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What a muffin tin taught me about working mom guilt.

Tammy Heermann, leadership expert and author of Reframe Your Story, shares her lessons learned.

Cupcakes with "Best Mom" on them.

By Tammy Heermann

What do you think of when you look at a muffin tin? Go ahead, get the image in your head. What images, associations, or memories come to mind? For me, it was the smell of my mom’s homemade baking. The kitchen filled up with the scent of oatmeal, bran, and butter. Fond memories of childhood, homecooked meals, canned and frozen produce from the farm and garden. 

I used muffin tins when I was on maternity leave and when my daughter was young. I whipped up healthy, modernized versions of the classics. Heart-healthy fats and shredded vegetables replaced the oily version of the Morning Glory Muffin past. What a great mom I am. But then I advanced at work, started traveling more, and the muffin tins got tossed aside. They were replaced with boxed granola bars… and guilt.

Once a symbol of nostalgia and comfort, the muffin tin had become a reminder of all the ways I was failing. 

The making of mom guilt.

Both men and women feel guilt; however, numerous studies have found that women are prone to feelings of guilt across all age groups. 

My house is a disaster. I haven’t called my mother in weeks. Should I eat more vegan meals? I didn’t exercise again. Am I progressing in my career enough? My kids are getting too much screen time. I’m not taking enough time for myself. I am taking time for myself, and it feels selfish. I still haven’t responded to my team’s email. 

And if you are a working parent, at home you feel guilty for not doing work. And when you’re at work, you feel guilty for not being at home. It’s a relentless, inescapable cycle of guilt. 

Girls have been socialized to take care of the physical and emotional needs of others. This dynamic has been given a name: the human giver syndrome. The term, initially defined by Kate Manne, an associate professor at the Sage School of Philosophy at Cornell University, describes how women are more conditioned to believe they have a moral obligation to fulfill the needs of others at the expense of their own needs. 

The resulting guilt and anxiety lead to physical and emotional exhaustion. Are you a human giver who has given so much that nothing is left in the pantry for yourself? Are you ready to tell yourself a different story — a story that you get to receive too?

Reclaiming the muffin tin.

Imagine you’re stuck in a long-running Zoom meeting. Your stomach is growling because you skipped lunch again to finish an urgent task. It’s the witching hour — kids fighting, dogs barking. You’re angry at your colleagues because they won’t stop talking. You’re angry because dinner will be late again. Your guilt sets in. Why didn’t I leave out the frozen chili that I made for hectic moments like this? 

Your mind starts spinning out of control. You recall the perfect meals from your childhood. You hear the voice of an acquaintance who said, “Oh, no, we have a hot meal on the table every night.” You tune back into the meeting and realize you missed a critical comment; go figure. You feel increased dread as the seconds tick on.

We’ve all been there many times. The guilt, shame, embarrassment, anger, resentment — take your pick, you’ve felt it. I sure have. Then I remind myself of a fellow working parent who told me to cut myself some slack and stop making things so hard. She shared a tip that could save not only a single night’s dinner, but years of meal guilt. It was the muffin tin dinner. 

My colleague’s tip wasn’t just about making a quick dinner. It was about cutting myself some slack, seeing there was another way, lightening my mental load. 

The muffin tin returned! Could I rekindle my love with this kitchen staple? Reframe my resentment? 

She told me to open the fridge and cupboard. Fill each hole in the pan with vegetables, fruit, protein, or dairy. Crackers or pita; dips or sauces. Leftovers, hot or cold. Anything goes. Save a hole at the top for a drink. A small glass, sippy cup, or juice box fits in perfectly. The last spot is for a yummy treat that must be eaten last. That’s the only rule. 

Spread out a blanket and have an indoor picnic or place the tray on your kid’s lap for a midweek movie night or a pretend flight to an exciting destination of their choosing. Watch as they zigzag through the holes in the tin or follow an orderly path. There’s a personality test hidden in there somewhere, I’m sure. They will love it. My daughter is a teen and still asks for muffin tin dinner. 

My colleague’s tip wasn’t just about making a quick dinner. It was about cutting myself some slack, seeing there was another way, lightening my mental load. 

Muffin tin dinner was now a metaphor for all the small acts that helped me rewrite my stories of guilt. Tonight, I’m not failing; I’m exceeding expectations by doing something fun. (And healthy and easy and fast, but they don’t need to know that; they just know I’m awesome.) 

Tips for reframing mom guilt.

The burnout and emotional exhaustion that women experience are about more than dinnertime struggles and will not be fixed with a single muffin tin dinner. Obviously. This story highlights a critical component to tackling this age-old guilt challenge: self-compassion. And self-compassion has been shown to have the most significant impact on our happiness, resilience, and ability to deal with stress. What stories do you tell yourself? Do you criticize and judge instead of having compassion for yourself? If you do, it’s okay; we all sometimes do. Try these ideas for reframing guilt and making your head and heart lighter. 

Understand where guilt stems from.

When you feel guilt, you need to determine where it’s coming from. My meal-time guilt stemmed from not living up to my “homemade slow-cooked” childhood. Looking at the unused muffin tin not only triggered guilt but also triggered anger some days. It conjured up images of the 1950s housewife in a shirtwaist dress and apron, donning triangle-shaped hair made immoveable by Spray Net. She made pot roasts in a Corningware casserole, Betty Crocker muffins, and martinis on demand for her husband when he got home. My association with the fondly remembered muffin tin turned sour and jaded. The muffin tin became a symbol of inequality. I needed to modernize the muffin tin because I needed to modernize motherhood for myself. That’s where my reframing began.

Realize your guiding values.

I benefited from a conversation early in motherhood with a mentor of mine. When I described my idyllic childhood with a stay-at-home mom, her guilt radar kicked in, and she reminded me that I learned many great lessons from my mom that have shaped me. If I decided to return to work, I would teach my daughter lessons too — not better ones, not worse ones, just different ones. That realization was transformative for me. I could honor and pass on many values and qualities from my upbringing and shape new ones.

Remind yourself of the benefits.

Being a working mom can have positive impacts on children that outweigh the benefits of staying home. A Harvard study undertaken by Kathleen McGinn and her colleagues found that daughters of working mothers grew up to be more successful in the workplace than their peers. They earned more and were more likely to take on leadership roles. Sons of working moms were more likely to grow up making a more significant overall contribution to childcare and household chores. Furthermore, children under fourteen exposed to mothers who worked for at least a year grew up to hold more egalitarian gender views as adults. Remind yourself of the role model you are and the benefits that your children experience.

Do a guilt check.

Guilt is an emotion we feel because we’re convinced we’ve caused harm. Guilt comes from many triggers: something you did (I ate the entire cake myself); something you didn’t do but wanted to (I forgot the school fundraiser again); something you think you did (Did my comments make him angry?); something you didn’t do as much as you could have (I should donate more to that charity; they send me so many blasted beautiful return address labels I will die before I use them all up — I know because I’ve done the math based on my average yearly mailing consumption); or something you receive instead of someone else (Janet’s been here much longer than I have, she deserves the promotion more than me). Check-in with your manager, partner, kids, parents, or friends about what you worry about. Are you really letting them down? Are the expectations you think they have of you aligned with the expectations you place on yourself? If not, reset expectations — yours or theirs. Make a plan to address or let it go and tell yourself what a great job you’re doing.

Avoid passing on the guilt.

Guilt takes its toll on our mental health and our performance. It can also impact our family, leading them to feel guilt too. Here’s some ways I have learned to reframe my thinking and avoid passing on the guilt.  Instead of telling my daughter that I wished I didn’t have to go on a business trip, I tell her about all the exciting things I’ll do when I’m there and how I can’t wait to share them with her when I’m back. Instead of complaining about another networking event, I teach her the importance of getting to know people and making friends. Instead of lamenting how I missed yet another opportunity to volunteer at a school function, I helped her give the best darn presentation on her school project because that’s my strength. Instead of feeling shame over not having a hot homemade meal every night, we make the best 5-minute homemade granola bars with creative custom labels.  

Swap guilt for gratitude.

When guilt creeps in, catch it quickly with a gratitude reframe. My house is messy, but I’m grateful my family is healthy and happy. You missed that bake sale? Oh well, put the next one in your calendar and pick up cupcakes or donuts. Be grateful you remembered. Haven’t responded to your team’s request yet? Tell them you’re thankful for their work and their patience. Stop apologizing while you’re at it too. Late to the meeting? Don’t apologize; say thanks for your patience or nothing at all. No excuses, no apologies, no guilt — just gratitude.

The muffin tin is my metaphor for self-compassion. My love-hate-love journey with the trusty tin is a reminder to drop the guilt and give myself a break. What story do you need to reframe?

This article contains excerpts from chapter 7 (Lighten Up, Brain!) of Tammy’s book Reframe Your StoryReal Talk for Women Who Want to Let Go, Do Less and Be More—Together.
Picture of Tammy Heermann

Tammy Heermann

Tammy Heermann is an award-winning leadership expert. She’s the author of Reframe Your Story: Real Talk for Women Who Want to Let Go, Do Less and Be More-Together. For over twenty years, she has helped change thousands of mindsets around what it takes to lead, both self and others. Tammy transforms her audiences with alternating moments of humor and heartache as she shares stories of her own journey from senior consultant to senior vice president.