How many times today have you felt a pang of ‘Mum Guilt?’ Did they eat enough veggies? Did they spend too much time on the Ipad? Was I too harsh? Was I too soft?!
These feelings of self doubt and questioning that invariably lead to feelings of guilt is an area of modern motherhood where every single mum can relate. Let’s face it, these feelings can often start before we even give birth!
So why do we feel this emotion so acutely? Is it simply due to the overwhelming feeling of love we have for our kids and the strive for perfection? Or is down to the pressures on the modern mother and the desire to ‘have it all?’
Here, Clinical Psychologist, Wellbeing Author and Mum of 4, Dr. Bec Jackson, explores the all too familiar emotion of mum guilt with incredible insight, pointing out the truths behind why we feel it AND, some amazing tips and pointers to empower and champion ourselves when those feelings become overwhelming.
“Just this evening, I had dinner prepped ready for the family and my hubby was supervising shower time, I mentioned (quietly I thought) that I might nip out for a brisk 20-minute walk with our dog. The timing was perfect, the kids were happy and distracted, and I’d be back in time to serve up dinner and we could all eat together. But, I made the rookie mistake of stalling for a toilet stop before I left the house. I’ve been a mum for 16 years and I have 4 kids, I know that motherhood is sometimes like working in Jurassic Park – when heading out the door sans kids – walk don’t run, don’t make sudden noises, don’t look back and definitely do not stop for the toilet!
In those brief few minutes, Miss 4 slammed her fingers in the sliding door with a mouth full of green beans, Miss 7 overheard the commotion and was also screaming for Muuuuuuuuuuuuuuum because her sister was definitely chocking to death on beans and Master 9, decided it was essential that in that, exact moment, someone listen to him practice his tricky reading words and it was ‘obvious’ to him that his sisters get all the love and attention, and no Dad could not help with reading because he doesn’t do it the same.
I breathed out a long sigh, got the ice pack for Miss 4 and held her in my lap, assured Miss 7 I was no longer abandoning them in their time of need and promised Master 9 we’d do his readers after dinner. Later in those blissful hours when the house is quiet, my husband asked why I stayed – ‘you were almost out the door, I could have handled the chaos’ – without missing a beat I replied ‘I just thought you all needed me more than I needed the walk’, I could see his relief, but there was something else which explained why I stayed.”
Dr Bec talks MUM GUILT, and how to manage it!
Mum guilt. Yes, I’m a psychologist but that doesn’t give me immunity. Guilt is a unifying experience for all mothers. It is felt as a nagging set of doubts that we are doing all that we should or could for our kids.
Of course, there are adaptive roots to this human emotional response. I think it has evolved to ensure that we are mindful of our responsibilities and our actions towards our children.
We believe intuitively and are reinforced through multiple sources, media, society, parenting and child ‘experts’ and social media, that our choices and our actions will impact and shape the lives of our children – this leads to a well-intentioned, but often extreme stance, where we want our parenting to perfect. That parental perfectionism is impossible to obtain and so when we fall short, we fail and we experience mum guilt.
I think of ‘mum guilt’ is a less helpful form of parental conscience, directed at inspiring more engagement, stronger bonds and acceptance of the chaos, the sacrifice and the challenges of motherhood. But if that consciousness deviates to a place where guilt, overrides other emotions such as empathy, self-compassion, affection, or joy, then it can negatively impact your parenting and your wellbeing as a parent.
Who’s to blame?
Here is the kicker, guess who we blame for our mum guilt? Yep, we blame ourselves. Because rationally we acknowledge that perfectionism is unobtainable, that guilt and doubt are disempowering, that we need to ‘fit our own oxygen masks’ first. We get it. Yet we still live with it daily.
So I’d like to offer 5 truths about mum guilt to help validate your experience and 5 tips for tackling it when it takes over.
1. Kids contribute to mum guilt.
They will point out the kids in the class who have better lunchboxes and later bedtimes and more screen time and completed reader logbooks. They’ll complain that their friends don’t have to go holiday programs or get to do sleepovers on school nights or eat ice cream on their pancakes for breakfast.
But here’s the truth they point these things out to test the boundaries, to learn about contrasts in families and cultures and society. They are observing and curious and sometimes they use those observations to make you feel bad.
2. Life is never perfect
No matter what you do to pave the way for your kids to have happy, healthy lives, they will still face tough times, challenge, and adversity in the years ahead. That’s life. Even if you could get motherhood perfect, you are one variable in their lives and you cannot control everything.
During these years together what kids need more than perfectionism is seeing your rising skills. Your ability to ask for help, to make mistakes, to fall and get back up, to apologise, to make amends, to try again. They also need to see you take ‘time outs’ when things get overwhelming and see you set healthy boundaries with your loved ones, including them. That’s what will help them be emotionally and socially strong adults.
3. We are our own worst enemies.
When I’m up half the night preparing for the kids birthdays or intricate Christmas surprises or cleaning the house, my husband calls it a night and heads off to bed. He literally clocks off, kisses me on the head and says, ‘that’s me out’.
I’ve thought about this for years now, he’s a great husband, involved and hands on, but why can he call it a night while I turn myself inside out with ideas and beliefs about how things must be done, and why I must be the one to do it all. If I’m honest, if we are all honest, we are our own worst enemies, and worse we make it harder for each other.
When we let ourselves off the hook, when we give ourselves permission to ‘clock off’ and when we reduce the unrealistic expectations on ourselves, we make it easier on our kids, our families, and most importantly other mothers. We build a common experience of self-compassion, of empathy and of realistic, good enough mothering.
4. Mum guilt is sold to us for profit.
There is big business in mum guilt. It starts in pregnancy about how to birth your baby, what to purchase for the perfect nursery, what to dress the baby in, what to dress yourself in, what to eat, what to read, where to babymoon, what baby classes to enrol your newborn in.
Then when they arrive, how to feed them, how to tackle sleep, how to wean them, when to wean them. The list continues, an overwhelming bombardment with marketing, media and social media depicting the problems of childhood, offering products and solutions that you could choose, if only you were the perfect mum willing to make those choices. If they can make you feel a big enough dose of mum guilt – you will buy it! But it’s all smoke and mirrors.
What kids need from you is free – love and time.
5. Be honest
Mum guilt prevents opportunity for kids to learn empathy, acceptance and understanding. I have learned that on my best mum days I am not perfect, but I am honest. I can share how I feel with my kids. I can tell them I have had a hard day and share what I need to feel better.
When I get this right I can see them grasp the important lessons in compassion, empathy, kindness and service. If I have lost my calm, I can model finding it again and apologising. If the need for perfectionism creeps in and takes control then these important lessons in emotional development disappear. So reframe your own challenging experiences as opportunities to model and teach your kids.
You may just find they end up teaching you.
Dr Bec’s Tips to help with Mum Guilt
1. Practice self-compassion.
I believe that we are all doing the best that we can. We are often a lot more forgiving of other mothers, we acknowledge all the variables and factors which make their work tough. So, afford yourself the same acceptance and understanding and forgiveness. Be kind to yourself and instead of self-blame, mum guilt and regret, try self-empathy, kindness and compassion.
2. Be a champion of other mums.
I once had a lady in her 50s with teenage kids tell me in a café, I was doing a wonderful job. My younger 2 kids were eating sugar sachets from the table while I tried to breastfeed the baby and wipe up a milkshake that inevitably got knocked over, wistfully looking at the other ladies drinking their steaming hot coffee and chatting.
It made my day. I now offer similar random acts of kindness when I see another mum doing it tough. Motherhood is rewarding and joyful, but it is also hard.
By building a community willing to see and accept that, we feel less alone and less guilty for admitting it.
3. Mother in the now.
Guilt can lead you to ruminate over choices, actions, words spoken and actions taken and live in the past. It can also force you to worry about the future. Any practice you can adopt to help anchor you in the present moment – breathing, mindfulness, yoga, exercise, meditation – will help you to build skills to stay grounded in the present moment when the guilt wants to pull you into the past or push you forward into the future.
Kids love to live in the now so an added bonus is they will love you being there with them!
Mindful parenting courses are available and lots of resources can be found too if you need ideas.
4. Speak your feelings.
Sharing your feelings of guilt with a partner, friend, therapist or another mum is useful to help gain perspective and analyse why guilt is present. It also helps you get clear on how to make a proactive choice about what to do with it and how to respond to your kids in a way you want even if you feel guilty.
5. Back yourself.
You got this. Being open to ideas and feedback is part of learning. But if you run those ideas or options past your own knowledge, experience and instincts and it doesn’t feel right then listen to your own inner voice and back yourself. Stay true to your own values and what you believe is best, the rest is optional.
Dr. Bec Jackson, an expert content creator for The Healthy Mummy, she is a Psychologist with a PhD in Clinical Psychology and 20 years’ experience in public and private mental health and wellbeing. She is the author of 3 books including a children’s wellbeing journal. She is a mum of 4 and has been part of The Healthy Mummy.
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