Feeling guilty does you – and your family – more harm than good, explains the founder of Happy Working Mum. Here’s how you can stop it from becoming part of your daily routine...
Words Emily Thorpe
Illustration Phil Couzens
I feel so guilty” is a phrase I often hear from other mums and something I frequently used to say to myself. In fact, it is so common that a recent search on Mumsnet, using the words “I feel guilty”, brought back a shocking 72,000 separate posts. Is it surprising, then, that we now accept feeling blameworthy as just another part of the package when our baby arrives, along with sleepless nights and teething troubles?
To the uninitiated, you might think that the guilt would dissipate once we have passed the “baby phase”. Not so! In a recent interview, American starlet and mum-of-two Michelle Pfeiffer claimed she no longer felt it. While my heart leapt with joy when I read the headline, thinking that perhaps the tide had turned, it transpired, however, that the reason she no longer felt guilt-ridden was because her children are now in their 20s.
So, it turns out, “mummy guilt” extends across the decades. And it’s caused by such diverse and countless reasons. We’re all guilty of feeling guilty about: not being able to breast feed; going back to work, or simply wanting to go back to work; letting our babies cry, or always picking baby up; not having enough quality time with our child(ren); missing their first word or step, or having to skip school events; shouting, or being too lenient; allowing the kids too much screen time, or being glued to a screen too much ourselves.
The list is truly endless…
For me, guilt came crashing into my life when I first dropped my son Fin – then aged five-and-a-half months – off at nursery in order to return to work as an air traffic controller. Up until that point he had been breast-fed, so I took my expressed milk and a bottle to nursery, only to find when I picked him up that he had refused to take it all day. Luckily, he had started weaning, and so was able to have some baby rice and water, but that didn’t stop the heartbreaking pain I felt, knowing that he didn’t get any milk all day.
It was as though I had opened the floodgates on guilt that day. I went on to feel bad when I bought jars of baby food. Surely I should be puréeing organic carrots and freezing them in ice-cube trays? Then I felt uncomfortable about using disposable nappies and inflicting the planet with 300 years of landfill. (I had tried using cotton nappies but – guess what – I felt terrible about the horrendous nappy rash they caused my son!) It’s a vicious cycle.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I’ve always absolutely loved being a mother, but this guilt thing was definitely getting in the way of me enjoying being the mum I wanted to be. And it wasn’t just because I felt bad – it was also because of all the other consequences. You see, when we feel guilty, we can start to compensate. For example, when I went to work I’d buy my son a little something to make him feel better (and thus ease my guilt). Or when he played up I would be more lenient on his behaviour (after all, I thought, he was probably playing up because I wasn’t always there).
I soon realised how futile all of this is, however. And how much it was standing in my – and my family’s – way of being happy. So, using a few simple steps, I managed to break free.
The first step to breaking free…
Become aware of how far-reaching and detrimental the affect of guilt is on you and your family, and make the decision to think enough is enough!
Next, you need to identify your triggers: Is it when you drop your kids off on the way to work? Is it when you shout at them? Or when you pass them an iPad, just to keep them quiet?
Then, look at what your belief or rule is around this situation. Usually you will be going against your idea of what a “good mum” would do. For example, you may feel guilty if you miss the bedtime routine and don’t read to your child every night. So obviously you have a belief that a “good mum” would read a bedtime story every night – and when you don’t live up to that expectation you feel bad about it.
After you’ve done that, think about how you can redefine your rules and beliefs to feel good more of the time. Here is a mantra I find useful: “If I feed, clothe and love my children, I am a brilliant mum”. By saying this to myself I have made it very easy to feel good, and everything above and beyond those basics is a bonus.
Finally, if things go wrong and you’re tempted to feel guilty, be kind to yourself instead of beating yourself up. My top tip is to ask yourself: What would you say to your best friend in this situation? If someone you care for confessed to you that they had shouted at their kids in the morning, what would your advice be to them?
A happy mum is a win-win for all the family, so I hope you will join me in breaking away from the mould and taking those first few steps to being a Guilt-Free Mum!