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  • Writer's pictureMelissa Paulsen, MA, LMFT, RPT-S

Parental Guilt

“Through the blur, I wondered if I was alone or if other parents felt the same way I did—that everything involving our children was painful in some way. The emotions, whether they were joy, sorrow, love or pride, were so deep and sharp that in the end they left you raw, exposed and yes, in pain. The human heart was not designed to beat outside the human body and yet, each child represented just that—a parent’s heart bared, beating forever outside its chest.” – Debra Ginsberg

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we were all in survival mode. We experienced “mom guilt” long before the pandemic and we will experience it long after the pandemic, too. “Mom guilt” is not something only moms experience though so, for the purpose of this article, we will be calling it parental guilt instead!

What is Parental Guilt?

Parental Guilt is the feeling of not doing enough or being enough for your child(ren). Feeling like you are not doing, saying, or choosing the right things can lead parents or caregivers to question their parental abilities and make them feel less than.

For me, parental guilt started the second my daughter was born nearly 5 years ago. At the time, pre-pandemic, the nursery at the hospital was still open and birthing parents could send their baby to the nursery to sleep (or not) between feedings while they slept in the hospital room. The guilt began immediately.

I carried this baby for 9 months (well, almost—she was born 2.5 weeks early). She was finally here and I was elated to meet her. The instant love I felt for such a tiny little human was real, but I looked forward to her going to the nursery because mama was tired!

This was my first experience with mom/parental guilt and being the rational human I am, coupled with being a therapist, I was able to talk myself down from this. I thought, “I have 1–2 nights in the hospital where a nursery is an option and then we go home and it’s just me (and my wonderful husband) every night until forever.” I also reasoned with myself that I not only just gave birth to a tiny human and my body was tired, but I was also in labor overnight so I really hadn’t slept more than a few hours in the past 1.5 days and I needed to rest. In retrospect, we try not to start a road trip with an empty tank of gas, right? So we may as well begin the parenting journey with as much sleep as possible before there’s no gas station anywhere in sight!

So I did it. I sent her to the nursery to be loved and cared for by the nurses while I got some sleep. They brought her in every few hours to be changed and fed. They told me how cute she was and that everyone in the nursery was fighting over holding her (I’m sure they say this to all the moms). Bless the nurses for encouraging and validating my choice to use the nursery, too!

Parental guilt doesn't end there. You constantly question every decision, like should we formula feed or breastfeed, for how long, why can’t I make her stop crying? (Now I know better those witching hours cannot be controlled.)

Beyond the normal parts of questioning everything when they are babies, parents and caregivers will question everything for the rest of their lives. Discipline methods, potty training strategies, and so on. I’m not there yet but I can only imagine how I’ll feel navigating choices about appropriate curfew and allowing my kids to have the freedom to make mistakes while not wanting them to make mistakes that have a lasting impact.

Other common things that may result in parental or caregiver guilt include:

  1. Being a working parent. Feeling like you don’t have enough time with your child because of work but also knowing you need to work and receive external validation.

  2. Food. Giving in to your child and letting them eat dinosaur chicken nuggets is not the end of the world. I promise. Just find the ones that have vegetables in them so you feel a little bit better about it.

  3. Screen time. Especially during a pandemic! Screen time has been a lifesaver for many parents working from home with children who were not in school or daycare because of the pandemic. While the guidelines suggest 2 hours or less per day, sometimes we just need a longer break to accomplish the things on our to do list.

You can’t do it all and it’s okay not to. To be the best partner, employee, housekeeper, and parent is too much for anyone.

Here are some tips:

  1. Accept help when it’s offered.

  2. Ask for help when you’re drowning.

  3. If you can, outsource the tasks you hate. Pay someone to mow the lawn or clean your house.

  4. Ask your partner for help if they aren’t pitching in enough.

  5. Say no to an event if you need time to catch up on something, if it will make you feel better.

  6. Give your kid(s) extra screen time if you have a project you need to finish for work or something that desperately needs to be done. Find an educational app if it lessens those guilty feelings!

Stop comparing yourself to what you see on social media.

Other people’s highlight reel and real life are not the same thing.

At the end of the day, you are doing the best you can!

Celebrate all you are doing for your child(ren) and know that being a parent is challenging for everyone.

If you want to get started in therapy, visit our Getting Started page and fill out our New Client Information Form.


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