What is mum guilt? And how are you supposed to handle it? Here are a few tips, stories and advice from real mothers who have been through it
Suffering from feelings of mum guilt? You aren’t alone.
My parents tell me that when I was one-and-a-half and crying for attention one night – a regular occurrence, apparently – my dad had to stop my mum from going in to check on me. “She has to learn to cope without you,” he said.
And so, she stayed, and the next morning they both walked into my bedroom to find the reason I’d been crying was because I’d climbed out of my cot and fallen into my toy box, got stuck and had – owing to lack of any assistance – given up and sobbed myself to sleep, buried by my toys.
My mum still talks about the immense guilt she felt after finding me wedged in beside my box of wooden puzzles and a swarm of stuffed teddies. That, among going back to work seven months after my brother was born, failing to prevent my fussy eating habit, and losing her temper with me on countless occasions, she admits made her feel genuinely terrible at the time.
This, of course, isn’t unusual. For many, motherhood and guilt are two things that go hand-in-hand, with a survey from NUK finding that of the 2,000 mothers interviewed, 87 per cent have felt guilty at some point, while 21 per cent experience these feelings “most” or “all” of the time.
Mother of-one Julie Rowlands from Surrey explains that her first experience of mum guilt was when she should have been having the “best time of her life”, at home with her newborn baby. “I wanted my job back and my body back. I resented my partner going back to work after a couple of weeks and cried when he left. And I just found being at home with a baby a bit boring, and felt awful for it.”
Natasha Dawson, who lives in Leicester and has a daughter, experienced guilt four months into her breastfeeding. “My baby wasn’t sleeping well, and I was getting a lot of pressure from my mother-in-law to give her formula because she thought she was hungry.”
“I felt so guilty that my breastmilk wasn’t enough and that I wasn’t managing her milk intake properly. I ended up making use of the Breastfeeding Helpline, which gave me the confidence boost I needed.”
For Caroline Strachan, who lives in London with her six-year-old twin daughters, feelings of guilt crept in when she went back to work after maternity leave. She had a senior role in a large global company and felt dreadful for wanting to go back. “I’d sometimes run home from the train station so I didn’t miss bath or bedtime. I just assumed this was normal, but it got pretty ridiculous.”
Be it the high expectations set on social media, the stats that tell us of the ways in which we’re ‘stunting’ our baby’s development, or judgements from fellow mums or even strangers, feeling guilty seems to have become a totally normalised side effect of parenting that everyone experiences; for some, it can feel completely inescapable.
During this festive season, mum guilt has a way of creeping into our lives more so, as fears over whether we’re drumming up enough ‘Christmas magic’, or buying enough (or even the right) gifts, set in. That, paired with missing your child’s nativity because you can’t get time off work, or losing out on family time thanks to the office Christmas party, can mean guilty feelings hit a worrying peak at this already stressful time of year.
So, why exactly are mothers giving themselves such a hard time? And is the case the same for dads?
Dr Victoria Khromova, child psychiatrist, parent coach and founder of advice service Emerging Parent, believes that parents tend to make erroneous judgements about what they are and aren’t responsible for.
“They either overestimate their influence or exaggerate in their minds how much a particular behaviour will affect their child. So, they end up trying to get everything right, which is obviously an impossible task.”
She adds that, although there’s research to suggest dads in dual-earning families do feel a similar level of magnitude of guilt, women are more at risk to guilt than men as they typically experience higher levels of empathy.
Midwife and mum-of-four Clemmie Hooper (aka @mother_of_daughters) agrees. “I think being the ‘vessel’ that carries your child during pregnancy is why mums can carry feelings of guilt where men don’t.
“From the moment you’re pregnant, you’re overloaded with information,” she adds. “From what you should and shouldn’t be eating, how much exercise you should be doing, whether you should opt for certain scans, so I think that’s where mum guilt begins. That sudden rush of responsibility can be overwhelming.”
Is there anything women can do to avoid it? Clemmie doesn’t think so. “Guilt is just part of being a parent,” she says. “The important thing is that you talk to people about what you’re experiencing. Voicing how you’re feeling to someone can help you start to feel better.”
Kerry Spencer, who’s from London and mum to one-year-old Sebastian, feels similarly. “I still feel guilty all the time, particularly if I’m travelling for my job. Everyone experiences it in different ways, but talking to someone helps. If your guilt stems from returning to work, speak to your employer about flexible working options.”
Anna Whitehouse, mum to two daughters and founder of Mother Pukka, says she overcame her feelings of guilt by acknowledging that she’s doing her best. “Other than worrying about how many vegetables they eat, the most crucial thing is to trust your instinct. With all the books, blogs and voices in the parental world, it’s easy to lose sight of how you feel.”
Maybe motherhood guilt can’t be swerved, but it seems it can be combatted with the right approach. No, your child won’t be forever damaged by formula if you’re struggling to breastfeed, nor will they be eternally scarred by an afternoon of screen time if you have other tasks to juggle.
Guilt in its most positive form, says Anna Whitehouse, simply equates to an intense kind of caring, and a deep-rooted love that makes you just want the best for your baby. And who would ever want to get in the way of that?
How to handle the mum guilt complex
Dr Victoria Khromova offers her tips on how to handle the mum-guilt complex
- Educate yourself. Focus your limited time and energy on key areas that you already know will make a difference to your child’s wellbeing.
- Accept that you’re only human. Transient feelings of anger, wanting to escape, or needing to prioritise other matters over your baby are all perfectly normal. They’re not going to scar your child for life.
- Look after yourself. This is easier said than done, but exhaustion and general levels of unhappiness are only going to skyrocket your guilt. It’s better to be rational when you’re well rested.
- Manage hard choices in the right way. You don’t have to be with your baby at all times, and if you do have to return to work early, consider what is going to be best for you if you need to factor in childcare.
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