It's time to ditch the new-mum guilt
Feel like you’re suffering a life sentence of guilt since becoming a new mum? Pip Jones says it’s time we stopped judging ourselves
Hey, New Mum, meet Guilt. Guilt will be moving in for a while (well, indefinitely), and you two will be well acquainted in no time. Rather like your newborn, (seriously, if you don’t decide on a name soon, this child will start thinking it is called Baby), Guilt tends to need feeding on a daily basis. But don’t worry, you’ll find no end of help with that.
Ring a bell? If you’re like me – and just about every other mum I know – it will. Ok, maybe guilt wasn’t introduced to you in that manner – it tends to sneak in without you noticing – but for countless new mums who feel they’ve been hit by a juggernaut of emotions and responsibilities, it suddenly becomes part of everyday life to berate themselves, or question their choices. And it can be exhausting.
But where does it come from? And why do so many previously confident, self-assured women suddenly find themselves stuck in the guilt pit, feeling bad because they’re not getting everything right?
One suggestion is that, with more women having children later in life, loads of new mums have enjoyed a great career and a balanced existence they felt in perfect control of. But throw a baby into that mix and – woah! – the same women experience utter bewilderment at suddenly not having a clue what they’re supposed to be doing.
That must be part of it, but it’s not the whole story. Mum guilt, as it’s become known, has its roots in a complex range of factors. Author and parenting coach Sue Atkins believes guilt is actually programmed into motherhood, as part of our desire to do the best we can for our children. But there is so much more to it, she says. It comes from all angles, from past experiences – and some personality types will suffer more than others.
‘Perhaps a parent was a martyr type, and that stuck with you,’ she says. ‘Or maybe you’re naturally a perfectionist, or you have some low self-esteem issues, so you question yourself and assume you’re doing badly.
‘Then there are the external factors. Not only can other people’s opinions and expectations contribute hugely to what you feel about how you’re doing as a mother (if you let them), there’s also the media. There are thousands of websites, articles and blogs telling women what they “should” be doing to be a great mum. It’s brilliant that we have so much information at our fingertips, but it can provide thousands of new ways to convince mothers they’re doing things wrong. Let’s be honest, very few of these media projections show mums and babies covered in sick and snot – even though that’s often the reality.’
We all know this is the reality because we live it, so why do we still feel guilty? And how can we shake it? Well for a start we need to get real and, according to Sue, readjust our expectations by acknowledging that other mothers are not necessarily doing ‘better’, they are simply doing ‘different’, just like their baby is doing things differently to yours.
‘Guilt is a really negative emotion,’ Sue says. ‘It holds you back or pushes you down, and at its worst it can be paralysing, or lead to emotions such as anger, frustration and resentment. So you have to recognise it for what it is, and be a bit reflective. Think about all the things you feel guilty about and ask: is this feeling helpful, or can I just let it go?’ Sound good? Thought so. So let’s take a look at some of the common guilt trips and what we can do to keep them in check.
The biggest boob
It’s funny that one of the worst mistakes a new mum can make in the eyes of – well, everyone apparently – is to not breastfeed her baby. Yes, yes, ‘breast is best’. We all know it, but here’s a thing: not everyone can.
For Ruth, whose son Jack is now four, this was a source of utter misery for the first few weeks of his life. ‘I tried so hard,’ she says. ‘And I felt so bad. I went to breastfeeding classes, got midwives round. No one could tell me why it wasn’t working – they just told me to keep trying. ‘In the end I was exhausted, sore and depressed – I felt like the worst mother in the world. Finally, a friend told me to stop, and that it would be fine. And I realised, actually, it was fine. It was like someone gave me permission to give up this thing that was making me and my baby miserable.’
Ok, so not being able to breastfeed is one thing – but what about The Other Type of not breastfeeding? What about the mum who... chooses not to? Sharp intake of breath. You know what? There are myriad reasons why mums choose not to breastfeed their babies, and if you’re not, ask yourself two questions. Does anyone else need to know my reasons, and have a right to judge me? And am I putting Coca-Cola in my baby’s bottle instead of formula? Answered ‘no’ to both? Good stuff. As you were.
The other boobs
Breastfeeding, are we? Having a glass of wine, are we? Giving up after six months rather than four years, are we? See – even if you do manage to breastfeed, there are still plenty of things that can make you feel guilty. Your baby’s getting wind? You must be doing it wonky. I expect you’re having trouble expressing, right? Blimey, sort it out! Wotserface has 14oz in the fridge at all times, ‘just in case’. What do you mean, you want your partner to do some of the night feeds because you’re knackered? That’s the whole point of the boob, isn’t it? So no one has to cope with all that bottle faff in the middle of the night.
Whether those questions are springing up from your own inner voice, from the sharp tongues of peers or, worse still, from family, they have a way of burrowing into your brain and feeding the guilt day and night unless, at some point, you simply say: ‘My tits, my choice. So *%$! off.’
Doing it ALL wrong
Yes, all of it. There are so many ‘pitfalls’ in the early days, weeks and months to feel bad about that we might as well lump them all together under one heading: ‘Using a dummy/the cry-it-out method/co-sleeping/attachment parenting/weaning on purées – or not.’
This is where it becomes obvious that mums can be their own worst enemies, paying too much heed to what other people say and think, and not trusting themselves enough. ‘Guilt is very much associated with words like should, ought and must,’ Sue says, ‘when really it’s all about choice, opinion and what works. There’s rarely a right or a wrong way; that’s why I prefer to coach people through their parenting choices rather than say, “Here is how this, that or the other should be done.”’
What’s more, if you find yourself saying, ‘I should have resisted the dummy. Now I have to wean my child off it,’ or ‘I really should have got my baby sleeping through the night by now, everyone else at NCT has. Maybe I should try cry-it-out after all,’ just pause. Why should you have done or not done things? It’s not a competition that you and your baby are losing. Happy babies are about trial and error. You try, it works. Hooray! You try, it doesn’t work, you try something different. You do what needs doing. Go you!
Taking ‘me time’
You yearn for it: just a 20-minute soak in the bath, or an hour with a good book – or sometimes even a pee without having a tiny person sitting on your lap. Yet when you get some of it – this rarest of things known as ‘me time’ – you begin thinking of all the other things you could be doing/achieving/fixing/cooking. Oh hell, if you weren’t having this massage your friends bought you six months ago, you could be hanging out all that washing.
Seriously, you need to take a chill pill, lady, and remember that looking after yourself is as good for everyone else as it is for you. ‘Sometimes I’ll ask a mum to write a list and prioritise all the people in her life, including herself,’ Sue says. ‘She’s never at the top. She’ll list her children, then her partner, parents, even friends. She ends up at six or seven. It’s crazy, you have to put yourself higher than that. Remember what you’re told on a plane? Put your oxygen mask on before you help the children. In life too, you’ve got to be able to ‘breathe’ in order to care for everyone else.’
Often the women who feel most guilty are the ones who don’t delegate or ask for help. ‘These mums are being pulled in so many directions,’ Sue says. ‘They feel guilt about almost everything.’ So get that me-time in. And do ask for help – don’t feel bad about it, because it’s for the greater good. Fact.
Taking any time
Oh yes. Enter the mega ‘mum guilt’ trip: not spending enough time with your children. ‘There is literally always something else to do,’ says Amara, mum to three-year-old Dylan. ‘I’m checking emergency work emails, or ironing clothes for tomorrow, or putting the bins out, and I’m thinking, “I should be doing finger painting.” But I just have to get things done, and sometimes I manage that by putting on CBeebies.’
We applaud your honesty, Amara. Hands up everyone who has used the TV as a babysitter and felt guilty about it? Entire western world raises its hand. Despite our good intentions, life has a way of sucking up time like a Dyson on a floor covered with Coco Pops. We ought to be playing with our children, and drawing with them, and reading to them, and teaching them things... but, well, the kitchen isn’t going to clean itself is it? And it can get worse if you have a second child – many mums constantly feel guilty about one or the other.
‘Guilt is often about the story we tell ourselves,’ says Sue. ‘Say you always feel bad because, whenever you go out, you spend ten minutes making sure the baby is dressed warmly, while your toddler struggles with his own wellies. Well, the flip side of that story is that your toddler’s learning to put on his own shoes. So tell him how well he’s doing. Re-frame. Find the positive.’
‘You’re going back to work already?’ Yeah, cheers, thanks for that. Maybe you’re planning to return to work after two months, or maybe you have to go back after two months. Or maybe you had a year off, which has just flown by. Whichever, hearing these words will be like a dagger of guilt plunged into your heart.
‘I cried all day,’ says Tash, whose daughter Evie was nine months old when she went back to work. ‘I had very good reasons for going back, but as I walked off, inside a voice was screaming, “She’s going to think that you’ve abandoned her.” But when I arrived to pick her up, she’d had the best day ever. I felt better and realised the voice in my head had really been my in-laws, who’d spent weeks telling me I was doing the wrong thing.’
The world is full of differing opinions, so there will always be people saying something, intentional or otherwise, that can make you feel guilty. The question is, are you going to let them, or are you going to spend your lunch break printing a brilliant 2015 Harvard study to beat them round the head with? Oh yes, the data from 24 countries revealed that daughters of working mothers end up with better careers, higher pay and more equal relationships; sons of working mothers also thrive and, when adults, become more involved at home. Thanks, Harvard.
Not missing them
‘When George was a year old, I had my first weekend away for a hen do,’ says Karen. ‘I’d been anxious about it for weeks but we’d been at the hotel for six hours before he entered my head. And straight away I felt awful because, in the end, I hadn’t felt bad about leaving him.’
Have we really reached the point where we can feel guilty about not feeling guilty? ‘People have an idea about what it is “to be a mother”,’ says Sue. But we need to remind ourselves that giving birth does not equate to a personality transplant. You were a whole person before you had a baby and you are still a whole person now – not being bent double with emotional pain because you’re temporarily separated from your child doesn’t make you a bad mum!'