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  • Writer's pictureDr Kirsten Wooff

Mum guilt: 10 tips to tear down its unwarranted hold on you

Updated: May 29, 2020

Being a parent is one of the hardest jobs in the world. Sometimes you just want to shut yourself away in a dark room or get on the soonest flight out. And that’s okay. But for many parents, these thoughts are quickly followed by guilt, known as “mum guilt” (but dads get it too – ask them!).

Sure, some guilt can be informative and constructive – the guilt that motivates us to change our behaviours for the better. For instance, we might feel guilty about swearing in front of the kids, so we resolve to keep the sailor-chat for adult-only situations.

But guilt can quickly become excessive and unwarranted. This guilt is not helpful. It stems from the belief that we’re not living up to the (often unrealistic) expectations that we place on ourselves as parents. We perceive that we have failed in carrying out our duties as a parent, and blame ourselves for ‘not being good enough’. Ironically, the fact that we feel guilt shows that we are loving and caring parents, but too often the guilt gets in the way of seeing how well we are really doing.

Mum guilt pops up in a myriad of contexts: “Why am I so keen to return to work?”, “I should have breastfed instead of using formula”, “Am I lazy for hiring a nanny?”, “I feel bad about losing my patience earlier”, “I just want some time to myself”, “I wish I had more energy for the kids – I should play with them more”, “Do my kids have too much screen-time?” The list goes on.

We experience mum guilt because we have learnt that we are supposed to naturally know how to parent (when in fact most of us are just muddling along). Feelings of guilt and inferiority are compounded by the constant exposure via media to many “edited” and “perfect” versions of parenting, which leads to us forming unrealistic expectations and making unwarranted comparisons. This creates expectations based upon “shoulds” and “musts” – “I should spend all my time focused on my baby”, “I must always respond perfectly to my child”, “I should always appreciate and want to be with my child”, “I must give him a perfectly healthy diet”, "I should be able to juggle it all" and so on.

To make things worse, we often engage in unhelpful thinking styles, such as:

- black and white thinking – “If I didn’t respond well to my child then I am a terrible mother”

- mental filtering – focusing only on what you didn’t do well rather than what you did do well

- emotional reasoning – believing you are a bad mother because you feel like a bad mother

- catastrophising – “I will negatively impact her development because she watched more than 30 minutes of TV today”

These thinking styles create a distorted perspective of what it means to be a “good parent”. When we believe that we have failed to meet these distorted perspectives, we get the “guilts”. We start overthinking about what we could have done better or differently and may engage in behaviours to “fix” our guilt, such as overcompensation (for example giving the child lots of sudden and loud attention). We make further attempts to meet the unrealistic standards, and make comparisons, and the cycle starts again.

Here are ten tips that can help you break the cycle of mum/dad guilt:

1. Share your responsibilities and take time for yourself: It sounds like a cliché, but you cannot pour from an empty cup. Take time for self-care and practise some deep breathing. Park your other responsibilities during this time so you can focus entirely on relaxation. Taking time to refuel means you can be more present and have more energy as a parent rather than burning the candle at both ends. If your baby/child is spending time with someone who has energy to invest in them while you recharge, then don’t feel guilty about that. Ask your friends and family to help out with chores, tasks, or childcare. They most probably want to help! There is no point driving yourself to exhaustion because you believe everyone else does it all…because they don’t.

2. Acknowledge the guilt: It is natural to feel guilty; it means you want the best for your child(ren). But is it warranted? If not, try to let it go.

3. Relax your expectations: In this day and age parents are more isolated than ever and we feel we “have to do it all”, taking 24/7 care of our children while many of us also juggle full-time jobs, family struggles, health issues and so on. Yet, as the old saying goes, it takes a village to raise a baby. So it makes sense that we can’t do it all and NO ONE does it perfectly. Children do not need our undivided attention 24/7, we do not have to be with our children 24/7, and we do not have to enjoy being with our children 24/7. Notice when you are having “should/must” thoughts and challenge those with something more helpful such as “Its healthy for me to have time to myself to get to the gym”. Remember, children are resilient little things.

4. Social media posts/comparisons: Stop comparing yourself to others, especially the filtered versions of parenting on social media. Being a good parent can look lots of different ways, just like being fit can be achieved lots of different ways. You do you.

5. Change your focus: Pay attention to what you did well. It is likely that there were many more things you did well as a parent today other than taking your eyes off your child when he sneaked the baking off the bench. Make sure to take the time to praise yourself and their other caregivers. You may have taken your child to the park, made their meals, done the laundry, comforted them when they hurt themselves, danced with them, and taught them about colours. So pay attention to all of these awesome things you did, instead of the things you didn’t do.

6. Challenge that unhelpful thinking: Instead of having an extreme view of what success and failure is, create an acceptable middle ground. This will reduce the tendency to judge yourself harshly. Research shows that a parent who meets their child's needs most of the time is a "good enough" parent. Your young child will not know if they haven’t got the most fashionable clothes. Their future won’t be destroyed by the odd bit of extra screen time, or an extra sausage roll. If you started work again, and enjoy the space away from your children - that's normal and healthy.

7. Make ‘Special Time’ for your children: Spend at least 10 minutes a day playing with your child(ren) with undivided attention, playing a game or doing an activity of their choice. Follow along, without making suggestions, asking questions, or making reprimands, and simply be with them.

8. Sit down and write down your responsibilities and priorities. What tasks and responsibilities are you juggling each day? List them in order of importance for you. Clarify the importance of tasks (such as the cleaning, working, self-care, and family time) and then schedule time for these. This may create less of a whirlwind in your mind of what needs to be achieved each day and allow you to focus on what matters to you in each moment. If you spent time with your kids today and did not clean the bathroom does that really matter? Deciding on what you value the most and realising the relative importance of other tasks can help you see that you are good enough.

9. Remember: What children need more than anything is safety, love, consistency (the majority of the time), and security. Was your child fed today, were they hugged and kissed, did they smile? If so, then you are nailing it mums and dads.

10. Seek professional help: If you notice that guilt is becoming excessive, hard for you to shake, or leads to behaviours such as excessive checking, over-intrusiveness, over-exertion, and/or lifestyle imbalance, then it may be beneficial to speak to a professional to help you get unstuck.

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