Confession time: I’m over the whole ‘mum guilt‘ thing. Yes, mothering is a b*tch of a thing because we love those little terrors so deeply and utterly that we want everything to be absolutely perfect for them. We often sacrifice our own happiness to make that happen (newsflash, kids, nobody actually likes wiping someone else’s arse). But here’s the thing: these expectations and sacrifices should be a sometimes thing, not an everyday thing.
Being human with human needs and human limits shouldn’t bring on the mum guilt. Putting ourselves first when needed or reaching the end of our patience, energy levels and general tether shouldn’t negate all the good we do. There are just too many mums still feeling anxious, depressed and guilty because they are overwhelmed by the expectations they hold for themselves. Those expectations, of course, originate in the propaganda mothers are fed from day one.
There’s no ‘right’ way
Mum guilt is the result of not being able to meet the perceived expectations of what a ‘good mother’ is and does. We are overwhelmed and disappointed that we’re not ‘doing it right’.
In this age of intensive parenting we have been bombarded with information, articles, influencers, blogs, videos, reports and expert opinions that we readily access every day. Conflicting advice has both confounded and divided us, creating so many ‘shoulds’, ‘musts’ and ‘justs’ that mothers’ heads are spinning faster than the plates we’re balancing to keep everything together.
We’re so busy trying to keep up that we forget to question the very premise of ‘being right’ in the first place. There are so many polarising aspects to motherhood – working mother or stay-at-home mother; screens or no screens; permissive parent or disciplinarian; chores or no chores; pocket money or no pocket money; etc, etc ad nauseum blah.
This helps too: 11 tricks to banish working mum guilt (mostly)
Mothers and parenting choices have been pitted against each other, with one choice made out to be right and the other wrong. We feel like we need to both fiercely defend the choice that we’ve made and – because those who chose the alternative are so good at fiercely defending their own choice – ironically worry a lot that the other choice is actually the better way to raise a kid.
Cue mum guilt and general head spinning.
Take a step back. It’s a lot easier to banish the mum guilt if you consider that the very thing you are feeling guilty about not doing is the very thing another mother is trying desperately to do. Rather than beating ourselves up over what we feel we aren’t getting ‘right’, we should flip our thinking to focus on the things we doing well. Make the choice and then go ahead and make the most of that choice.
We are not superhuman
There will always be uncertainty in mothering, because we have neither map nor compass, and definitely no ability to foresee the future. We’re just so frustratingly human, aren’t we?
Why do we believe that we become superhuman when we become a mother? We don’t. All those ridiculous memes about ‘supermoms’ are just propaganda. We’re just ordinary people, trying to raise ordinary kids in a world that tells us that we should all be extraordinary.
It’s the ‘pursuit of perfection’ culture that we’re mothering through that is doing our heads in. Don’t buy into it. There’s no such thing as perfect – not even perfectly imperfectly perfect, etc. Not even those Instagrammer influencers with photogenic lives, nope. Not a single mother alive actually thinks she has it all together, I promise.
‘Real’ motherhood is right in front of you
For an example of what ‘real’ motherhood looks like, look to your own life. Messy, muddled, manic and gloriously your own. There’s no need for mum guilt when you consider these three things:
1. You’re doing the best you can with what you’ve got
That includes your flawed self and your kids flawed selves too. They are going to have just as many stuff ups and muck ups as you have and, trust me, it’s not all your fault.
Humans, raising humans. Not robots raising robots.
For me, mum guilt mainly stemmed from not being able to trust my own instincts. Right from the beginning I was second-guessing myself. I didn’t feel like I could feel, rather I relied on knowledge and knowing – if that makes sense. The more I read and learned about parenting, the more I approached life as ‘a mother’, rather than as ‘a person’. I forgot to listen to myself, to nurture myself, to understand myself. In a weird way, I was comparing my own experience of parenting with the experience experts were telling me I should be having…
It wasn’t until I learned to embrace being a mother as one part of being myself, not my whole self, that things became easier and mum guilt became quieter. When you’re a person, you get to make mistakes and do things half-arsed in a way that society tells us mothers just don’t get to do. The more we let ourselves be the people that we are and forgive ourselves for being our silly selves, the easier raising kids becomes.
2. Stop the comparison game
While I’ve never really been one to compare myself to others, as I showed in the example above, we can fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to expectations just the same.
For me, it was trying to measure up to some expert opinion on ideal parenting. For you, it might be an influencer or two who you are failing miserably at trying to emulate.
It’s the “if she can do it, why can’t I” trap.
The thing is: we are not those people or those ideals because it actually doesn’t feel right to us to live that way. We don’t have a perfectly clean house because we don’t have the time, money or basic care factor to keep it that way. We don’t look runway-ready at all times because we’d rather sleep in than blow dry our hair. Our kids aren’t learning the tuba because we like a quiet life. And so it goes.
It’s all just choices, with one being no better or worse than the choices another mother will make for herself. While you are busy feeling guilty for heading out to work, another mother feels guilty for not having a job. She’s feeling guilty for taking a night off to go out with her friends, while another mother is feeling guilty for not keeping up with her friends. The comparison games never ends so let’s all just agree to stop it.
3. Own our fears and letting them go
It’s all just fear in the end – fear of the unknown, fear of not having all the answers, fear of failing, fear of letting our kids down. What are we really afraid of?
Our kids need us to back off and let them live a little anyway.
Working out which fears drive your mothering is key to being able to parent more freely. This will be different for every mother, but here are some examples that mothers have shared with me:
- something will happen to my child on my watch
- I’m not good enough to be a good mother
- other mothers will think I’m a bad mother
- my parents will think I’m a bad mother
- I’m not giving my child enough opportunities in life
- my children will get into drugs or stuff up their life in some way
- that something will happen to me
- my child won’t like me
- I will regret not cherishing the moments
There’s a lot to unpack there, but the general point is: guilt lives within our fears. We feel guilty when we are not doing everything we can to prevent our greatest fears from coming to life. Learning to calm and control what we fear is a necessary step in abolishing mum guilt. If there is work to be done here, do the work.
4. Be the role model
I want to raise people who are the following:
- okay with being vulnerable and opening up about the tender parts of themselves
- comfortable with acknowledging and admitting mistakes
- willing and able to forgive themselves and others
- able to realise when they are not coping and seek help from others
- critical thinkers who question information and whether it is good for them or not
- guided by how things make them feel, not just how it makes others feel
I could go on, but you will see a clear pattern here: in order to model the kind of person I want my kids to be, there’s not of room left for mum guilt. I’m too busy focusing on being the vulnerable, strong, questioning and feeling human that we all are. Where’s the guilt in that?
As so many of us have found, as the kids get older, no matter how well we have been doing we can get caught up in a mum guilt cycle all over again. There are so many things that could go, or will go or have already gone ‘wrong’. We worry, oh, how we worry. Our kids pick up on that and tweens and teens are just so good at pushing our mum guilt buttons, undermining our confidence and making us constantly second-guess ourselves.
Look, I don’t think we can ever really stop the worry, but I do know that we can stop the guilt.
Firstly, switch off your guilt button so the kids can’t push it.
Focus on being ‘real’ rather than ‘perfect’, make your decisions carefully (I highly recommend The Pause) and then stand by them. Of course, you always have the right to change your mind, but not just because your kid wants you to.
Secondly, remember always that our kids will face challenges, frustrations and struggles, no matter what we do or don’t do. Part of learning to be strong, complete humans is going through those tough times. It’s not a mother’s guilt that will get them through it all. Rather, it’s our endless love, our self compassion and our willingness to show our kids that we are challenged and flawed ourselves and we are still here, standing strong and mostly smiling.
Do you still feel mum guilt? Reckon you’ll ever be free?