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Coping With Guilt and Shame as a Mentally Ill Mom

Updated: Feb 28


Photo by Yan Krukau


When you are a mentally ill mom, you may feel a lot of guilt and shame about the way you feel your motherhood is suffering. You might feel like your child is missing out on things because they don't have a healthy mom. However, it is important to realize that a lot of the guilt and shame you feel is coming from unrealistic social expectations, and not anything you have done wrong.


My own mother used to shame me for not being a stay at home mom like she was with us growing up. I had to work to keep our family afloat, and there was no other way around it. Today's moms in many cases don't have the luxury of being able to be full-time moms, with the rising costs of living.


The things my mom said to me were just hurtful, and unhelpful. They led me to doubt myself for years, and to continually question - even today - if I am a good mom. Now that my oldest daughter is in her 20's, I have asked her about this, and she says that I did just fine. Having this reassurance helps, but it doesn't magically melt the guilt away.


Unrealistic Expectations for Moms


21st century moms are increasingly expected to be superwomen. We are supposed to manage the household the way our mothers did, and excel in our careers simultaneously. If you can't work from an office, just work from home with the baby! Easier said than done.


In 2019, Sarah Buckley Friedberg posted a 1,000+ word rant about the unrealistic standards for working moms, which has since been shared 82k times. When she wrote it, Friedberg's children were just 1, 3, and 6 years old, and she was working full-time as a microbiology manager at a medical device company. Her post, she told Good Morning America, was basically "a verbal dump of everything" she was feeling at the end of "one of those days where everything seemed tough."

Many of us can relate to having "one of those days" sometimes more than once a week. It can be the demands of work, the demands of motherhood, your mental health, or a combination of all three. When you are expected to juggle multiple schedules, often with schools and employers who have unforgiving demands on your time, it can create a sense of everything being out of control.


Detroit Mom lists a few of the unrealistic expectations that moms are supposed to live up to:


  • Get back to work

  • Breastfeed for at least a year

  • Plan the meals

  • Monitor screen time

  • Manage the household

  • Get your body back

  • Practice self-care


Some days, it can be exhausting. You have a long day of meetings at work, and the only break you get is 10 minutes that you spend pumping in the bathroom because the nursing room is taken. You get stuck in traffic on the way home. Pick up the kids at daycare. Forget a healthy meal, they get McDonald's in the car on the way to their dance recital.


At the end of the day you finally get them into bed. Forget a relaxing bath with candles. There are lunches to be made, the house to be tidied up, and your partner wants to watch a movie with you. Sometimes, you don't do any of it. You just flop into bed and scroll through Instagram on your phone.


Then, you see those pictures of mom influencers with their perfect hair, perfect homes, and perfect kids that just make you feel inadequate. Defeated, you try to fall asleep. But the intrusive thoughts keep playing on repeat in your head.



When social media is getting you down, remember a lot of those moms are faking it! They are using retouched photos, or they are so uber-famous that they have a team with a cook and a nanny that are of course not in any of their perfectly curated pics and videos. Stop comparing yourself, and give yourself a break!


Unrealistic Expectations for Mental Health


If you have a mental illness and you live anywhere except in a hospital, society expects you to behave as if you are normal. They tell you to 'just get over it' and 'be grateful you don't have it worse' and to proceed as normal. This pull yourself up by the bootstraps mentality doesn't work for mental illness, as anyone who actually has a mental illness can tell you!


It's fine to have anxiety and go to a therapist, but do it on your own time, and don't ever talk about it at work!


According to Idea Pod,

“There is growing evidence that the increase in psychological ill-health of young people may stem from the excessive standards that they hold for themselves and the harsh self-punishment they routinely engage in. Increasingly, young people hold irrational ideals for themselves, ideals that manifest in unrealistic expectations for academic and professional achievement, how they should look, and what they should own. Young people are seemingly internalizing a pre-eminent contemporary myth that things, including themselves, should be perfect.”

Perfectionism is on the rise in society as a whole. This can lead to many instances of anxiety and depression that we experience. It can also lead to parts of the social stigma against mental health conditions.


When society expects us to be perfect, and we quite clearly aren't, we experience feelings of guilt and shame in addition to our underlying mental health issues. Combatting our guilt and shame, and recognizing that we are trying to live up to an impossible ideal, can help us to achieve some healing and peace.


Coping with Guilt and Shame


The good news is, having a mentally ill parent isn't always a cause for concern in our children. As long as children feel safe and loved, they aren't likely to experience problems based on a parent's mental illness.


According to Children's Hospital,

“Parents with mental illness often carry a lot of shame and guilt, which doesn’t help them or their children,” says Dr. Ibeziako. She recommends that parents offset self-criticism with self-care. “There’s a direct link between a parent’s well-being and their children’s well-being.” By being kind to themselves, parents may have more emotional resources for themselves and their child. 

When you are able to stop shaming yourself for what you aren't doing, you free up mental space to be present with your children. By doing this, and taking time to listen to and interact with your children in a positive manner every day, you form a close bond with your child in spite of your mental health.


Sure, you may have spent all day lying in bed crying while your child was at school. I have those days too. But when it comes time to pick my daughter up from the bus, I make sure to ask about her day, and spend time listening to her stories. Sharing this sense of connection, and looking at life through the eyes of a child can help you feel better about life, too.


Good Therapy tells us that,

Often, conquering shame and guilt involves learning to pay attention to your own internal dialogue and the potentially irrational beliefs and destructive messages that create feelings of inadequacy.

As I said at the beginning of the piece, my mom used to shame me about my parenting choices. This is something that I think many of us experiences. After a while, we begin to internalize the negative messages that other people throw at us, and they roll around in our minds as negative self-talk and limiting beliefs.


Breaking down these negative thought patterns and learning to be more gentle and forgiving with ourselves can combat the feelings of guilt and shame.


If you have a mental illness, working through these issues on your own can prove difficult, if not impossible. It is important to seek out a mental health professional to help you through your struggles. Having someone in your corner can make a huge difference in your life, I know it has had a huge impact in mine.


When you go to a mental health professional, you may also be offered medications to stabilize your mood. This can be very helpful when combined with coping skills training.


You can also work with a life coach or therapist on your limiting beliefs, and learning to replace them with more positive thinking. Some ways to do this are through practicing affirmations, gratitude, journaling and learning to be mindful.


Learning to let go of unrealistic social expectations is important in realizing that you can be a good mom, and a good person, even with a mental illness. Just because you don't have perfect family photos in matching outfits on Instagram, it doesn't make you a bad person! Most of us are just doing the best we can. When we stop comparing to influencers, we can live a perfectly happy life as 'normal' moms!


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