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The Mother Load This photograph is from Kate Hutchinson’s autobiographical project Seasons of Separation. Maisonneuve ran other images from this project in the Summer 2020 issue.   Photograph by Kate Hutchinson.

The Mother Load

Mom guilt isn't just a feeling; it's an entire industry perfected over centuries.

It’s a February morning, well below freezing, and my son is refusing to put on his snow pants. He stands on one foot, carefully holding the other over the pant leg I’m holding open for him, and stares at me. Sometimes I think the kid has a future as a ballerina, he balances with such determination and grace. I tell him we’re going to miss the bell at school, frantic desperation rising in my voice. I try singing “I put my right foot in, I put my right foot out,” but he whines in protest.

Desperate, I try wrestling him into his snowsuit, something I used to do when he was younger.  Sometimes I wonder if these wrestling matches caused him trauma and it’s the memory of these occasions that now makes getting into his snowsuit so hard. Other times I think that that line of thinking is bullshit. Either way, I can’t wrestle him forever. He’s four years old and lanky, but built solid. Should ballet not work out, he may also have a future as a linebacker.

With his snowsuit finally on, we clomp down the stairs that lead to our apartment. At the bottom, he refuses to put on his boots. The issue at hand, according to him, has something to do with not being on the right step. He’s not sitting on the boot-putting-on step. When I try to help him, he crawls up the stairs away from me. At this point, the rage that is coursing through me erupts, and I take it out on a boot, raising it over my head and then whipping it down to the floor. “We’re going to the car without your boots!” I yell, then pick him up and shuffle across the ice-covered driveway, enduring kicks to my gut along the way. I set him down in order to wrench the car door open, and he skates back across the icy pavement in his socks, bawling. Back inside, we put on his boots on the boot-putting-on step, then return to the car where he refuses to get into his car seat. I’m sweating, despite the weather. Sweating from frustration, sweating from embarrassment, sweating from guilt. Eventually I hold him in the back seat until he calms down. 

Days that begin like this usually end with me crumpled on the kitchen floor, my back against the cupboards, texting my sister. She has a daughter a year younger than my son, and these evening moments serve as a sort of mom guilt confessional as each of us details for the other the day’s perceived parenting failures. As on that February morning, usually these failures involve yelling. There’s a volume to such exchanges that is hard to convey with words. It’s the undercurrent of violence, and occasionally its eruption, that makes me feel guilty at the end of the day more than anything else. When I flip through the metaphorical manual of mothering, there is no illustration of a frustrated, spent human sweating in the driveway. The words “violence,” “scream” and “yell” do not appear in the index. That I don’t resemble the illustrations that are there—of manicured, calm mothers, engaged in seasonal crafts with their kids—either means that I’m a malfunctioning machine, built with faulty parts, or that somebody, somewhere, set me up to fail.

Type the words “mom guilt” into Google’s Ngram Viewer, a tool that plots the occurrence of a phrase in a corpus of books over a specified period of time, and it will generate a line graph that shoots almost straight up. In the corpus I queried—about eight million books published between the years 1500 and 2019—there was a near centuries-long flatline before the spike begins in 1989 and shows use of the phrase increasing by 266 times in the thirty years that followed.

What could be the source of all this maternal guilt? When I first looked at the line graph, I figured something drastic must have occurred leading up to the late 1980s, driving our guilt to precipitous heights in the decades after. In many ways I was right. After women entered the paid workforce in droves during the Second World War, they began, in the decades that followed, to return to these jobs increasingly soon after the birth of their youngest child. While blaming paid work for mom guilt is a well-worn narrative, statistics from this period do underscore an additional shift to the one the war had already set in motion. From 1976 (the earliest year that Statistics Canada data is available) to 1989, the year the Ngram line graph begins to climb, the number of working women in Canada with children ages three and under increased 23 percent.

Watching a working mother’s life, particularly a working mother with young children, is not unlike watching a circus performer walk a tightrope—so awe-inspiring is the feat that we understandably attribute any mental toll to the performance. It’s not surprising, then, that much of the present-day conversation surrounding mom guilt continues to focus on this decades-old societal shift. In an article published in the Atlantic last year, “The End of Mom Guilt,” Lara Bazelon discusses how our maternal ideal continues to be incongruous with professional ambition, and names this tension as a source of guilt. She encourages mothers to see the value in their careers, citing research that shows children of working mothers fare just as well as children of stay-at-home mothers. “Prioritizing your career—not all the time, but some of the time—models valuable lessons for children, including independence and resilience,” she writes.

In keeping with this common perception that mom guilt is synonymous with working mom guilt, several of the mothers I spoke to for this story experienced the feeling in association with their paid jobs. Kasey Hale is a registered practical nurse and mother to three children, aged five, four and one. We spoke on a Monday morning after Hale had worked two back-to-back, twelve-hour shifts. “I saw my little guy on Friday night when he went to bed and I didn’t see him again until this morning,” she says. “When I’m leaving in the morning he’s still sleeping and by the time I get home he’s already gone to bed, so I hadn’t seen him for two days.” Between her job, the university courses she is taking to further her career, and the needs of each of her children, Hale worries she is not finding enough time for everyone.

Hale’s concerns were shared by most of the mothers I interviewed. I also regularly feel this tension, preparing meals late into the night so as to maximize the brief window between the end of my work day and my son’s bedtime. This tension, though, is not a plight unique to modern mothers, despite it being regularly framed this way. Women have always worked. All that’s changed is the location and nature of the labour. A day in the life of a modern, working mother is long, but a day in the life of an eighteenth or nineteenth century mother was equally if not more onerous. It likely involved preparing a fire to boil water, plucking a chicken before eating it and scrubbing soiled diapers. Between all of these tasks, there was no time for mothers to crouch down on all fours and gaze lovingly into the eyes of each of their many children—something that often feels expected of us today. To juggle any job while raising a family will always be a source of stress. But in terms of work limiting a mother’s time with their children—be it paid work or unpaid work, inside the home or out—this phenomenon is nothing new. Knowing this, perhaps we can wrest ourselves from this debate and, to the best of our ability, set aside paid work—a necessity of modern life whether we like it or not—as a source of our guilt.

To focus on working mom guilt is also to ignore the many other sources of the feeling. Several mothers I spoke to felt guilty for not being able to breastfeed, and several more for speaking harshly to their children. Others worried about taking time for themselves, and another about dropping one, then the other, of her infant twins. 

This narrow focus also hides the fact that the origins of the feeling began long before 1989, the spike in the Ngram and in the number of working mothers with young children. To understand the multitude of reasons why mom guilt exists, I had to travel backwards in time, beyond my generation, my mother’s generation and even my grandmother’s generation, to when my great-grandmother was doing the work of mothering. What I found was a decades-long accumulation of factors leading to the epidemic of mom guilt we have today, the effects of which are harming mothers and robbing them of the joys of parenting.

The origins of mom guilt in the West can be traced as far back as the early years of industrialization. In Canada, industrialization began in the mid-1800s and lasted until the end of the Second World War. Prior to this time, people saw the role of mothers differently than they do today. Indigenous peoples in Canada, many still in the early years of encountering European culture through colonization, raised their children collectively.  “Children were raised by many,” writes Jocelyn Joe-Strack, a member of Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, in a Canadian Encyclopedia article about her people. “When very small, grandparents, who moved at the same speed, were caretakers and teachers. Once older and nearing puberty, aunts and uncles on the mother’s side … took on education, ensuring young women were proficient sewers and young men were strong hunters.”

Early North American colonists also approached children's education differently than is done today. In these families, mothers were valued for their reproductive abilities, not the moral or spiritual education they stood to give their children. This role belonged to fathers, in part because between birthing, breastfeeding, running an eighteenth century home and contributing to the family’s trade, women didn’t have time to tend to their children’s psychological development. During industrialization, however, when people began to move from farms to cities, societal perceptions of motherhood shifted with them. Men, now embroiled in the potential evils of urban and commercial life, were no longer viewed as the morally superior family members. Children’s moral education was added to mothers’ already lengthy todo lists, a task which “both heightened women’s authority in the family and increased their susceptibility to guilt and regret,” writes historian Jodi Vandenberg-Daves in her book Modern Motherhood: An American History.

The shift from farm to city also led to changes in familial structure. Once intergenerational spaces, families became nuclear, and mothers, isolated. On the farm, “everyone tended to help with the kids and to raise the kids,” says Katherine Arnup, a social historian and former professor at Carleton University. “Nobody was leaving the home and everybody, including hired hands and grandparents, had a role in raising the kids. [Child-rearing] wasn’t raised onto this great pedestal.”

After my son was born and I learned first-hand the work of being a mom, I often wondered why there weren’t pedestals on every street corner, propping up statues of women in the throes of mothering. I imagined a bronze cast of a mother breastfeeding an infant while spoon-feeding a toddler, or a stone-faced woman resolutely pulling a tantrum-ing child along, their mum-buns askew from the effort. But the problem with erecting such idols, according to Arnup, is the higher the pedestal, the further mothers have to fall. If mothers are idolized and then left alone to raise their children, then with that responsibility comes societal blame should anything go wrong. All three of the historians I spoke to for this story suggested that “mother blame,” a phrase that first appears during the industrial period in a Google Ngram search, was likely the precursor to the expression “mom guilt.” Though blame and guilt are obviously not synonymous, to be blamed for something can lead to a guilty feeling, regardless of whether the accusation was accurate. 

Of all the childhood tragedies an industrial-era mother could be inaccurately blamed for, the most serious was death. “In 1919 in Ontario, 5,999 babies under one year of age died,” reads a publication called The Baby, issued by the Ontario Board of Health in 1920. “A large number of these babies died because their mothers did not know how to care for them.”

In truth, a large number of these babies died because of diarrhea. Frequent bowel movements and other common ailments (think pneumonia, bronchitis and the flu) were caused by improper sanitation, contaminated milk and poor refrigeration. For these reasons, infant mortality in Canada at the turn of the twentieth century was high. In 1901, 27 percent of babies died before their first birthday. “Until after the Second World War, you were a successful mother if you got your kid past the first five years of life,” says Cynthia Comacchio, a professor emerita at Wilfrid Laurier University who studies the history of Canadian children and families.

Efforts to curtail high infant mortality coincided with the rapid professionalization of doctors. Up until this point, mothers learned how to care for children from other mothers. Now doctors increasingly took up this role, with the backing of national institutions. The Canadian Medical Association, though founded in 1867, didn’t significantly grow its membership until the 1920s. The Canadian Public Health Association was founded in 1910, Health Canada in 1919, and both the Society for the Study of Diseases in Children and the Canadian Social Hygiene Council in 1922. As doctors professionalized, motherhood was increasingly seen as a profession too. “The professional mother of the advanced type stands to the physician in a relation akin to that of the nurse,” stated an article published in 1920 in Maclean’s. Such a mother would set aside personal opinions out of deference for the male physician’s knowledge, but be “trained so thoroughly that she can work in harmony with him.” This thorough training began across Canada beginning in the early 1900s, in a campaign aimed at schooling mothers in how to do their job. The campaigners, namely doctors, public health nurses and all levels of government, spread their message widely. “Mothers of every class were considered to be ignorant in varying degrees and all would benefit from medically supervised intervention,” writes Comacchio in her book  Nations are Built of Babies. These supposed degrees of ignorance also depended on ethnicity, with immigrant mothers deemed more ignorant than those who were Canadian-born, and Indigenous mothers seen as the most naive of all. In the eyes of the authorities, seemingly no amount of training could adequately professionalize Indigenous women, and institutions such as residential schools  served to systematically remove Indigenous children from their mothers’ care entirely. Today, community-based child-rearing and intergenerational care remains important within many Indigenous communities, despite continued persecution from the Canadian state. “In Indigenous cultures, family units go beyond the traditional nuclear family living together in one house,” writes Ojibwe author Tanya Talaga in an article for the Walrus about Indigenous family structures. “Families are extensive networks of strong, connective kinship.”

Many other women, however, were willing students, although their education was authoritarian in nature. Doctors’ advice filled the void of support created by industrialization. More importantly, the success of such innovations as water treatment and milk pasteurization in saving babies meant that the science promoted by medical institutions held legitimate appeal. Before the widespread use of antibiotics and vaccinations, rates of infant mortality in Canada began to fall: the probability of an infant dying before their first birthday decreased almost 60 percent from the early 1900s to the early 1940s.Increasingly less concerned with children’s death, by the 1920s experts began to turn their attention to children’s development. As with physical health, a child’s psychological health was the responsibility of its mother. “Your child mirrors you and your home,” proclaimed an article in a 1936 issue of Chatelaine, “if your child is a problem child, probably you are a problem mother.” 

Many children do mirror their mothers and their homes, today as in 1936. My son is a miniature, male version of me. We are both highly sensitive and easily overwhelmed, traits that both lead to and exacerbate his tantrums (and my own). But to focus on what is challenging about our personalities is to negate all that I’ve gifted him with: the cute way he scrunches up his nose when he is making a silly face, his attention to detail or his open heart. It also leaves me and other mothers shamed, our emotional energy used up in berating ourselves for our imperfections instead of accepting them or growing from them, two skills we ultimately want to pass on to our children. 

All of these changes to motherhood, from its idealization and isolation to the education the role ostensibly requires, took place at least a century ago, yet the conditions they ushered in remain unchanged. Mothers stand teetering atop their pedestals, alone, with accusations of their ineptitude graffitied to their sides. While we are not blamed in such explicit terms as can be found in archived issues of Chatelaine, the expectations are there nonetheless, under the surface. Unmoored from our maternal intuition, we endlessly aim to meet these expectations, and feel guilty when we fail.

Over the past century, setting expectations for mothers has become a profitable industry in and of itself. The medical advice given to mothers in the early 1900s began with publications such as the Little Blue Books, a series of blue-covered pamphlets issued by the federal government. The series included such titles as the Canadian Mother’s Book, How to Take Care of the Baby and How to Take Care of the Children. Best-sellers such as paediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, published in 1946, were joined by an onslaught of other titles, particularly in the final years of the twentieth century. Not surprisingly, the timeline for the publication of the majority of these books mirrors the rise of mom guilt plotted by Google’s Ngram. With so many different opinions and parenting approaches on offer, the likelihood of a mother not abiding by at least a few of them—and subsequently feeling guilt—was, and remains, high.

Just as my foremothers absorbed the advice of early doctors, I willingly signed up for this type of communication after my son was born, in the form of a monthly, emailed newsletter from my local health unit in Stratford, Ontario. Titled “Parenting in Perth County,” each edition gave me a list of developmental milestones my child was meant to have achieved at that age. At one month, for example, my son should calm when comforted; at two months, he should be able to lift his head up when lying on his tummy; at three months, he should “reach for objects with both arms, starting at the sides and closing in front of body.” While I understood the purpose of these newsletters as educational, they were also a source of anxiety. They caused me to double down on tummy time, and to monitor closely whether or not my son reached for his BPA-free, 100-percent-natural rubber teething toy with one arm or two, and whether those arms returned to the front of his body or swung wildly in all directions, spraying drool in their wake. As I battled sleep deprivation and postpartum depression, detailed instructions like these added to my sense of overwhelm, and blinded me to the macro observations I stood to be making: namely that I had a happy, healthy baby boy, ready and eager to enjoy his time with me. In other words, I wasn’t as open to feelings of joy as I would have liked to be. 

Though a recent development in the history of advice to mothers, emailed newsletters such as the one I received feel dated compared to the accounts of mom influencers online, the twenty-first century’s version of the Little Blue Books. Emma Payne is a regular Instagram user and, having grown up on a pig farm, is also the exemplar of a parent in Perth County, where nearly 20 percent of Ontario’s pig farms are located. Payne now works in swine logistics, scheduling the movement of pigs from farm to farm or from farm to slaughterhouse. The twenty-nine-year-old mother co-parents with her six-year-old daughter’s father (more scheduling) and is raising a one-year-old son with her husband. “You’re exposed to all these different versions and ways of parenting and it’s marketed to you like, ‘ This is the best way to do this. This is the only way to do this,'” Payne says. 

Payne points me to an Instagram account called Big Little Feelings for examples of the types of posts that have made her feel guilty in the past. The account boasts three million followers and is curated by two mothers: Kristin Gallant, a parenting coach, and Deena Margolin, a child therapist. It features quick parenting tips, in a taupe-to-dusty-rose colour palette, for those navigating their child’s toddler phase. One recent post reads, “Taking away dessert is not effective discipline,” and another, “The secret to your toddler’s tantrums? Accept them.” Payne says she originally started following Big Little Feelings because she was looking for ideas on how to navigate her daughter’s emotions. In time, however, the account caused her to focus more on what she was doing wrong than what she was doing right.

Aware that accounts like these were adding to my postpartum depression and anxiety as a new mom, I unfollowed mothers like Gallant and Margolin, then deleted Instagram altogether. Under the guise of goodwill and creating supportive online communities, content like this perpetuates mom guilt in an effort to sell a product. In the case of Gallant and Margolin, that product is their virtual parenting courses. In the case of individual users with hundreds of thousands of followers (known as “momfluencers”), it’s everything from home decor to diapers, pedalled through sponsored posts. While I knew the purpose behind such feeds, the mental energy it took to remind myself of this each time I opened the app was more than I had to give.

Despite the fact that I deleted Instagram and curtailed my online life in general, the parenting trends highlighted in these spaces continue to permeate my experience of mothering, feeding my feelings of guilt. Most prevalent is the popularization of the type of parenting sold on Big Little Feelings, known as “gentle parenting.” In addition to momfluencers like Gallant and Margolin, author Sarah Ockwell-Smith is at the forefront of the movement, having written The Gentle Parenting Book, published in 2016, as well as The Gentle Sleep Book, The Gentle Discipline Book, The Gentle Potty Training Book, The Gentle Eating Book and How to Be a Calm Parent. Ockwell-Smith defines gentle parenting as a “lifestyle that encompasses both your physical and psychological behaviour, not only towards your children but to yourself, too.”

Though called gentle parenting, the trend might more accurately be dubbed “gentle mothering,” since in today’s society mothers continue to do the bulk of child-rearing. “When we talk about parenting, we still really mean mothering,” says Comacchio. “We’ve changed the language to make it more equitable, but it hides a reality.” As a practical example of what gentle parenting (read: mothering) looks like, Ockwell-Smith offers a scenario in which a child hits someone. Rather than saying, “Don’t hit people,” she suggests the phrase, “We use gentle hands.” Or, in an instance when a child bites their parent, Ockwell-Smith proposes the parent respond by saying, “Did it feel good to bite me? Are your teeth hurting? How about I give you an apple to bite into?” 

Such language muddies the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour to the point of those boundaries barely existing anymore. Biting is not okay, whether it feels good or not. Children need such boundaries, and mothers need the authority necessary to enforce them. When told to pursue gentleness at all costs, at worst mothers are stripped of their power and asked to conform to a stereotypical notion of femininity. At best, their toddlers bite them.

According to the gentle parenting philosophy, a child’s misbehaviour is the fault of the parent, not the kid. In this way, it differs little from the ideas shared one hundred years ago in women’s magazines like Chatelaine: problematic children are born of problematic mothers, or in the words of Ockwell-Smith,  “shouty parents lead to shouty children.” Proponents of gentle parenting believe children misbehave when parents don’t spend enough time with them. If we took more time to connect and play with our kids, so the theory says, they would misbehave less.

In my experience, there is indeed some reason behind this method. In general, I can link a morning free of crying and shouting to having engaged in many of the principles disciples of gentle parenting extol: I empathized with my son (“I’m tired too, hunny bun. It’s hard to wake up on dark winter mornings, isn’t it?”), connected with him (“What are you looking forward to doing at school today, kitty cat?”), and carefully phrased my requests (“Okay snugglebug, let’s put on our boots together!”). But on mornings when these strategies don’t work, or when I’m tired, sick or cranky and abandon them altogether, the implication that the resulting scene, usually loud with violent undertones, is my fault has been the primary source of guilt in my mothering career so far. 

Several of the women I spoke to also talked about departures from being “gentle” as a source of their mom guilt. One of them was a former colleague of mine, Caroline Fan. Fan lives in Markham, Ontario and works in human resources for a logistics firm in Mississauga. She makes the hour-and-a half-long commute by car two to three days per week. We agree to talk at 5 PM-ish on a day she’s made the drive, but at 4:54 she texts to say she’s running late. We reschedule to 6-ish, which gets pushed 6:30, and eventually connect closer to 7. Fan calls me from her car and says that our conversation will keep her company for the remainder of her drive.

Fan’s bubbly personality outsizes her petite stature, such that at times her enthusiasm and goodwill seem to be frothing over. She speaks quickly but rarely seems stressed. As the HR coordinator for the office we both worked at, she was a source of calm and smoothly ran the organization's daily operations. Fan is also the mother of a five-year-old daughter and a three-year-old son. She tells me she feels guilty when she loses control and screams at her children, which happened often when her son was an infant and wouldn’t stop crying. “After I scream … when I look at him I feel so horrible,” she says. “I feel like I’m a monster. I feel really hurt that I’m doing this to my child.” When her son won’t settle, Fan describes a dark cloud swirling around her in the moments leading up to yelling, feeling better after letting her frustration out, and heaviness in her heart in the moments that follow. “You know what hurts more?” she asks. “He still loves me despite how I treat him.” 

At this point in the interview, both Fan and I are crying. Up until that moment, I had never heard another mother describe screaming at her children in such explicit terms. While Fan talked about the frustration that mounts when attempting to comfort a crying baby, my outbursts tend to follow a series of events that, from the outside looking in, must seem so innocuous. Perhaps my son didn’t put on his snowsuit when it was time to leave, as on that February morning, or, later in the day, didn’t put his toys away when asked. Oftentimes, between events like these seemingly every movement I make is wrong. I incorrectly poured the oat milk into his oatmeal. His new socks are too big. His only pair of clean pants aren’t fuzzy enough. I mispronounced Amargasaurus. As I dodge and divert each of these moments with increasingly limited grace and patience, I physically feel as though each slight is piling up within me. It’s a tightness in my throat, a sensation like I can’t breathe. Eventually, I lose the physical strength necessary to hold it all together. My knees wobble and buckle and the weight comes crashing down. I can no longer wilfully keep myself corked and I scream. And I mean scream. Often the screaming happens in the car. I think it happens here because I know that in the car I don’t risk the downstairs neighbour hearing me. If he doesn’t hear me, then at least come bedtime I’m only working through guilt and shame and not necessarily embarrassment. My throat hurts for the remainder of the day, a physical reminder of my own weakness.

As the range of sanctioned emotional expression available to mothers shrinks, the opportunity to feel guilty as a result of expressing something else expands. Ockwell-Smith’s advice for mothers like Fan and me? Create a “yelling jar.” Each time we yell at our children, we’re to put a coin in the jar. The money accrued by the end of a week should be put toward something that will help us take better care of ourselves. Maybe we’d like a magazine, she writes, or a bubble bath or a chocolate bar. Once we’ve indulged in these things, we’ll be better able to care for our kids.

Advice like this is patronizing at best. At worst, it perpetuates feelings of guilt and shame among mothers and drives us to such dark places as Fan and I have experienced. It’s no coincidence that the Google Ngram chart for the phrase  “gentle parenting” mimics the skyrocketing line graph generated for “mom guilt”—in our current era of mothering, the two are undoubtedly linked. Teachers of gentle parenting acknowledge that from time to time parents will yell, yet the implication remains that it is the mother’s behaviour, not the child’s, that needs treatment. Rather than encourage us to simply forgive ourselves and move on, the gentle parenting philosophy refuses to be gentle toward mothers. Instead, it suggests we exhaustively examine our deficiencies. When we come up short, as we all will, the self-flagellation that ensues means we show up for our kids bruised and bloodied. Rather than model for them what it means to be an imperfect individual who grows from their mistakes, we parent from a place of pain that ultimately has no purpose. The result is one opposite to our intentions: we create an unnecessary gulf between us and our children, such that we cannot express, nor can they experience, our love fully.

In grappling with my own mom guilt, my therapist suggested I differentiate between guilt and shame. “I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful,” writes best-selling author and shame researcher Brené Brown on her website. “It’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.” By comparison, Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”

If mom guilt is truly guilt and not shame, it would follow that mothers are regularly straying from a set of values if they’re experiencing guilt in such volume. But when I asked the mothers I interviewed what these values might be, their answers were almost always vague. Payne values nuclear family and feels guilt because her daughter’s time is spent between two households. Muna Gaye, mother of twin girls aged two, lives in Scarborough, Ontario, and was born in the Gambia. She values the strength displayed by the matriarchs of her culture and feels guilty when she believes she is not living up to their image. Most of the other women, however, agreed with Brown’s definition, but couldn’t name the value from which they’d departed when feeling mom guilt. For others, there was no value at play at all. Jayne Schumm, mother to a four-year-old girl, told me she feels guilty that her daughter has a congenital heart defect, something Schumm herself acknowledges she didn’t cause.

Listening to these moms speak, I eventually came to the conclusion that, for the most part, the values we as moms are straying from when we experience mom guilt are not our own. They are prescribed to us, originally by members of the burgeoning medical profession in the early 1900s, and now by the momfluencers of social media, advocates of trends such as gentle parenting, and, to a certain degree, ourselves. In our pursuit of the perfection displayed by mothers online, we enlist in the very war being waged against us, through our own curated posts and by being mum about what is hard. When I asked Gaye if she thinks the women of her culture experience mom guilt she said yes, but that they don’t express it outwardly, something she believes is true of North American women, too. “The more I’m in this parenting journey, I realize it’s just the way women are,” she says. Like several other mothers I spoke to, Gaye wishes that women had shared with her how challenging breastfeeding can be before her twins were born. For myself, I wish I had known about the effects of sleep deprivation, or that as my son grew older, I might occasionally scream bloody murder. 

In other cases, I believe mothers may not be experiencing mom guilt at all. Instead they’re feeling what might be more accurately described as “mom shame.” I fall into this category. The times I’ve experienced guilt in my life, for lying to someone I love, for example, do not compare in expression to the times I’ve felt mom guilt. On days when I collapse with my back against the kitchen cupboards, what I feel is excruciating. It is a total contraction of my heart and hollowing out of my insides. I imagine hanging myself from the balcony railing or dining-room light fixture. When confronted with such imperfection, I think, the only solution is to erase it entirely. It can take me days to crawl out of this hole once I’ve fallen into it. In the meantime, my son has already moved on from whatever transpired between us, and is begging me to play with him. I oblige, but am unable to focus on the intricacies of the machine he built of blocks and power cords, or on which dinosaur I’m to embody in today’s edition of dinosaur tag. I value family, but my shame prevents me from fully experiencing its joys.

There is no Ngram for the phrase “mom shame.” “No valid Ngrams to plot!” Google tells me after I type in the words. There’s a weightiness to the word shame that the word guilt doesn’t carry, and I wonder if that is in part why we’ve come to describe what mothers are experiencing as guilt and not shame. Our culture tends to trivialize maternal experience, from describing postpartum depression as the “baby blues” to dismissing a mother's forgetfulness after giving birth—typically the result of remembering what is actually important, from the daily needs of multiple children to itemized grocery lists—as “mom brain.” Whether the sentiment is best described as mom guilt or mom shame, neither is trivial. “It’s almost like another word for anxiety,” Payne says , a sentiment that was echoed by other women. 

In researching this article, I felt liberated when I discovered that the maternal ideal imposed on mothers today is relatively new. If mothers, families and children functioned without it pre-industrialization, then we can today, too. To value a mother is not to raise her onto a pedestal, hand her more and more responsibilities, then whisper through bared teeth, Don’t you dare fall! To value a mother is in fact to remove her from the pedestal entirely. Child-rearing is a task all members of a family should be involved in, with no single member’s contribution exalted above the rest.

When I asked moms what they thought mothering would be like if they didn’t experience mom guilt, some went silent.  “I don’t know if you can have parenting without guilt,” says a mother named Alondra Galvez. “I think it’s just part of the gig.” Several others responded by saying they thought it would be more fun. “I would just be perfectly happy with what we’re doing when we’re doing it and not have any underlying feelings of needing to do things differently,” says Hale. “It would probably be a little more joyful … a little less suffocating,” says a mother named Megan Scott. “I think I would be bolder,” says Payne. “Authentic,” says Gaye.  A couple of others felt relatively free of mom guilt already. For Jessica Friesen and Channon Oyeniran, mom guilt shows up when they spend time away from their children, but a recent shift in mindset has allowed Friesen to start doing so guilt-free, while Oyeniran knows that even when she isn’t there, her sons are well cared for by her husband, or by her mother, sister or members of the church she belongs to.

Like Oyeniran, my family and supportive partner are integral to how I parent, and to assuaging my feelings of guilt. But in addition to building networks of support, mothers can take further action. Rather than waiting for society’s maintenance crews to show up and remove us from our pedestals, as mothers we need to step down on our own. Together, we need to take a vow to absolve ourselves and each other of our guilt. We need to live by our own values and not ones assigned to us. In this way we might allow ourselves to live authentically, with all our imperfections, and teach our children to do the same. ⁂

Erin James-Abra is an editor and writer. She lives in Stratford, Ontario, with her son, Jacoby, and her fiancé, Daniel.