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Can we really get rid of 'mum guilt'?

In short, no, but walk this through with me.

I was told a hundred different things about motherhood. What to expect, including sleep deprivation, tantrums, a constantly untidy house, having to juggle everything….but no one warned me about the stealthy pressure of mum guilt. I say stealthy because, at times, it comes out of nowhere. Dinner time (“that’s the second turkey dinosaur dinner this week and she won’t eat her veg…I’m such a bad mum”). Nursery drop off (“she just wants her mum today and I’m abandoning her!”). Taking a well-deserved break (“I need 5 minutes but she wants to play…she might be damaged by my rejection forever if I don’t play with her now”). It even happens whilst disciplining my child (“I said no to the toy in the shop and now shes really upset….I mean it’s only a toy, but now I feel so bad”). I have even felt guilty whilst in the shower because I didn’t get out quick enough to my daughter’s liking.

Guilt is fueled by our own expectations. It is powered by our perception (and acceptance) of what other people think. It feasts off our worry induced thoughts, and then we add a sprinkle of 'catastrophising' (blowing things out of proportion especially with future uncontrollable outcomes). Let me give you an example, something simple. Let’s say our little ones refuse to eat their veggies. In itself not a big deal, however we bring in mum guilt and we catastrophise it to mean that because we aren’t getting them to digest vegetables, we are stunting their development, their brains won’t work properly, they will never grow, they will end up failing in life etc. etc. AND IT IS ALL OUR FAULT! When you see it written down it’s a tad over the top and let’s face it, a bit ridiculous (I can say this because this was the exact thought process I had when my daughter was 18 months old) but at the time, it feels like a very real thing to feel guilty about. So we have this extreme reaction of mum guilt, and then we have the “micro guilt” moments, as I call them. For example, saying “no” to our child through correct discipline, but immediately feeling guilty because we have deprived them (even if it was taking away a biro to draw all over themselves with. Again, speaking from experience here). We know we have done the right thing, but we still somehow come off feeling a teeny bit guilty.

Our mum guilt can come from a deep emotional place within us, which sits alongside fear, and it’s a strange feeling. It’s a feeling we can't anticipate after having a baby and one have not experienced before. 'People pleasers' have a feeling of this guilt to a degree (where saying no to something or letting someone down leads to that doom guilt feeling), but what mums and parents experience takes this to a whole new level. The first thing to remember is that we are responsible for a life. Take that in for a second. This child, this little life and soul, is in our hands to develop, help, support, guide, and nurture. No wonder parenthood is utterly overwhelming at times, it is a lot! So longer term, yes, we have to help this little being, or beings, onto the right life path, so how does feeling guilty help with this? It doesn’t, not really. Guilt may force us to get off our phone and interact more, buy that fluffy toy to add to the neverending collection, cook another turkey dinosaur before bedtime, or turn off the Paw Patrol marathon on tv, but where is the line between useful 'kick up the bum' emotion and unhealthy mum guilt?

Is feeling guilty useful?

I spend way too much time on my phone. The other day whilst my daughter was watching Octonauts, I looked around the room and saw her dad, her grandfather, and myself were all on our phones. It was a disturbing scene. I gave her a tight squeeze and she looked up and said “can you watch this with me now?”. The guilt alarm went off like an air raid siren. Guilt made me put my phone down, be present with her (and the episode we have seen about 9 times), and to rethink my phone usage in front of her. Was guilt useful here? Yeah, it made me realise how much I don’t want to be an absent mum in her company due to Instagram being too tempting, but I continue to carry that guilt (which is so unhelpful). So, I am being careful here because guilt is not a great emotion to feel at all. It is not a useful method like post it notes, motivational posters, or google search. What we have here is a situation that caused me to emotionally respond, but which I learned something from. Keep that in mind – guilt is not useful, but what you do with it and how you process it, is! First lesson:


Don’t focus on the feeling and beat yourself up, instead ask what can you learn from the situation that you are having this reaction over?

Another example of why guilt is not useful is when you are close to mum rage, you have had a day, you are barely holding onto your sanity, and the guilt trip is packing your bags because you forgot to buy your little one’s favourite snack you promised yesterday. If you are feeling down, guilt will only kick you in the gut more, and that is not helpful. Let’s be honest, you are a great parent, you are doing your best, and when you have a day like this, you are human, you deserve a break, and let’s be real – when would you have had the time to buy the snack? You can do anything, but not everything! And the best part, there are work arounds, there are other solutions, there is imagination (those naughty fairies stole that snack and have promised to give it back tomorrow with a little surprise etc. etc.). Keep the situation and your response realistic, no guilt, you are human and deserve kindness. Next lesson:

Be kind – be real.

Your unrealistic expectations of ‘perfect’ parenting, or being able to do everything, gives guilt the fuel it needs. Be kind to yourself, and let it go.

Guilt goes deep

So we have the external pressures of what we, and society, think a perfect mum looks like, should be doing, achieving and so on, which adds to the unrelenting expectations we put on ourselves, but let’s talk about you for a second. Childhood trauma, negative experiences growing up, living through abuse, or just having not a great time as a child can put unconscious scars in our brains that set us up with beliefs as to how things should or shouldn’t be. If we are hell bent on rewriting history and not repeating behaviour from previous generations, we are placing a lot of emotional and psychological pressure on ourselves. Shouting at our child for stuffing a crayon up his nose when being told not to, can take us back to a horrible memory of when we were shouted at at a young age. We then feel guilty because we think we have relayed our trauma to them and given them lifelong issues. There is an element of catastrophising here, but it comes from a very real place. However this is lesson:

Where is this guilt coming from? – Dig deep

If you are carrying a load where you are feeling guilty and comparing your own upbringing to how you are parenting your child, then you need to dig deep and untangle what is happening there. It is important to learn from trauma, but there needs to be a path which takes you out of its destructive wave and leaves you to navigate parenthood more positively.

Previous childhood experiences, social expectations, and our own values can all influence our thought patterns and the demands we put on ourselves. We all have them, the ‘I must..’ and ‘I musn’t…’, the ‘I should…’ and ‘I shouldn’t…’. Oh and my favourite, the ‘I can’t…’ demands. These are affectionately known as dogmatic demands, and in the case of mums, we have a truckload of them!

“I should be able to get it all done and do nursery pick up”, “I shouldn’t complain at work, because I’m the only one that leaves to do school runs”, “I must make the kids healthy home made dinners”, “I mustn’t admit I gave my child two turkey dinosaur dinners this week”…and so on.

These demands serve no purpose other than to fire up the guilt rocket which flies us into disappointment and self-deprecation. Here lies this final lesson:

Stop with the demands already!

When you notice yourself thinking or saying the demand out loud, stop. Literally stop. Pull it out and look at it and ask yourself…”why must/should/can’t I?”. And then keep asking “why?”. Pick each reply apart. Here is a real life client example:

“I must make the kids healthy homemade dinners from scratch every night.”

Why must you?

“Because it is the best thing for them and that’s what most mums do.”

Ok, is it the best thing? And DO most mums do it?

“Well yes, because they get all their vitamins…when they eat it, which they don’t always. I put a lot of effort into it, in fact I’m knackered, it costs a fortune, and I chuck a lot of it away. I just assumed all mums do it.”

They don’t always eat it and it sounds like it goes to waste, why must you make all this food?

“Erm….I don’t know. I want what’s best for them, but they aren’t eating what I prepare for them”


“Because they get bored with the healthy grub I think, they pig out later”


“So I don’t need to keep doing it do I….I think I will only do it a few times a week and then ask them what they would like to stop them snacking later. Might save some money.”

So as you can see, the defence for the dogmatic demand loses power the further you drill into it. These demands are held onto by you, so you have the power to change them, which, I promise, is a very freeing way of alleviating some of those balls you constantly juggle.

There are of course many other ways of addressing mum guilt, but remember that you have the ability to change how you process and react to the triggers, and there is support out there to help you.

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