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When Catholic Guilt and Motherhood Guilt Collide

by Laura on February 11th, 2013

I am a product of Catholic guilt.

I don’t even know if this is a real thing, but my sixth grade catechism teacher instructed us on the ten-or-so moral levels of the conscious mind. From behaving properly to avoid punishment … all the way up to the “best” morality: doing the right thing when there is no potential for reward, or in fact the potential is for punishment.

Aaaaand that’s when we heard about Christians being fed to the lions.

This morality thing played out for me in a variety of ways.

I knew there was always the potential to go to hell. But I also knew there was that good ‘ol loop-hole that you could ask for forgiveness just before you died; thereby assuring salvation. At the same time, there might not be time for absolution in the case of, let’s say … a freak accident or car crash, insert-catastrophic-life-ending-trauma here.

Be Good for Goodness Sake

So, Santa’s maxim seemed reasonable enough.

And if we did sin or upset God or … heaven forbid, disobey our parents? We should feel bad about it. Very bad.

This “bad feeling” was the origin of my Catholic Guilt with capital “G.”

The solution was: We should feel bad about it and repent.

Oh man, I was so scared of Confession. What in the world might the priest require me to do to absolve myself of my sins? I cannot tell you what relief I felt to learn it was only reciting twenty Hail Mary’s in front of the altar. (Seriously guys? Why 20? Why not 100? What does 20 teach me? I don’t get it.)

Even though I’ve since recovered from being a Catholic, the sense of guilt lingers. It’s woven deep into my psyche.

Which brings me to Motherhood Guilt

From the moment we realize we’re pregnant, we’re inundated with advice as to what is best for the baby … for our unborn child to be healthy, to be smart, to be successful. And none of that really bothered me so much, at least while my kids were in babyhood. Infants need to be cared for and loved. They need to be fed, clothed and cleaned, to be warm enough (but not too warm!).

There was a learning curve, but all of this was fairly straightforward. I had guilt, yes, but I had no idea where I was headed!

These days, my daughter is five going on seventeen. We can talk discuss the differences between faith and science, and how it’s fun to believe in things that aren’t real (like Tinkerbell and something called god). But then, ohhhh, but then.

We recently entered a phase in which D gets mad and says things like, “I don’t love you,” “I’m not your girl,” and my personal emotional trigger favorite, “You’re not my mommy anymore.”

“Behind every great kid is a mom who’s pretty sure she’s screwing it up.”*

This is when my guilt kicks in. It’s a multi-leveled, indiscriminate guilt that I can’t untangle.

It’s like, I feel guilty for not having known what would set her off. I feel guilty for not knowing the best combination of discipline that will teach her how to be a good human, and love that will calm her down and let her feel reassured.

I feel guilty for not having the time or patience to drop what I’m doing to ameliorate the situation. … Which includes not having to break up the sibling fight that caused the dramatic outburst … directly after having stepped out of the shower with a towel wrapped around me. Haven’t I earned the privilege of dressing myself first?

Ummmm, my children would scream say, “No.”

I make it to half-way dressed before having a long discussion about proper tone-of-voice when speaking to your mommy (i.e. not screaming), consequences for bad behavior. All the while I hold my daughter securely and caress her spine.

Geez, how I sometimes long for the days when I “just” had to nurse her and change her diaper.

Light at the end of the tunnel

But then, a few weeks later, while we are walking to school, D says, “Momma, sometimes I say I don’t love you, but that’s just when I’m mad. I really do love you. And I know I’ll always be your girl and you’ll always be my momma.”

*  *  *  *  *

* This was in my Facebook feed this morning, couldn’t figure out the author though.

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  1. You feel guilt because you are a good mother!

    • Thanks, Diana — I am trying, but I wish this guilt would just go away!!! Laura

  2. Laura–I believe that all mothers have feelings of guilt that never go away–no matter what age our children are there is always something to feel guilty about.

    When my second child was a baby she was colicky and seemed to cry nonstop for five months…the guilt I felt over not being able to soothe her was huge! And I also had to deal with the guilt of me feeling frustrated because she wouldn't stop crying…it was a long five months and I wouldn't wish it on anyone. But we both survived to move onto other childhood stages where I was given plenty of opportunity to feel guilty about one thing or another that I felt I lacked in parenting skills.

    The good news is that my children are now amazing adults who have never outgrown telling me that they love me, and who want to spend time with me as often as they can, so I know that I must have done some things right after all; the bad news is that I still can manage to feel guilty if they are experiencing life problems such as finding careers/jobs they love or being unhappy with their weight or you-name-it and I can feel guilty about it.

    And by the way, I wasn't raised as Catholic so that can't be the reason…I think it's just human nature for most women (pretty sure men don't have the same guilty feelings we do).

    Sorry this is so long, but I just want you to know that you are not alone and that by the sounds of it you are indeed a very loving mother. Hang in there!

    • Laura permalink

      Yes, Sylvia — I agree. These *are* the indicators that you "did some things right": adult children who still say "I love you," who still want to spend time with you. Definitely!

      I hope that my kids will end up like that–and I do try to keep this in mind when I'm in the trenches of a temper tantrum.

      Thanks for your words of encouragement!


  3. Annie permalink

    You must be a good mom to have raised such a fearless daughter! This is just practice for the teenage years! I recall a study that said it is primarily incompetent people who think they are doing a good job – the best performers are sure they're screwing up something! Sounds like you are right on track!

    • Laura permalink



      I agree having a fearless daughter is great–it's something I definitely want for her; but it can bite me in the backside every now and then when that fearlessness is directed toward me!

      I really appreciate your comments and words of support!


  4. I don't mean this to sound as trite as it does, but when you are aware of feeling guilt (the first step), you can choose not to take it on (the second step).

    (Even knowing that, I'm not immune to kid-induced guilt — or guilt from other causes.)

    Love what D said to you on the walk to school. That sounds like her true heart, which means you're doing a wonderful job as mama.

    • Laura permalink


      You. are. totally. right. It's not trite, it's a great reminder. Yes, the first step is realizing that one is feeling guilt–acknowledging it as just that can be a great step towards either letting it go, or doing something about it.

      Thanks, I really felt like D "got it." Like, she'd been thinking about how her words affected me, and told me in a calm moment what her true feelings were.


  5. Feeling guilty is part of being a mum. Believe me, it gets worse when they become teenagers. That said, your daughter seems to be very articulate. It looks like you have done a very good job so far.

    • Laura permalink

      I know, right?! I am totally "screwed" when my kids become teenagers. They figure how how to press all the buttons, but in more sophisticated ways!


  6. Guilt really is pervasive and persistant, isn't it! It comes wrapped in religion, parenthood, spousehood, employehood, maybe even neighborhoodhood (maybe not that last one, but I wanted to type it.) I wonder why (some) folks are so quick to accept guilt that doesn't rightfully belong to them. I wonder why I do it, too.

    But like Lori said, seeing it is a step in the right direction.

    Nice post, Laura!

    • Laura permalink


      Ohhhh I'm sure there is neighborhoodhood guilt–like cutting your grass "just right," having just the perfect number and color of flowers, etc. It pervades our psyche, IF we don't identify it as such. … Thanks, as always, for writing!


  7. Ditto. I'm a recovering Catholic and feel like a crappy mom all the time. Are they related? Or does the Catholic thing exacerbate the mom thing or vice versa? And in the end does it matter?

    • Laura permalink

      Yes, I think you're onto something there … the Catholic guilt seems to exacerbate the motherhood guilt and yes, vice versa! But I'm all about getting rid of it, releasing myself from the guilt. If I'm guided by what I think is best, I hope I'll come out on the other end balanced and happy.

      Or, this is all wishful thinking!


  8. I was raised a Catholic too and I agree that Catholics really do have such a mastery when it comes to Guilt. I have guilt for not being an active/ fully practicing Catholic. I have guilt for not socializing my son to be a fully practicing Catholic. I keep thinking, "oh he's 5 and I really need to enroll him in religious ed". But I haven't gotten around to it. I'm guilty for not spending enough time with him (though I'm a SAHM, geez!)…and the list goes on. What you said is comforting though; that Behind every great kid is a mom who’s pretty sure she’s screwing it up. I guess all we can do is pray that our children do turn out great and that no matter what, they will always love us and will always be our babies :-))

    • Laura permalink

      Thanks, Joy — yes, even when logic and rational explanations enter, good ol'-fashioned guilt enters in! It's crazy, especially that idea about not spending enough time with your son!

      When I feel guilty about that, I just remember for my kids, at least, they would much rather spend time with people their own age. So, now they are in the phase in which play-dates at my home or someone else's are: The Coolest Thing E-v-e-r. So, I feel (internally, of course, I try not to project my guilt-tripping into my kids. Try.) like I win some points–good mommy points–by organizing these play-dates.

  9. Thoughtful post. While I read it I was thinking that it amounts to child cruelty to make them live under the constant threat of mortal or even venial sins. I remember how for years I felt guilty because my mother divorced and remarried. Somehow it was my fault and I was going to hell..

    I've been a lapsed Catholic for many years,yet that old guilt still rears its head. Catholic so inculcated in us when we're young that no matter which religious path we follow – or don't- we'll always feel guilty about something. Why not motherhood? It's top of mind and hit or miss, and our kids know how to play on our guilt feelings especially when they want to get us to give in. Also, we have a constant barrage from the media and friends of what to do and what not to do and what we did wrong with our children. If a kid gets bad grades it must be our fault. If a kid goes off the rails we're to blame. And so on. A vicious cycle that we can never get away from.

    • Laura permalink

      You are so right! It's a vicious cycle … But, I do think that by acknowledging what it happening, i.e. the guilt feelings and where they have their root–can help. Maybe, we can't escape the guilt, especially when our kids pile it on–but we can see it for what it is, and then do a better job of letting go of it.
      I agree, though–it is cruel for a child to have to carry that type of constant threat of mortal sin. It's crazy and, I think, unnecessary. Kids can learn right and wrong and develop a sense of morality without the threat of hell. But, that's just my opinion!
      Thanks for visiting!

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