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Escaping the 'Mommy Guilt' trap

A BabyCenter poll finds that 94 percent of moms say they feel guilty. What triggers our mom guilt? Oh, pretty much anything: working, not being able to afford extras, using formula, not feeding our children 100 percent organic homemade food in earth-friendly recyclable containers... sigh. TODAY contributor Dr. Robi Ludwig explains why guilt exists and how to ease it.

By Dr. Robi Ludwig, TODAY Moms contributor

When I first gave birth to my son 11 years ago, I felt like I gave birth to twins -- my little bundle of joy, Jason, and my not-so-little bundle of guilt. Turns out I’m not alone. Guilt is the great equalizer among all moms, regardless of how diverse our backgrounds or circumstances are.

Part of this guilt stems from our culture’s idealization of motherhood. Mothers are supposed to be perfect, after all. These often unobtainable and overly-high expectations get internalized, and then wreak havoc with our feelings about ourselves and our parenting skills.

Studies show that women are more susceptible to guilt than men, because women tend to be more interpersonally sensitive. Our superego is the part of our brain which tells us if we’re morally on track or not. In mommy language, it’s the part of our brain that evaluates whether we’re succeeding or failing in life as parents, wives, and professionals.

And it can be quite ruthless at times. But guilt, although uncomfortable, can serve a purpose.  It can help us to evaluate how we’re doing, encouraging us to ask ourselves important questions like, “Am I doing anything wrong or bad?”  or “Am I hurting anyone?” Guilt gets us to evaluate if we’re living our lives in the way we think we should. It helps us to develop new skills and change our life direction. A little bit of guilt can keep us on the straight and narrow, and help us to take responsibility for our actions and life choices.

TODAYMoms link: Why one mom decided to embrace the mommy guilt

But when guilt gets exaggerated or out of control, particularly among moms, it can interfere with self-esteem and rob us from experiencing a sense of joy in our lives, affecting us spiritually, physically and emotionally. And it’s not so great for the people we live with, either.

Another culprit of guilt is stress. Stress wears down our emotional resources and makes us more vulnerable to increased guilt.

Over the years, the balancing of family demands with work life has been a frequent topic of interest for parents, especially moms. According to a national survey commissioned by Care.com, 62 percent of working parents revealed that they are too stressed from managing their job and their families to go to the gym, call a friend or have sex with their spouses. The stress that arises for woman trying to fulfill their prescribed gender roles and feeling that they’re failing, also added to their sense of excessive guilt.

Given all the life challenges woman face, what’s the best way for them to manage their guilt so it doesn’t take over their lives? The first step is to realize there’s no way to get rid of guilt completely. There’s always going to be a little bit of residual guilt. And that’s ok, just as long as it doesn’t get in the way of us realizing the positives in our lives.

To ease the guilt:

  1. Take time for yourself.
  2. Reward yourself for a job well done.
  3. Develop a support system that nurtures your spirit.
  4. Think about whether your guilt is founded in truth or overly high expectations of yourself.
  5. Don’t dwell on mistakes, just change them.

Once you learn to let go of unnecessary guilt and those things that really don’t matter, both you and your family will feel a lot happier and more content… which really is the whole point, isn’t it?

What do you feel guilty about... and how do you banish the mom-guilt blues? Tell us in the comments.

Author Meg Meeker and psychotherapist Robi Ludwig shed light on why striving for unattainable perfection may actually lead to additional stress and insecure feelings about your mothering.