Mother guilt

I was in the middle of sanding and painting our new house when I discovered the two blue lines. That is, I was inhaling the particles of old, possibly toxic paint, and then filling my lungs with fumes from oil-based paint. I’d had a glass of wine the night before and I am sure I had eaten soft cheese in the last month. And so it began; my journey with ‘Mother Guilt’.

For many women, mother guilt begins the moment their pregnancy is confirmed. So what’s behind these feelings? Why, along with all the other emotions a new mother experiences, does guilt follow us through our journey of motherhood?

Great expectations!

Jennifer Ericksen is a psychologist with the Parent-Infant Research Institute at the Austin Hospital in Melbourne. She believes that unrealistic expectations are a big part of the guilt problem. “Women who have been successful in their careers and life before parenthood expect that they will be ‘successful’ as parents. Sometimes the normal ups and downs of parenthood are enough to shake their confidence.”

Sally*, mother of one from Geelong in Victoria, agrees. “I had a good job in banking before I became a mum, and I was very good at it,” she explains. “I’m a person who likes clear delineation between right and wrong and as motherhood is so full of grey areas, it often leaves me confused and questioning my choices.”

Motherhood ‘myths’ can add to this confusion and pressure. Some of the most common culprits suggest that ‘good’ babies sleep all night, that ‘good’ mothers have ‘good’ babies and that mothers should instinctively know what their baby wants from birth. Huh!

When we can’t live up to these impossible expectations, it’s no wonder that we begin to feel that there must be something wrong or lacking in our ability as a mother. According to Ms Ericksen this can then lead to feelings of failure and guilt, and can have a significant impact on our emotional wellbeing.

Julie Ann Barnhill, author of Motherhood: The Guilt That Keeps On Giving (Harvest House Publishers), talks about the trap of the ‘shoudas’ – I shoulda stayed at home, I shoulda disciplined differently… “Sometimes we respond to ‘shouldas’ as though they [are] absolute commandments – ‘thou shalt’, and ‘thou shalt not’.” This thinking that really can heap on the guilt.

“[The] main thing that makes me feel guilty is when I ‘need’ time for myself,” says Tanya, mother of four from Newcastle in NSW. “I feel that I shouldn’t ‘need’ it and should relish staying with my children all day everyday.”

So who says you should do this or you shouldn’t feel like that? In her book Ms Barnhill encourages us to look closely at these expectations, which can stem from our family or culture, and to think about whether they reflect our own values. “They may well be appropriate, but they can also be destructive. Choose for yourself which ones truly matter to you, which don’t, and which are worth ignoring, even though ignoring them may bring disapproval from your community.”

Sally* chose to ignore external pressure when she made a decision to teach her son to self-settle from an early age. “I know it was the right thing to do for the whole family,” she reflects, “…but [having] a pro-co-sleeping mother-in-law and lots of people willing to throw stats at you about the crushing psychological impact of leaving a baby to cry…can be disturbing and make it hard to hold your ground.”

Like self-settling, the decision to return to work seems to attract a range of expectations from everywhere and everyone. Consequently, it too can be surrounded by the ‘shoulds’ and ’_shouldn’ts_’ of mother guilt. Sally* chose to stay at home with her son, thinking that it would mean less guilt associated with not having enough time for him. “But even when I’m doing housework I wonder…if he is developing as fast as he could be. Would he learn to walk [or] talk faster if I…devoted 100% of my time to him?” Do we ever give ourselves a rest?

Time to shift the guilt!

The transition into motherhood is a time of great adjustment. Jennifer Ericksen suggests preparing for this transition by talking with your partner about what kind of parent you would both like to be. She encourages us to be realistic about what we will be able to achieve and to accept help from others without trying to manage on our own. Most importantly, “Don’t always put yourself last. Looking after yourself is looking after your baby!”

“Guilt will always be a part of the mothering landscape, but it doesn’t have to dominate it.” – Julie Ann Barnhill

Managing Motherguilt

Mother guilt is not something to conquer or eliminate, but there are many things that we can do to manage these challenging feelings when they arise. Here are some suggestions from Julie Ann Barnhill:

  • Admit you can’t do it all – no one can!
  • When you find yourself thinking ‘I should…’, ask yourself, ‘Who says I should?’
  • Give yourself permission to laugh at yourself!
  • When you are feeling overwhelmed by guilt feelings, take a deep breath and try to put things in perspective.
  • Forgive yourself – let go of resentment you may hold for failing to achieve what you believe you should have as a mother.
  • Compliment another mother – look for opportunities to ease someone elses’ guilt!

“No mum has it all together. We’re all dealing with loose ends when it comes to motherhood and our children. Some of us are just better at keeping up appearances, that’s all.” – Julie Ann Barnhill

Looking after you

It’s easy to come up with hundreds of excuses for not finding time for yourself, but it’s amazing how much more patience and energy you have for parenting when you do. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Hand the kids over to someone else for half an hour and have a relaxing soak in the bath – no interruptions!
  • Listen to your favourite music. It might be to relax or to dance around the lounge room – doesn’t matter!
  • Get physical! Whatever your preferred method of being active (swimming, jogging, the gym, dancing…) set some time aside to work out your body and switch off your mind.
  • Think about what is was that you enjoyed doing before becoming Mum, and make the time to do it!
  • Laugh! Whether it’s a movie, a comic or a joke, have a good belly laugh – it really is the best medicine!

Sally* is a pseudonym

Note: Feelings of guilt can sometimes be part of postnatal depression. If you are concerned, seek professional advice.

This article has been provided by Penni Drysdale, a freelance writer and mother of two boys.

For more information see Motherhood or Parenting .

15/09/21 - min Read

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