It started when my daughter, Samantha, was born 16 months ago. After two sleepless nights, the nurses and my husband urged me to send her to the hospital nursery so I could get some shut-eye. Deep down I knew it was best, but I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt -- how could I abandon my newborn daughter?
That was just the beginning. During the months that followed, I was ashamed letting my husband, who had work the next day, help with night feedings. I panicked that I wasn't giving Samantha enough tummy time. Even now, I feel bad if I feed her grilled cheese two days in a row.
Apparently, I'm not alone. "So many devoted moms think that no matter what they do for their children, it's not enough -- and our culture plays into that insecurity," says Susan Douglas, Ph.D., coauthor of The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women. But you can end the self-flagellation. Here, the top reasons that new moms feel guilty, and what you can do to get beyond it.
You're more than a mom
"Moms today believe that they should be focused on their babies like a laser beam, so when they take a moment for themselves, they feel like they're being neglectful," notes Douglas. For many women, coffee with a friend or even a shower can be enough to ignite feelings of guilt. Lindsey Coffman of Springfield, Missouri, says she often puts off eating lunch until her daughter, Darby, takes her afternoon nap -- which can be as late as 3 p.m. "If Darby needs help coloring or wants me to read a book to her, I feel like it's more important to do that than to eat."
Other moms say their guilt stems from working outside the home. "I have a full-time job, so I feel terrible if I spend any of my free time without my children, even if it's just for a thirty-minute trip to Target," says Mary Beth Matzek of Appleton, Wisconsin. "There's always a nagging voice saying I need to rush back to be with my kids."
How to get over it: You've heard it before, but it's true: A happy mom makes for a happy baby. "If your basic needs aren't being met, you'll get worn down, possibly depressed, and won't be able to function as a good mother," says Bellport, New York, psychologist Eva Gochman, Ph.D. Laura Williams of Williamstown, New Jersey, used to always feel guilty about going to the gym. Now, "I tell myself that when I work out, I sleep better and am more energized to keep up with my son the rest of the day," she says.
Bottom line: Every time you go out for a girls' night, sleep late on a Sunday, or get a manicure, you're doing your family a favor. You'll be in a better mood -- and so will they.
Dina Roth Port is a mother of two in Boca Raton, Florida.
You're not overcome with joy
Though Emma Haygood of Berrien Springs, Michigan, hates to admit it, she didn't love being a mom when her daughter, Ellie, was first born. "I was on a never-ending cycle of feeding, sleeping, and changing diapers and felt cut off from the world," she says. "I feel like I cheated both of us out of the first months because I wanted that stage to rush by."
Haygood isn't the only one. Most new moms believe they're supposed to bond instantly with their baby. "We have an expectation in society that motherhood is wonderful, so when you have a newborn you should be happy all the time," says Diane Ross Glazer, a licensed therapist in Tarzana, California. "But between hormonal fluctuations, trying to meet all of a baby's needs, and other daily stresses, there are a lot of reasons a new mom can have a down day."
Moms also tend to berate themselves if they long for the carefree life they had before kids. "After I had my first son, Erik, I felt guilty because there were times I'd have given anything to see a movie on a whim or soak in a tub -- the small things you take for granted before kids," says Jessica Arivett of Dallas, Georgia.
How to get over it: No one is happy every day and it's unreasonable to expect to be, says Ross Glazer. Sharing your worries and frustrations with other new moms can help.
Also, go easy on yourself. "Just because you don't want to be around your child 24 hours a day doesn't mean you don't love her," says Aviva Pflock, coauthor of Mommy Guilt: Learn to Worry Less, Focus on What Matters Most, and Raise Happier Kids, and cofounder of Parentopia.net. It's normal to mourn your prebaby life and important to realize that you don't have to give it up entirely. "As you settle into a routine, you can have some of that old life back -- it's a balancing act that you get better at with time," she says.
You're not Martha Stewart
Kate Vasey of Rochester, New York, says she feels guilty when she hasn't cleaned the kitchen or the dust bunnies start to collect. "I tell myself that once my newborn is older, I'll have more time for household tasks. But then I order pizza for dinner again and the guilt comes rushing back."
It might seem very June Cleaver, but moms today still feel like they have to be quintessential homemakers, even when they have so many other responsibilities. Competition between moms also adds stress -- whether it's who brings the best dessert to the bake sale or whose child has the most creative art project. This pressure can be particularly great for stay-at-home moms because motherhood has become their new profession. "Our generation of women was brought up to believe that we could do anything and do it well -- so when we became wives and mothers, we applied that high-achieving standard to our new roles, which is impossible to maintain," says Amy Tiemann, Ph.D., founder of mojomom.com and the author of Mojo Mom: Nurturing Yourself While Raising a Family.
How to get over it: First, remember that your baby needs you more than your furniture needs polishing. "It's important that your home is a safe environment where your child can learn and explore. It doesn't have to be ready for the president to come visit," says Pflock. In other words, don't fret if toys are all over the floor. And ordering takeout only means more time for you to spend with your family.
You're not following the rules
When Kim Aman's breastfed daughter, Lydia, was 5 months old, she wasn't gaining weight fast enough, so the Bremerton, Washington, mom had to supplement with formula -- and felt like a failure for it. "I had planned on breastfeeding for at least a year, and I felt like I was cheating my daughter out of the benefits of breast milk," she says.
Not breastfeeding tops the reasons moms feel guilty, but it's all part of a bigger picture: Moms today feel like they're never doing enough for their kids. Experts attribute this feeling of inadequacy to the message that it's critical to give your child a head start-that moms need to play Mozart during pregnancy or break out the flash cards at birth.
There are also moms who say they're worried that the decisions they're making are the wrong ones. "We have a lot more options than past generations had when it comes to our kids. And with those choices come anxiety, stress, and guilt," explains Pflock. I can relate. Every time I flip on the TV for Samantha, I remember the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation that kids under 2 not watch television at all. But for me it's a matter of survival -- if it weren't for The Wiggles I'd never get anything done. So I live with the guilt; it means I can have time to throw in some laundry or read a magazine for 10 minutes (okay, 30).
How to get over it: "Parents are subject to a lot of marketing pressure to literally 'buy in' to enrichment tools," says Tiemann. "Any of them are probably fine as long as they are done for fun and in moderation. As soon as they become an imperative, they only undermine our confidence as parents." Sure, it's important to expose your children to different learning opportunities, but you can do that through everyday life at home, the grocery store, or the park.
Finally, ask yourself what's going to matter down the road: How many college applications ask whether you took a music class when you were 1? Susie Lancaster from Glendale, Arizona, says that she beat herself up for days when she accidentally pinched her son's chin in the car-seat buckle. Finally, a friend who has three kids set her straight. "She helped me realize that the most important thing is that my son knows he's loved," recalls Lancaster. "That's all he's going to remember about his infancy."