By Rebecca Hooton
Before having her first child, Katie* was a human resources manager. She was organised and kicking goals in her career, and expected to do the same as a mother. “She was convinced that her baby had to stick to the routine in the parenting book she’d been reading,” says Lizzie O’Halloran, counsellor, author and founder of Help For Mums (helpformums.com), describing one of her clients. “Any time she was asked to leave the house, like to meet a friend for a coffee, she’d feel extreme stress and guilt over disturbing her baby’s sleep.”
Unfortunately, this incident is all too common – a study of more than 2000 mothers in the UK found approximately 87 per cent experience mama guilt at some point, and according to another study, this guilt hits at least 23 times a week. It seems we’re damned if we do, and we’re damned if we don’t. Want to go back to work? You’ll likely feel guilty about leaving your children. Want to stay home with your kids? You’ll suffer the guilts from not “working”.
“Mum guilt is probably the most common issue I see in mothers,” says Lizzie. “Generally speaking, most mothers have an underlying belief that they should sacrifice everything for their children, put themselves last and do their utmost to keep their children happy at all times. Of course, this isn’t possible or desirable, and it usually leads to exhaustion, unrealistic expectations and increased guilt when mums can’t achieve this.”
Mama guilt can wreak havoc on self-esteem and the ability to enjoy motherhood. “Another one of my client’s children was very emotional and the mother was riddled with guilt and self-blame for her daughter’s personality and issues,” recalls Lizzie. “Her self-esteem was so low by the time she came to see me, and her self-loathing was not helping her daughter in any way. In fact, because she felt so guilty every time she said “no” or stood up for herself when her daughter was rude to her, it made it worse.”
And guilt is not an easy feeling to turn off. Even as a counsellor, Lizzie has experienced it herself. “When my first daughter was younger, I felt bad so about leaving her at childcare that she only went one day per week for two years. This made the transition to childcare even harder because she’d forget all about it for six days and then was shocked again to go back on day seven. I could hear her crying from the front door of the building, so I felt like the worst mother in the world having to leave her in tears.
“It’s totally normal to feel sick to your stomach leaving your child in care – but you have to remember you’re doing what’s best for your family”, says Lizzie. “I knew I had a right to send her to childcare and that going back to work was really important for my whole family. I knew I wasn’t hurting her, because she was happy once I left. Needless to say, my second child went to childcare two days per week from the age of 15 months and transitioned much more smoothly – I learnt my lesson there.”
As mums, we feel guilt over everything – from switching from breastfeeding to formula, to letting our kids watch TV, to losing our temper when it all gets too much. But we really need to go a little easier on ourselves, advises Dr Karen Phillip, counselling psychotherapist and relationship authority (drkarenphillip.com).
“A mother’s role is extraordinarily complex and time-consuming – being everything to everyone at all times,” she says. “Expectations are the culprit – don’t compare yourself to others you see on social media or TV, or in stories about women who ‘do it all’. What we don’t hear about are those who crash and burn out.”
There are a lot more opportunities available to women now, but we’re still often torn between pursuing our dreams and being available to our children. But of all things, the decision regarding work – and how soon we return – is one of the sources of the most angst. “Mothers’ guilt magnified a few decades ago when women stepped out of the kitchen and into education and careers,” explains Dr Phillip. “The major role of parent and homemaker remains with the mother, but now with the added responsibility of building careers.”
But letting the guilt take over can cause us to make decisions that lead to regret. “There was a mum that was coming to the practice and she loved making jewellery,” says Dr Brooklyn Storme, director and head psychologist at All Psyched Up (allpsychedup.com.au). “She was so talented that she’d been featured in a prominent women’s magazine and was offered employment that required her to work in the city (which was an hour’s drive away). But, she couldn’t bear the thought of being away from her child and gave up the work. However, she now feels she’s missed an amazing opportunity.”
Guilt is also common around the concept of no longer contributing as much financially. “I knew a married couple – both professional workers – and the mother decided she would take a year off work to care for their new baby after birth,” says Dr Phillip. “However, she was terrified of ‘going broke’, even though her partner earned a good wage and could support them all.”
Being the one at home caring for a child is just as valuable as being the one going out and making the money to pay for the mortgage and bills, so it’s important to do what is right for you. “I remind couples of the fact that there are two parents, not just a mother, and a woman has every right to have a career too. That helps women start to feel more empowered,” says Dr Phillips. In fact, a major study conducted by Harvard University in 2015 showed that sons and daughters of working mothers appear to thrive, with daughters benefiting the most from the positive role model of a mother with a career. So if you do choose to return to the workplace, it isn’t something to feel guilty about.
Essentially, motherhood is a huge journey with ups, downs, twists and turns. But the rule of all rules? Don’t allow your mind to fall into the pit of mama guilt. And if you do find yourself there? Climb out mama, climb out.
3 STEPS TO SMASH MAMA GUILT
Every time you feel bad, ask yourself these three questions, says Lizzie O’Halloran, author of Perfect Mum: How To Survive The Emotional Rollercoaster of Motherhood.
1 // IS IT BEST FOR YOU AND YOUR FAMILY?
If it’s for the sake of your own sanity, it’s the right decision. For example, if you’ve given breastfeeding a go and you’re struggling and stressed because your baby is losing weight, it’s not in either of your best interests to continue.
2 // ARE YOU A PARENT OR A BEST FRIEND?
Yes, your child might be angry because you won’t let them have that “treat”, but you have to look at whether your goal is to hurt them – or simply do what’s best for them. And usually it will be the latter. You’re a parent, not their best friend.
3 // HAVE YOU ADDRESSED THE SITUATION?
Maybe you yelled at your toddler in a trying moment, or your daughter told you you’re not around as much anymore because you’ve gone back to work. That’s when you sit down and talk to your child. You may say something like, “I’m sorry mummy lost her temper – I was feeling very tired and upset and make mistakes sometimes, too.” Or explain, “Going back to work is important to me and to help support our family – maybe you could choose something extra special for us to do this weekend?” Whatever you do, don’t cave into the guilt!