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Guilt in Motherhood

I just finished Amanda Montei’s enlightening and necessary book “Touched Out: Motherhood, Misogyny, Consent and Control”. So much of what she writes about shows up in therapy sessions with my clients.

The mothers I work with often feel angry, overwhelmed, dissatisfied or numb. They want their lives to look different but when they begin to consider setting boundaries and prioritizing their own needs, they get stuck. They feel guilty and they question themselves. Prioritizing other people feels “right”, asserting their own needs feels “wrong”. Montei’s book expands on the origins of this dichotomy and what keeps women in our culture stuck in a cycle of subordination.

Burned out mom clothespins

We learn from a young age that a woman’s job is to put others’ needs above their own.

Montei writes “Motherhood feels like a script written for women by men because it is. The American economy has for centuries been shaped around the exploitation of unpaid labor, which has benefitted men not only in their ability to excuse themselves from the hard and dirty work of taking care of kids and the home, but financially.” (83).

When mothers attempt to center themselves in their life, guilt shows up because prioritizing our needs falls outside what we were programed to accept as “right” about the duties of a woman. When we refuse to model subservience for our children, when we choose to care for ourselves just as much as we care for our kids and our partners, we are considered deviant, dishonorable, dangerous. We are a threat to the status quo. How will male influence and fortunes grow if there isn’t a woman in the background prioritizing the never-ending work of caretaking and keeping up the home?

Capitalism pushes burned out moms to spend

To keep mothers compliant in our male-centered society, capitalism offers quick fixes that don’t change the game in any meaningful way. Women that feel trapped, angry, overwhelmed, or exhausted with the experience of motherhood in America are trained to see these feelings as personal failure.

Montei writes “As journalist Katherine Goldstein, creator of The Double Shift [newsletter and podcast], puts it, “The baseline narrative about being a mother in America is that every individual mother is fundamentally flawed in some way and the way to get out of it is through life hacks and products.” (188)

What’s more genius than making money off mothers whose very struggle is caused by the unfair division of labor dictated by the rules of capitalism? That is the ultimate FU! Keep women from amassing any real power and make money while doing it. (For more on the impact of capitalism on motherhood, check out my post The Myth of Self-Care for Moms.)

How can mothers start to prioritize their needs in a society that's built on the premise that women exist to serve others?

Here are a few ideas.

1. Feel the guilt and do it anyway. When we take steps to prioritize our needs, we should expect to feel guilty. Guilt is an automatic feeling that tells us we’re making a decision that doesn’t align with something we’ve been taught. In this case, what we have been taught is to minimize our needs for the sake of others. What we have been taught is wrong. We can feel the guilt and do what we know is right for us anyway. The more we do what we know is right for us, the less guilt we’ll feel over time. (Here is a low-stakes real-life example occurring right now! I am writing this blog post on a weekend afternoon because I just finished Amanda Montei’s book and I feel inspired to write. My kids keep coming in and out of the room, vying for my attention and asking me to play. I don’t want to stop writing; I also feel guilty. I’ve been indoctrinated with the idea that as a mother, my free time should be spent with my kids if they want to play with me. The guilt sits in my body as I write but I’m not stopping. My kids are fine. I am fine. I can feel the guilt and do it anyway. (Small victories!)

Information about patriarchy, mom guilt

2. Learn more, talk more. In all your down time (ha!), check out articles, podcasts, books and newsletters that increase your awareness around how living in a patriarchal society impacts your thoughts, feelings, decisions, and relationships. In addition to Touched Out by Amanda Montei, I suggest the books Girlhood by Melissa Febos and Essential Labor by Angela Garbes. Consider what “rules” you’ve been following unconsciously that do not serve you or your family. Talk to friends, family members and partners about what you’re learning and the possibilities of change as a result. Accept help that’s offered by people that care about you when you try to do things differently.

3. Ask for help. If you’re feeling angry, overwhelmed, or exhausted by motherhood and you’re having trouble making changes, reach out to a therapist. I specialize working with mothers that want more than society's prescribed path for their lives. Let me support you! Book a free 20-minute consultation here.

Michelle Deely, MFT specializes in helping burned out moms find relief. Michelle offers in-person therapy in San Francisco and online therapy to clients throughout California, Nevada and Florida.


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