By Heidi Scrimgeour
If they gave out awards for mum guilt, I’d have them all, every single one. Read the book and got the t-shirt? Forget that - I could give lessons in mum guilt and how to be consumed by it.
I’m not talking about suffering the odd pang of parental guilt when I did something trivial, either. This goes way beyond getting a bit snappy with the kids, rushing them through the bedtime routine so I can collapse on the sofa, or skipping a page or two during bedtime stories and feeling regretful afterwards.
No, I had the sort of mum guilt that lurks just beneath the surface of almost every waking moment, tinging even the happiest times with its horrible, accusing tone.
I’ve been riddled with mum-guilt for most of my years as a mum. In fact it has affected everything from my self-esteem and my interactions with my kids - there’s nothing like mum guilt to mangle up and complicate your approach to parenting - to my relationships with friends and even wider family members. I’d feel inadequate alongside other mums as guilt slowly crippled my capacity to parent with confidence, and at family gatherings I’d over-analyse my kids’ behaviour and people’s reactions to it, seeing normal childish tantrums and challenges as some sort of shameful reflection of my own shortcomings.
It got to the point where I felt guilty about feeling guilty, so I clammed up completely, avoiding getting too friendly with other mums incase they stumbled across my gargantuan guilt problem and realised I wasn’t the laugh-a-minute, care-free mum they seemed to think I was.
Looking back, I can see that my mum guilt stemmed from a complete misunderstanding of what it meant to be a mum. I was holding myself up to an idealised version of motherhood, continually condemning myself for falling short of a frankly impossible standard that not even an A-list mum with her army of nannies, stylists, cleaners and assistants could ever live up to.
I know it sounds stupid. I know I wasted a lot of time on that black hole of negative self-talk and self-criticism when I could have been doing something fun with my kids and actually enjoying their childhoods. I also know I’m not the only mum to have done that, and that haranguing myself for feeling guilty all the time only made me feel - you guessed it - guiltier still.
That’s one hell of a guilt-trip, the likes of which my kids would never actually put me through. And that little epiphany is what finally - hallelujah - helped me ditch the mum guilt and lighten up about life in general. I realised that my kids weren’t judging me half as harshly as I was.
I realised I was projecting into the future and picturing my kids’ comebacks when they are adults, picking apart my parenting skills. Now for sure they’ll have some things to say when they’re all grown up about the way I parented them, and maybe I’ll one day explain that I’d do some things differently if I got the chance to do it all again.
But what’s important to realise is that guilt is a kind of condemnation, yet our kids aren’t quietly appraising our parenting skills with a stern look of disapproval, as we sometimes imagine they might be. My kids are a much kinder, more resilient and much more forgiving than I give them credit for.
Honestly, it’s true; go ahead and ask them. Ask your kids what they think of your parenting skills, and while it’s possible that they’ll seize the opportunity to lodge a formal complaint about your refusal to allow them to eat ice cream for breakfast, I am pretty sure that they’ll tell you that you’re doing a great job.
Once I finally woke up to the fact that my kids aren’t keeping a mental inventory of all my failings, our family life started to feel much more enjoyable and a lot less tainted by that crippling sense of mum guilt.
Nowadays, when mum guilt rears its ugly head, I am quick to remind myself of the facts. Namely, that my kids aren’t inwardly resenting the fact that I work, or that I’m sometimes tired and snappy, or have a heap of domestic drudgery to stay on top of so that they have clean pants to wear.
In the end, I realised that the worst mistakes I could make as a mum aren’t actually the things I tend to felt guilty about, like spending too much time on work and domesticity and not enough time baking from scratch and rolling down grassy banks with my kids.
Nope, the biggest mistake I can make as a mum is to waste my little ones’ childhoods feeling guilty for a bunch of inadequacies forced on me by other people’s picture of the perfect parent.
Inadequacies which, I now realise, never even existed in my kids’ eyes anyway.
Three ways to stop the mum guilt in its tracks
Think not-guilty thoughts
I don’t know whether Buddha was the first to say that we become what we think, but it’s a powerful pep-talk. Guilt is a mind-set, after all. If you perpetually beat yourself up mentally for what you perceive to be your parental shortcomings, you run the risk of becoming little more than those very shortcomings. Instead, nip guilty mum thoughts in the bud by refusing them headspace, and choosing to focus on your strengths as a parent. What did you do well today? What small moment of triumph can you congratulate yourself for? Big it up, and kick mum guilt to the kerb.
Create a guilt-busting action plan
Take some to write down the specific things you do (or don’t do) which make you feel guilty. Whether it’s shouting too much, working long hours, not spending as much time with the children as you’d like, or simply feeling inadequate compared with your perception of what makes a ‘good’ mother, writing down the actions that trigger those guilty feelings is the first step to overcoming them. Then, try to identify specific things you can do to offset the guilt. Shout less? Book an afternoon off for some quality family time? Resolve to stop comparing yourself with impossible ideals? Every time you do these things, note your achievement, and tell the mum guilt to take a hike.
Give yourself a guilt break
I know a mum who believes firmly that modern mums have got guilt-tripped into believing that we should be our child’s constant playmate and an endless source of fun and entertainment. But she’s quick to point out that she doesn’t remember her mother playing with her much when she was a child. She reckons we need to ease up on the pressure we pile on ourselves to be some sort of Mary Poppins figure crossed with Superwoman. I wholeheartedly agree. Quit keeping a list of all the things you haven’t done or the kind of Mum you’re not, and focus on your strengths and parenting achievements. Your kids will thank you, in the end.
Various, MADE magazine