With my daughter going off to her first day at daycare this week, I thought it was timely to talk about mum guilt. For many of us, it starts pretty early in pregnancy. Maybe your guilt first crept in after getting pregnant was fairly easy. You see friends on their seventh round of IVF and aren’t sure whether to share the aches and pains of pregnancy, or keep your mouth shut. Or maybe you’ve got the miracle IVF baby and you feel guilty for not adoring every moment. Or maybe this pregnancy was a complete surprise and your first reaction wasn’t at all like the giggling woman on the Clearblue ad who reminds you that you’re ‘supposed to’ be excited, not horrified/annoyed/resentful.
I regularly feel waves of guilt creeping in for not being able to adore every single minute of being a stay at home mum. Particularly since I was convinced it would completely fulfil me in a way work never could. Then I read a fabulous book on Positive Psychology by Shawn Achor called the Happiness Advantage. In it, he talks about his time teaching and researching at Harvard and the seemingly bizarre observation that students at Harvard are among the most unhappy and depressed people in the world. You would think that after years of dreaming, working hard and getting to achieve something so great that these people would be on top of the world. Turns out they are, but only for a short time. They, like the rest of us, fall into the great lie of “I’ll be happy when…”. Who of us can say that they are still buzzing from the high of buying that first car ten, or even five years ago, or are still reeling with the joy of getting to see whatever band you thought was cool at 11? Is the feeling always with you? Probably not.
One of the biggest lies our culture preaches to women is that the excitement of pregnancy and the wonder of having a newborn is enough. Enough to keep your tap of oxytocin flowing 24 hours a day. No matter how much you do love your children the buzz isn’t sustainable 24/7, and then we feel guilty.
Think about that first innocent, yet very loaded question you’re asked when people find out you’re pregnant. “Are you excited?”. Truthfully, I’ve sometimes said “not right at the moment” or “I’m getting there”, and I’ve received strange looks. That’s fine. I remind myself that the other person is finding out for the first time, or enjoying a snippet of my pregnancy by proxy. Pregnancy is a time that is full of hope and excitement, but just not all the time. During the throes of hyperemesis gravidarum (severe morning sickness) I’ve sometimes felt guilty for not being excited. For not being able to just smile through endless bouts of vomiting and being satisfied with the knowledge that I have a healthy baby. Not matter what the background of your pregnancy, there’s always something to feel guilty about!
Think about when your baby first arrives, and then you get the “enjoy every moment” comments. Often these comments are from otherwise healthy people who seem to be suffering with severe memory loss. Otherwise known as parents of older children. Parents of young children don’t ever say this to parents of other young children because everyone is still in survival mode. I am convinced that all parents go through some sort of deep cognitive denial about how tough each phase of parenting was in order to have more children and keep going. Golden Age thinking is wonderful and nostalgic, but you can’t enjoy every moment of anything. Not even the Dalai Llama claims to enjoy every moment. He’s probably never had baby shit in his hair.
As women, we are still very much influenced by the ultra feminine archetype of the “Good Mum”. The mum who is always responsive to her child’s needs with love and compassion. The good mum doesn’t take time for herself because she is strong enough and selfless enough not to need it. The good mum can split her roles perfectly evenly across parenting, work, hobbies, community roles and never feel unsatisfied or burnt out. The good mum knows she chose this, and brought it on herself so she doesn’t complain. The good mum doesn’t have negative thoughts about her children or parenting.
So what do you do with this guilt and the endless loop of negative thoughts that go with it? Whether it’s like a tiny, annoying pebble in your shoe, or a giant boulder you’re carrying uphill the coping mechanism is the same. Dealing with mum guilt can be likened to coping with a whingey toddler repeating the same word over and over 50 million times, hanging off your leg while you do your best to keep your shit together.
The trick with mum guilt is not to get rid of it, ignore it, embrace it, accept it or any other absolutes that aren’t sustainable. The trick is to learn to acknowledge it, allow its presence in the moment without judging or labelling it. Sometimes a whiney toddler just wants acknowledgement that they are seen and heard. Don’t we all, really? Sometimes if we are upset, hungry, tired and so on we don’t always need someone to fix it, comment, or analyze but just give us some acknowledgement that we have been seen. What you choose to do with your emotions in that next moment is up to you. With caveats. I say this because no one who is sleep deprived and burnt out is ever going to be great at making rational, calm choices all the time, or even most of the time.
When you can, give yourself a moment to decide if you need to give your negative thoughts attention at this time? Or would it be less soul destroying to acknowledge that the negative thought is there, and practice going back to doing what you’re doing. For example, saying to yourself “I’m feeling frazzled. It’s ok. I can go back to cutting this sandwich without this moment being about me being a crappy mum”.
Sometimes you will snap. Maybe yell expletives. It might work for a second. You feel a bit of tension relief, and 30 milliseconds of quiet. But then the crying starts again and you feel guilty, realizing it hasn’t worked anyway. You talk to yourself in absolutes resolving that you’ll “never” yell again and “always” be calm from now on. When this happens, return your attention back to acknowledging without judgement. This is basic Mindfulness training. The practice of just observing life and what’s happening without racing to analyze the emotions. This is often how Psychologists help people tackle extreme examples of constant negative thoughts.
Take OCD for example. Do you think it’s remotely useful to tell someone who literally has hundreds of thousands of thoughts about awful things to just stop thinking about it? And yet, it’s often the first response we all have. Instead, we want to do the opposite. Let the thoughts in, and let your brain adjust to the noise. With repeated practice of acknowledging negative thoughts and then leaving them be, the brain learns to treat these thoughts as neutral information instead of important life-threatening information that needs our immediate attention. It’s a process, and a long one at that. It requires sifting through years of unsorted thoughts, and starting what seems like the never ending task of attending to all those pesky files (your unchallenged negative thoughts). Psychologists are great at filing thoughts, so if you need help, don’t see it as defeat. See it as engaging the skills of someone to help you task manage. Someone who can help you sift through files and decide what needs to be dealt with now, what can wait, what’s overdue and what needs to be shredded.
Again, it needs to be said that there’s a reason sleep deprivation is used as a torture device. There’s a reason that research tells us multitasking actually doesn’t work and you end up using twice as much effort and brain power than focusing on once task. Positive Psychology research tells us that the people who are the most happy are not practising the lie of “loving every moment”, but they do practice looking for small wins. So you’ve got baby crap in your hair, at least it’s not in your mouth this time. It’s about finding small things to be optimistic about, small, believable ways to give yourself acknowledgement that there are absolutely things you are getting right.