margie April 27, 2010 at 6:42 am

Fantastic comments! What you’ve said about pretend guilt diluting the impact of real guilt is very important, I think. It also speaks to the idea that no one else can “make” someone feel guilty when she knows she hasn’t done anything wrong.


Cindy L April 27, 2010 at 7:10 am

Spot on, Meagan! You have such a mature, healthy attitude and your kids will benefit tenfold from that! Sadly, I had a lot of mother-guilt when my son was small, and I have to say I blame some of it on the parenting books and magazines I was reading at the time. Things were beginning to change in the early 1980s … but not fast enough to keep up with the changing styles of families. Thanks to parenting writers like you, parenting advice is so much saner and wiser now. And guilt? Who needs it? It does absolutely no good.

P.S. Would love to hear more about the ASJA conference!


Marketing Mommy April 27, 2010 at 7:11 am

This may be my favorite mom blog post ever. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I work full time and occasionally travel without my kids and I’ve *never* felt guilty about it. I wondered if I should feel guilty for not feeling guilty, but I honestly didn’t think I was doing anything wrong. I work because I have to (and it doesn’t hurt that I love my job). I leave my kids with the occasional evening sitter because I believe nurturing my marriage is more important than personally tucking them in every single night and I’m leaving this weekend for 3 days with my BFF because I want to (and I had the miles for it).

A Fellow Happy Mom


ParentopiaDevra April 27, 2010 at 7:18 am

Sing it sister! You know Aviva and I support this premise completely. None of us needs to be a victim of our own emotion, nor should we be sponges absorbing societal/media messages of what we’re “supposed” to feel like as parents. It is awesome you were able to have professional time and get a good grip on what you were truly experiencing. It’s never easy for us to look at ourselves objectively, because more often than not we are insanely critical and negative. You gave wonderful examples of how stepping out of ourselves and taking an objective peek at ourselves can actually be a GOOD thing and a POSITIVE thing.

Emotional empowerment feels fabulous, doesn’t it?


Claudine Jalajas April 27, 2010 at 7:25 am

Let me say that I think it does depend on your upbringing (baggage) and your child. My first child was never the clingy “Mommy don’t leave me” type. I worked a lot and left him with the sitter and he’d barely look up to wave goodbye when I left. The next two are VERY clingy to me. The middle one in particular. They flip out when I have to go somewhere for very long and call me in hysterics (which happened at the ASJA conference by the way and I was only gone for the day).

I remember being “left” and it was a horrible experience for me. Granted, it was NOT because my parents were going to work, or to better themselves, care for their careers.. but it’s baggage and it’s there surfacing whenever one of my children cries, “how could you leave me?” For them, the guilt really does surface when I’m gone (even if it’s not something I should feel guilty about).

I do not feel guilt over not playing barbies when I don’t want to, or building legos, or playing something I have no interest in… kids can play on their own. But, like I said, we’re all wired differently.


The (Un)Experienced Mom April 27, 2010 at 7:28 am

Great points in this post!

Like you, I may miss the idea of being with the kids because I am supposed to, and well, because I love them. However, I know that guilt doesn’t have a place in my mind when I am gone because that time is much needed to gain perspective and time to re-energize myself. I think all moms (and parents alike) should make sure to take a few days away from the kids yearly. It does the mind AND body good!



M April 27, 2010 at 9:29 am

I traveled with a group of women last year overseas. It was a retreat of sorts, and I was so excited because I had never been out of the country. I left my 5 and 3 year olds in the very capable hands of my husband for ten days. My husband was not so sure he could handle all the responsibility, but he did. I would do the same for him in a heart beat.

I felt all of the things you did. Although, I was not worried about it when I made my plans. I felt certain that all would be well, and that I would have a great time, and the kids would be fine. I did consider how I should feel everyday I was away on my trip about leaving my family. But really, they were fine, and seeing them again made me feel so greatful to have them in my life, and to have had the opportunity to do what I did.


Meagan Francis April 27, 2010 at 9:46 am

Claudine, that’s a tough one. I think sometimes when we feel true guilt it can be an indicator that something has to change. For example, a few years ago I was balancing freelancing almost full-time with an out-of-the-house job that was supposed to be about 8 hours as week but somehow grew into more like 16 – 20. I was always stressed, always running, and too distracted to pay much attention to my kids even when I was home. I started to feel this nagging sense that something wasn’t right and it eventually spurred me to change our circumstances. Useful guilt.

On the other hand, a one-day trip–no matter how painful it is for your kids–may really be the best thing for your family in the long run. But distraught little kids aren’t generally the best at understanding long-term ramifications. Throw in some baggage of your own and there is a recipe for real, and yet *wasted* guilt–wasted because even though you feel it, you know that you made the right choice for everyone involved. So how do you get past wasted guilt? I’m going to be mulling over this one…thanks for the food for thought.


Audrey April 27, 2010 at 1:13 pm

Thank you for pointing out the difference between false guilt and helpful guilt! As a parent I am constantly needing to keep this in check. This is such a great article! It reminds me of an insightful book that I am reading right now by Debbie Pokornik, who wisely addresses the guilt topic.


Boston Mamas April 27, 2010 at 6:02 pm

I agree that opting for guilt as a default experience is not healthy or productive. And though we have yet to meet in person, from what I know of you from this blog and what I can derive from my own experience, I would venture to guess that your lack of guilt may be due at least in part to the fact that you are present and tuned in to your kids when you are with them.

I have experienced similar feelings when I travel — I don’t feel guilty about being away and I don’t pine for my husband and daughter because: a) they get plenty of my love and attention for probably 90-95% of the days of the year; b) I know that those periods of time away to just be me are important; and c) I have trust in my husband to parent well.



Kristin T. (@kt_writes) April 28, 2010 at 12:18 pm

How wise of you to unpack what you were really feeling, rather than resort to the easy “guilt card.” My guess is that I do this a lot:

“I wonder how many times we moms do this in our day to day lives. We claim a feeling of guilt when in reality we’re feeling something else, but don’t recognize it because we assume guilt is what we’re experiencing. Or maybe simply fear of being judged if we don’t cop to the guilt we’re supposed to feel.”

The next time I feel something like guilt, I’m definitely going to ask myself what other emotions might fit the situation even better.

(I’m so glad you were able to get away for a few days of freedom and a different kind of fun!)


RookieMom Whitney April 28, 2010 at 5:26 pm

My guilt is for real, but it’s not that my children are not fine without me. My guilt is about asking others to take on the childcare responsibilities that are normally mine. I feel tremendous guilt about asking my husband to do more than he normally does. He is a completely excellent parent who doesn’t need to be reminded to bring snacks or sunscreen or anything else. I just feel like it’s my sphere, and we’ve picked this life where I have less outside-the-house responsibilities and he has more. When I need to travel for my freelance career or take a meeting that falls outside our normal limited schedule of childcare or happen to have night time plans a few nights per week, I feel guilty.


Diana Raab April 28, 2010 at 5:28 pm

I laughed when I saw your latest post. You might be interested in reading my latest poetry collection called THE GUILT GENE!

Happy Writing and reading!
Diana Raab


Karen Bierdeman April 29, 2010 at 2:43 pm

Love that you’re making a distinction between false guilt and true guilt–this is so key, and something that I wish more people would do. I like to talk about healthy vs. toxic guilt. Bravo to you for a great blog post!



Jennie April 30, 2010 at 11:16 am

I made a decision a long time ago not to feel guilty when I shouldn’t feel guilty. I agree with you completely. I think this applies to your relationship with your children…and your parents, spouse, significant other, friends, and so on. If I do something wrong, I do feel guilty (sometimes really guilty, even if it’s not a big deal). But more often, if I find myself feeling just not-quite-right about a relationship or situation, and I examine whether it’s guilt I feel, it’s not–it’s something else that’s wrong and causing an emotional unbalance of some sort.
I don’t think a mother needs to be focused so much on her children that she ignores her own interests and needs. I think that’s unhealthy. The best approach is to examine your decisions deliberately as you make them, evaluate situations carefully, especially if you feeling a negative emotion, to see what’s really the problem, and to try to be conscious of how you are really feeling about all aspects of your life. Really try not to feel an emotion that isn’t genuinely yours but is something you think you “ought” to feel. Claim your emotions and make them genuine!


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