Mum guilt really is a thing; it's posted candidly all over social media platforms, it's rife in baby groups and it still hangs heavy over heads at the school gates.
Being a parent is hard, being a mum, many might argue, is harder. First there’s matrescence to deal with, then possibly the trials of breastfeeding, then not only juggling the mental load but working out how to explain the mental load to your husband/wife/other human you may be navigating life as a parent with. The list is endless, and firmly on that list, is mum guilt.
Here, mum-of-two, author and Goodto columnist Cat Sims talks candidly about the one sentence that changed how she saw and dealt with mum guilt, here’s hoping it helps you too…
Mum guilt - here's how I deal with it
Mum guilt. It’s a phrase you hear all the time to refer to the largely ever-present feeling most mums co-exist with which tells us we are, for want of a better phrase, sh**ty parents.
When people talk about mum guilt it’s often in relation to things like not being able to get home in time for bedtime, or having to put your kid in after-school club every day, or sending your kid to school in uniform on non-uniform or any one of the myriad of things people (read: the patriarchy) tell us are ultimately damaging to our children and that we can, and should, always do better at.
But, there are so many assumptions built into this kind of thinking. Firstly, there’s the assumption that being home for bedtime every day and picking them up at 3.15pm and making sure they are perfectly turned out for any event at any given time, will eliminate the possibility that you might, in some way, mess them up. That, if you’re the “perfect parent”, your kids will also be perfectly happy. Well, I just don’t buy it and also, even if I wanted to test the theory, I couldn’t because it’s just not bloody possible. Secondly, there’s an assumption that a life without any challenges, disruption, disorder is what kids need.
Of course, there’s a balance to be struck, but if they never see you running late, or forgetting something, or having to make tough choices and sacrifices then how are they going to learn that real people aren’t perfect? And if you are the perfect parent, then how are you ever going to show them how we take accountability and apologise? If you’ve never said sorry to your children then two things are happening:
- You're missing the opportunity to show them how to own their stuff and make amends.
- You’re possibly delusional because no parent is right about everything, all the time.
I’d also like to direct you to something that the wonderful (Queen) Brené Brown said that has transformed my feelings around the term ‘mum guilt’.
She writes, “Shame is 'I am bad.' Guilt is 'I did something bad.'"
I’m just going to give you a moment to recover from that line, because, when I first heard it, it blew my tiny mind and explained so much about the feelings I was having and how to manage them.
When I say this quote transformed my feelings around the term ‘mum guilt’, I mean that it transformed my entire approach to myself, my feelings of not being enough and my self-esteem. What Brené has done with that one sentence is help me recognise ‘guilt’ as a good thing. This useful tool helps me to understand when I need to take responsibility and apologise and ‘shame’ which is a feeling based on a load of old bollocks, a fantasy that we have taken on board by the men that have handed it out throughout the generations.
So, when people say, ‘I have a lot of mum-guilt about the fact that I have to put my kids in after school club every day’, what they’re really talking about is ‘mum shame’. And here’s the good news - yes, those feelings of shame come from a construct, a social narrative that we are not responsible for and it is not our fault that we have been made to feel that way but, we are responsible, once we’ve recognised it, for whether we allow it to have any credence in our own internal narrative.
Learn more about Brené Brown, the five-time #1 New York Times bestseller, with her latest book. It's truly un-put-downable.
I’m not saying it’s easy, but I am saying that once you can see the difference between feeling guilty about the times you f****d up (and they are very real and happen regularly, in my experience) and feeling shame because we’re responding to a sh**ty narrative then it becomes much easier to rightsize the shame and eventually discard it altogether.
I’ve come to see mum guilt, therefore, as a useful tool. If I’m feeling a certain way about something, I’ll take a minute to really figure out whether I’m feeling shame or guilt. If it’s shame, then f**k it. Not my problem. If it’s guilt then, yeah, I need to do something about it.
Guilt is the little voice, our conscience, that says, ‘Uh oh, you f****d up there. You need to make amends,’ and the great thing about making that amends is that once it’s done, once you’ve owned your s**t and apologised for it, you can let the guilt go too.
So, next time, when there’s that knot in your stomach because you can’t get home in time, or you missed a recital because you couldn’t leave work, take a minute to really be clear about whether you have done anything wrong. You haven’t - life is life and s**t happens. But, if you lost it and screamed at your kids because they wanted to dance naked rather than go to sleep, then that there feeling is guilt. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad mum but it does mean you messed up and you know you messed up because, actually, you’re a great mum and you know that there were better ways to handle that. Again, not necessarily your fault - lots of factors could have been at play to get you to that point of rage, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take responsibility. Which requires a repair; an “I’m sorry for screaming. I could have handled that better. You don't deserve to be spoken to like that".
So, let’s start using ‘mum guilt’ and ‘mum shame’ properly because, actually, when you get down to it, most of the s**t we carry is shame and when you realise you can place that load down, it really is life-changing.
Like what Cat has to say? Check out her other Goodto.com columns, she talks candidly about being the Sandwich Generation, how mothers need to own Mother's Day and forget everyone else, and the women who regret their divorces not to mention her thoughts on Kinkeeping and how dangerous this term really is.
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Cat Sims is a writer, content creator, podcaster (You're never the only one) and author of 'The First Time You Smiled' who is still trying to figure out the whole 'adulting' thing. She's made a living out of documenting her failures and successes as a 40-year-old woman, mother, and wife across various social media platforms.
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