Top 5 reasons for "mummy guilt" and how to combat them

The curse of "mummy guilt"
The curse of "mummy guilt" Photo: Getty

Read any newspaper, parenting magazines or parenting blogs and you’re bound to come across an article or two on mothers feeling guilty. Even Victoria Beckham, mother of four, is not immune to this syndrome declaring last year she felt torn between her work schedule and family responsibilities. A BabyCenter survey found 94 percent of mothers owned up to feeling ashamed over issues ranging from the amount of time they spend with their kids to the kind of diapers they use.

The research done on “mummy guilt” is by no means exhaustive. Recently, the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Bar-Ilan University, Israel studied mental labour in working parents in pressurised jobs. The study found mothers and fathers both spent about 30 percent of the time they were at work thinking about their family issues. While fathers were good at drawing boundaries between work and family, mothers felt the pressure to be both good employees and good mothers and these thoughts led to increased stress and negative emotions.

Comparing guilt trips 

It appears that every mother across the globe is competing with each other on where they stand on the guilt spectrum – “your guilt is less than my guilt.” If misery loves company so does mummy guilt which recedes and ebbs compared to how guilty you think the other mum is in comparison with you.

“Women love to beat themselves up,” says Abi Gold, a family and parenting consultant and mother of four children. It’s common to hear a woman say "I'm a bad mother," or "I feel so guilty about...” That's what we do, what we know, so what we are drawn to reading about, mummy guilt sells she explains. And there's also an element of comparison points out Gold.  It can be comforting to look at examples of guilt, and think, "Well I'm not that bad" or "Thank God they're not my kids!"

So what do mums feel guilty about? According to Gold, the list is endless. She elaborates, “We seem programmed to feel guilty about everything, to blame ourselves for things which we cannot control, and to find fault in ourselves eagerly. When our kids are sick, we wonder if we didn't feed them enough, we criticise ourselves for not taking them to the doctor early, and for not listening to them when they said their head hurt. We blame ourselves when they fail their exams (I should have spent more time helping him with his maths), when they fall (I shouldn't have let him go outside), and when they forget their lunch (I should have put it in his bag)”.

Gold says these examples show that mums feel guilty all the time, so to a great extent, it is a learned behaviour. We're also taught, subconsciously and consciously, not to boast, not to show off, and self deprecation has become acceptable and quite normal. Many women also lack confidence, and genuinely feel that their efforts don't count, that the choices they've made should have been different. That leads to guilt, and continues the vicious cycle of feeling unworthy and incompetent.

The biggest issues that crop up each time that lead to mummy guilt include:

1. Not being able to breastfeed

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Breastfeeding comes naturally to some women while others struggle. It has become such a huge issue that women immediately feel like failures if they can’t successfully breastfeed their newborn even if the factors causing the problem may be out of their control. A mum in the UK committed suicide because she suffered from breastfeeding problems and postnatal depression which went undiagnosed by medical staff despite continued requests for help.

2. Using the TV as a babysitter

You absolutely need to take a shower because you don’t remember when you last took one. So you switch on ABC2 or pop in a DVD, the guilt hitting you like a train as peace and quiet reign in the house. A BabyCenter poll showed that many mothers feel guilty about how much TV their child watches with 26 percent of mothers going as far as lying about how much TV their children watched. Experts agree that TV in moderation is a good thing and can be fine as long as time slots are adhered to with the child’s age in mind.

3. Leaving your child with someone else

Deciding to go back to work full time or even part time causes mums to go through weeks if not months of agonising soul searching on whether it’s the right thing to do. Friends and staff tell you that you and your child both need time to adjust as every morning at childcare drop off your child clings to you crying. You leave for work feeling like the worst mother ever. The CareforKids.com.au 2013 Annual Child Care Survey reported many parents feel 'mother guilt' is the hardest thing about returning to work. 

4. Feeding the children junk food

Last week I went to Hungry Jack’s twice … twice (I usually avoid junk food like the plague) and took my son with me on the days he attended childcare. It had been an emotionally draining week for both of us and the prospect of coming home and trying to think about what to serve for lunch was daunting.

So we shared a meal and I even let him have ice cream. All the while I was looking up at the menu board thinking – I’m consuming too many calories, oh my God he’s having chips twice in one week, I’ll feed him carrots once I get home. Bearing in mind, that we have a healthy diet 99% of the time, the guilt of feeding my son fast food was too much for me. Experts say moderation and making healthy choices is crucial to eating fast food. Make it clear to the children that fast food is a “sometimes food” and encourage them to eat healthy at all other times.

5. Yelling at the kids

Yelling at the kids is another big issue that causes mothers tremendous guilt because numerous studies have concluded that yelling is as bad as spanking your child. Yet some experts say that if you are usually calm with your child, then step back and use your behaviour as a learning opportunity. Let’s face it no matter how much we love the adorable tots; sometimes they can really push our buttons. Or do what I do, run into my room and scream into a pillow!

Guilt is a learned behaviour

It's very hard to do, but first of all, try to be aware that you're doing it. We often don't even realise that we're beating up on ourselves gain, as it is such an ingrained habit.  But try to recognise when you're doing it, and stop, and re-frame the story to omit the guilt emphasises Gold. Instead of "I should have cooked food he likes, think, I made a great dinner for my child.”  Instead of "I wish I hadn't told him off like that, think, his behaviour was inappropriate, and it's my job to let him know that." Rewrite your responses positively, and after a while, that way of thinking will become the norm advises Gold.

Gold recommends being conscious of your thought patterns, and stopping them before they walk you into guilt territory. Talk to someone, and let them help you to see the great things you do, not just the things you should feel bad about.  Ask a trusted friend or partner to help you to re-frame the guilt into positive expressions, to write you a list of things they think you do well, and keep it handy, for when you're having an attack of the guilt.  She says, “Write yourself a list of the things you feel guilty about.  Now look again at the list, and cross off everything you are actually guilty of, and which makes you a bad person. Your list won't hold up to much scrutiny, and when you actually stop to think about each item, you will realise that your guilt is just a bad habit, not a reality.”

What other things cause mummy guilt? How do you deal with it?

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