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Mama Bo Peep and Her Guilty Sheep

How To Shear Mom-Guilt From Your Day

I’m lying in bed listening to the sound of my husband’s soft breath, in and out, in and out. He’s sleeping. I’m not. I try counting sheep, but each one, as it steps forward for numbering, morphs into something I’ve left undone today: The load of laundry, the lemon pie, the game of catch in the front yard, the dog’s afternoon walk, the writing assignment due tomorrow, my husband’s birthday gift.

I shoo those impertinent sheep away to the shadowy corners of the paddock. Others approach for me to acknowledge, one at a time. But as I concentrate on falling asleep, these sheep begin to change into all the ways I failed, disappointed or damaged my family: I lost my temper, I burned the baked chicken, I arrived late to the baseball game, I said I was too tired to read out loud tonight, I discussed grades again at dinner.

The sheep surround me, baa-baaing intrusively. The sound of nagging guilt is overwhelming as I stare up at the dark ceiling. Tomorrow I will do better, I promise myself, again, tonight. I’ll make up for everything tomorrow. But tomorrow will come with its own set of responsibilities and demands and very likely my herd of dirty sheep will multiply.

Why the Guilt?

“There’s so much to feel guilty about,” says Jessica LeRoy, M.A., M.F.T., executive director of the Center for the Psychology of Women in Los Angeles. “You can feel guilty about everything.” What is the point of all this guilt, though? Or even just a portion of it?

For early humans, explains Amy House, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Psychology and Health Behavior at Georgia Health Sciences University, guilt was an adaptation that enabled them to stay in groups. Living within a group increased chances of survival. Guilt spurred cohabitants to treat each other fairly and to make amends for wrongs. It helped them maintain beneficial cooperative relationships.

Today, we find ourselves part and parcel to many small groups, each with unique demands: family, work, clubs, committees. And that ancient emotion, guilt, still provides cues for balancing satisfaction of our own needs against meeting the needs of others. “Guilt really comes from a mismatch between what our moral code is and what we actually do,” says Dr. House. When we don’t live up to internalized expectations, we feel guilty. It prods us to do the right thing.

Motherhood’s Guilty Little Secret

Women, particularly mothers, are subject to a whole host of expectations, some reasonable, some not so much. “This is possibly one of the first generations where, as women, we are expected to do it all—be an amazing mom, amazing career woman, amazing spouse, amazing homemaker,” says LeRoy.

Not only that, but many of the social expectations women internalize and accept as standards of measurement for success are contradictory. For example, norms dictate that mothers should be the primary caregivers for their children, while at the same time society tends to diminish the contributions of the stay-at-home mom. “In that environment how could we not feel guilty?” poses Dr. House. By the same token, a working mother blames her child’s misbehavior on her absence and a stay-at-home mom blames her child’s misbehavior on her inept parenting. Unreasonable standards stage inevitable defeat and subsequent self-blame.

But women look around themselves, at their friends, their co-workers, their female relatives, moms in the grocery store and see other women who are doing it all, well. At least, that’s what they think they see.

Relax. Let that notion go.

Like a magician’s sleight of hand, it’s an illusion. LeRoy assures her clients, “Actually, no one is doing it that well. It’s not possible to do it all.”
Repeat: It’s. Not. Possible.

Letting Yourself Off the Hook

“(Guilt) does make us strive to be better people, sometimes to our detriment. But it pushes us forward and that can really be a positive,” says LeRoy.
Guilt, when appraised appropriately can work to a person’s advantage. On the other hand, left to its own devices, “Guilt bullies us into doing things not in our best interest,” says Dr. House.

Taking control of guilt relies heavily on taking control of all those internalized standards, norms, values and expectations and reducing them to a meaningful handful. Decreasing the number of expectations we have for ourselves decreases the number of opportunities we have to make negative self-evaluative judgments. Part of that process is to accept that we can’t be everything to everybody. Key in on the people, activities, events and values that are the most important, and let go of petty stuff like impressing other people with that homemade lemon ice-box pie.

When guilt does rear its ugly head, Dr. House suggests asking the right questions: “Is this guilt useful to me? Is it telling me something important about how I’m living my life?” If the answer is yes, then by all means take corrective action. Make a change. If the answer is no, move on. Either way, don’t wallow in it. According to LeRoy, standing immobile, ankle deep in guilt, can contribute to anxiety, in the form of I’m not good enough, and depression, in the form of I’ll never be good enough.

Put guilt in perspective.
Sure, your child has to eat a school lunch today because the morning was hectic and you didn’t pack one for him. Will eating chicken nuggets and tater tots on a Wednesday in April be the death of him? Doubt it. Could he benefit from learning to make his own lunch? Probably. “Step back and notice these standards you’re holding yourself to,” says Dr. House. “Do they make sense to you? Are they helpful?”

It isn’t always easy to answer those questions on your own. LeRoy and Dr. House both encourage women to surround themselves with friends who are honest, who don’t mind admitting that they experience challenges and sharing how they overcome them. “From what I hear from my clients,” says LeRoy, “one of the major sources of stress is the comparison to peers.”

When we associate with and compare ourselves to women who portray a constant face of perfection, we do ourselves a real disservice. Nothing is gained from the relationship except diminished self-worth and the belief that we could do more, do it better and do it while still maintaining everything else. Truly good friends hold our feet to the critical fires that demand attention and they give us permission to extinguish the ones that have us running around fanning the flames but getting nowhere.

Tomorrow, I am going to do something differently. When I’m lying in bed waiting for sleep to descend, I’ll shush the bleating of the sheep. I’ll count all that I did during the day to benefit myself, my children, my husband: Prepared dinner, talked out a difficult homework assignment, gave a hug, drove carpool, picked up dry-cleaning, finished a book, laughed. These are the sheep that keep getting lost from my flock. It’s time to shepherd them home.

Lucy Adams is the author of "Tuck Your Skirt in Your Panties and Run". She lives in Thomson, GA with her husband and their four children. Email Lucy at and visit her web site,

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