The self-flagellation starts pretty early in the life of a new mother.
I was slow to notice the presence of a foetus the first time I got pregnant. Upon seeing the distinctly positive looking pregnancy test that I was just taking “to be sure” (To be sure I was NOT pregnant mind), I immediately began to tally my misdemeanors of the past few weeks, convinced that I had already damaged the interloping baby.
For the whole gestation, I agonised daily. I was convinced that my wanting to eat Parma ham or drink coke was a class A offense that would justifiably result in the foetus being preemptively confiscated. And it really doesn’t help that along with all the advice of hysterical American websites, every well-meaning but extremely annoying stranger in the street has an opinion on what pregnant women can do and eat and say. Seriously people pulled me up on just saying stuff that was off message for the glowing gestator, I was supposed to be.
I complained about feeling sick all the time and being so tired and I was told that I should be grateful that I was pregnant at all as some people can’t get pregnant. Okay, that is true and sad but what does it have to do with me? Coke, Parma ham, sushi, other people’s fertility issues, just add it to the guilt list.
Once the baby arrives that list becomes an unending, self-replenishing tally of your shortcomings.
When the baby couldn’t latch to breastfeed, that was added to the list.
When the baby wouldn’t sleep on his own in the cot because apparently, I hadn’t adequately trained him, hell yeah that was going on the list.
When I wanted to go out and drink my face off? What kind of mother am I? A sh*t one clearly, put it on the list.
The fact that my son’s first word was ‘crisps’, not a great reflection on my parenting skills. Put that on the list, b*tch.
Adjusting to feeling chronically guilty was one of the weirdest things about becoming a parent and I noticed that it appeared to be completely confined to me, the mother. The Man was not expending a second’s energy feeling bad about himself as a father. So why on earth was I? I noticed that a lot of my sentences were starting with “I feel bad because…”
“I feel bad because I want to go to bookclub tonight but I’ll be missing bedtime.”
Because, as we all know, occasional motherless bedtimes is the leading cause of all problems in later life. The issue, as I see it, is that society has cast a role for women in the arena of child-raising and it is full-on. We are the nurturers. Society insists on our indispensability and in doing so confines us to a role that was cast centuries ago and is not compatible with contemporary life. The lack of equal parental leave means that the very structure of our society cements the woman’s place as being in the home. Women who want to break that mold, not only have to work hard to re-enter the workforce, she will likely have to overcome her own guilt for doing so.
Research suggests that women are more than twice as likely to feel guilty returning to work than men. I am frequently asked about my childcare arrangements (the arrangement of which was solely my responsibility by the way) while my husband is never quizzed on this subject. Women are definitely given a harder time by society, by other women but most of all by ourselves. We hold up ridiculous standards of the mothering ideal while infantilising our partners in their role as co-parents.
Every time someone asks me if the husband is ‘babysitting’ his kids or Chris Hemsworth receives rapturous praise for just doing some fairly basic parenting (he baked his child a birthday cake), I rage. Last year a mother’s list of instructions left for her co-parent went viral. It was funny and it spoke to a whole generation of women who are used to shouldering the emotional and administrative baggage of a household. But it also seriously pissed me off. We have to ditch this image of the hapless father and we need to share responsibility (and the pesky guilt) for the joint enterprise that is baby-raising.
Writing in the Guardian, psychotherapist, and author of How To Stay Sane, Philippa Perry urges her readers to remember that guilt is an emotion, not a reality. “Guilt is like a warning light on a dashboard; it is a feeling that isn’t to be ignored. We can be pretty sure it is useful guilt if we can tie it in to a specific behaviour we are doing or not doing and it’s a signal that something needs to change.”
Maybe what needs to change is that we, as mothers, need to step back to encourage fathers to step up. And stop beating ourselves up for not being perfect.
Mum strategist, Mia Redrick has one point that I return to every time I have to miss bedtime:
“Know that a little guilt makes you healthy. It means that you care about your family and the way that they experience you.”
Do you struggle with the mother guilt? Let us know in the comments…