These days it seems that guilt—sometimes deep and debilitating—is as certain for mothers as death and taxes. We are awash in the stuff, wallowing in our wrongdoing, pursuing an impossible notion of parental perfection that leaves us exhausted and overwhelmed. And in the isolation of modern life, when many mothers don't get the back-fence social support of the past, it's easy to believe that everyone else is doing a better job of juggling.
The Quest for Perfection
"We all start out wanting to be perfect," says Dr. Susan Newman, parenting expert and author of Little Things Long Remembered—Making Your Children Feel Special Every Day and a teacher at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "Parents need to lower their expectations of themselves and stop trying to be perfect. We all make mistakes. It's not easy to raise children. Guilt is a waste of time and energy that you could be putting into your child."
Dr. Sylvia Rimm, a psychologist and director of Family Achievement Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, agrees that "mommy guilt" is almost universal in today's competitive culture. "Parents in this generation really are hooked into being perfect parents," she says. "I think mother guilt is a big reason that women are not moving into the upper echelons of business, science, and medicine the way they should be. Mothers expect so much of themselves."
Self-reproach afflicts both stay-at-home and working moms, experts say, and comes from our own desires and the pressures we allow others to place upon us. "Stay-at-home moms feel guilty because they get the message that they're wasting their potential," says psychologist Dr. Debbie Glasser. "They make parenting their career and measure everything on a scorecard. They miss out on the joy of simply being a parent."
Working mothers, she adds, are troubled by guilt for time spent away from their children, so they often try to cram "enrichment" activities into family time. She points out that numerous studies have found no detrimental effect on children whose mothers work outside the home. "There's a lot of 'shoulding' going on. It starts a cycle of guilt that sucks the joy out of parenting."