“Good moms don’t have fun without their kids around.”

You might be surprised at the woman who confessed this thought and when it crossed her mind.

The thought intruded into the mind of Jessica Rohr, Ph.D., a professor at Baylor College of Medicine. It barged in while Rohr was celebrating her anniversary with her husband (who, by the way, reported absolutely no guilt in being away from their daughter for their special occasion.)

Mom Guilt. “That pernicious feeling that comes from not doing things a certain way, or doing them too much or doing them wrong, according to some unknowable and ever-changing rule book,” according to Dr. Rohr.

What triggers Mom Guilt? 

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Research from Finland has identified some specific Mom Guilt triggers. The first four ways to trigger an inner critic attack are clear cut:

  1. Actual or imagined aggression
  2. Wanting to leave in some way
  3. Being gone in some way
  4. Favoring one child over the other
  5. Not corresponding to your own or others’ idea of a good mother.

It’s the last trigger that throws in the kitchen sink and gives you an idea of what Dr. Rohr meant by the “unknowable and ever-changing rule book” wielded by a mom’s inner critic: Not corresponding to your own or others’ idea of a good mother.  

That pretty much leaves mothers vulnerable to being judged or shamed by just about anyone all over the world.

There’s plenty of guilt to go around. 

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In Germany, it’s known as rabenmutter, or raven mother, referring to the blackbird that pushes chicks out of the nest — a slur used to shame mothers like Manuela Maier. It happened when Maier decided to return to work and signed up her 9-year-old son for full-day classes at his primary school — and found herself ostracized by other mothers and openly criticized by her neighbors and family. In a local store, someone even screamed at her, asking her why she had children if she couldn’t take care of them.

Despite a labor shortage and growing economic necessity, the rabenmutter attitude persists, and Germany now has one of the world’s lowest birth rates.  (And a chancellor who, not surprisingly, is childless.)  

Even more dramatically, Japan’s 2018 birthrate fell to the lowest level since 1899, when record-keeping began.

It’s still an either/or decision for many women who love their children and love their work.

Why am I talking about this? You may be surprised at reasons 2, 3, and 4 for my interest in Mom Guilt.

  1. My clients who are mothers.
  2. Their husbands.
  3. Wine moms.
  4. Mother and adult-child estrangement.

The evolution of the Good Mother archetype. 

But first, some context. The Good Mother archetype is seared into our evolutionarily evolved survival system, especially mammals. In contrast, as soon as reptile eggs hatch, the offspring are pretty much ready to survive on their own. Not much bonding with Reptile Mom is necessary. Not so with mammals, who are born much more immature and require a prolonged developmental period to adapt to their environment, especially human beings. We have by far the longest developmental period — It takes us 25-30 years for the prefrontal cortex to finish developing. That kind of brainpower is good for our adaptability but required the evolution of a unique caregiving system. Our mammalian system motivates parents to bond with their offspring — so they’ll want to hang around and take care of the kiddos.

What does this mean every time a twenty-first-century mom feels overwhelmed, resentful, or just plain tired? It’s a train wreck of conflicting emotions with her inner critic, ready to pounce and do its evolutionarily-inspired job, reinforced by other members of our mammalian caregiving species.

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Mom Guilt is not just an issue for mothers. It’s also an issue for the men married to them.

That’s why I was surprised to hear a prominent mainstream American religious leader proclaim that the only biblically approved roles for women are “mother and grandmother.” Really? What happened to the role of … wife?

That glaring omission doesn’t seem to mesh with the men I encounter in my counseling office or out in the real world. These men would like to have their wives back. Their secret shame? A father feeling resentful or even jealous of his own kids, knowing that they mean more to his wife than he does. The displacement of the husband as his wife’s primary emotional bond is men’s most-cited slippery slope into an unhappy marriage.

In “therapy world” we say that the strength and stability of the family system depend more than anything else on the husband-wife bond. My take? I don’t know if we can or should try to override that maternal instinct too early in our children’s lives. Instead, my concern kicks in when the maternal bonding pattern gets stuck in overdrive and subtly destabilizes the marriage, making the entire family system more fragile.

So is it possible for mothers to find a way to extend into ordinary life situations the airline industry adage — to put on your oxygen mask before trying to help your child (or anyone else, for that matter)?

It’s a big undertaking, but even in the grand scheme of our tiny speck of time on the planet, I think it’s important that, nevertheless, we persist.

Efficiency experts say the best way to tackle a big project is the technique of “chunking,” dividing the project into smaller, more doable chunks. So my focus right now is on this particular slice of the parenting pizza:

  1. Husbands who are looking for ways to reclaim their “I come first” place in the hearts of their wives and
  2. Wives who realize that, while they have very real systemic societal issues to navigate, the place to start is with the voice of their own “Inner Patriarch.”

Adventures with the Good Mother archetype. 

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Here are my three most surprising discoveries (so far) about the Good Mother archetype:

  1. It’s not about “freeing yourself” from the Good Mother archetype. We absolutely need that evolutionarily evolved part of women to keep functioning, just as it is.
  2. Relief from what I call the Too Good Mother doesn’t involve judging or trying to fix, change, or get rid of this part of our personality.
  3. Your Inner Feminist may not be of as much help as you think in making progress with your Good Mother. (For now, you’ll have to trust me on this. It will require another article to dissect why.)   Mothers and adult-child estrangement and the “wine mom” movement are both weighty enough issues to deserve their own articles as well. So stay tuned!

It’s more about how to gently pry your Good Mother’s fingers off the steering wheel of your life and shift her into the passenger seat, so you can freely choose to channel her energy in just the right amounts for the right reasons. 

And let her voice takes its place among the other worthy committee members in your head. In other words, it gets a little more democratic between your ears, so there’s not just one voice that’s heard and only one vote that counts when making decisions.

Next Up? The Good Enough Mother.  Look forward to hearing more about this fascinating variation of the Good Mother in future articles!