Another day, another depressing survey. Almost 80 per cent of mothers feel guilty, according to a new one by website GoodtoKnow, with 68 per cent doing so at least once every day. The main trigger points, it found, were feeling bad about not spending enough time with the children, not doing enough activities with them and not being able to afford the things they want to give them.
Guilt is the albatross around modern mothers' necks. We traipse around, slumped and bowed, as it weighs down on our shoulders, tuts at us and pecks at our heads. But no more, I say. Recently, I have declared myself Post-Guilt. Here are some things I have NOT felt guilty about of late:
1. Forgetting to pack a breaktime snack for my daughter. “Don’t worry, Mummy,” she said sweetly, as we sprinted up to school. “I’ll ask someone else if I can have a bite of theirs.”
(Ten minutes later, I found a mum friend with a spare apple in her bag; crisis averted.)
2. Missing my son’s special assembly because it was at 2pm on a Wednesday and I was at work.
(He didn't notice.)
3. Reading only one bedtime story last night despite being begged for two, because otherwise I would’ve been late for yoga.
(My weekly yoga session is the only 90 minutes of free time I have in my life. It is crucial to my sanity.)
It doesn’t have to be this way. Life is mental, hectic and unpredictable enough without indulging this pointless emotion. Being a parent is hard enough without being hard on yourself
I’m not a monster. I’m not a bad mother. Rather, after eight years at the coalface of parenthood, I have finally shrugged off that albatross and thrown it in the flames (metaphorically speaking – no need to call the RSPCA).
It’s taken a while to arrive at being Post-Guilt. When my daughter arrived, I felt bad that she’d had a horrible, complicated birth (was it something I’d done?). I then felt bad that I couldn’t breastfeed properly in a maternity ward plastered with Breast Is Best posters. A week later, I felt REALLY BAD when she was rushed back to hospital with severe dehydration, due to my ongoing failure to breastfeed properly. Six weeks later, I felt bad that my baby was underweight because I still hadn’t got the hang of breastfeeding, until my GP explained that perhaps I could relax and give her a bottle of formula now. And on it went. Guilt over using dummies. Guilt over my childcare choices. Turbo-charged guilt over – THE BIGGIE – returning to work full-time.
I’m tired just writing it down, so imagine how exhausting it was living it. Maternal guilt is so ingrained – a constant in our conversations, a bonding mechanism. I interview celebrities and just did a search for the G-word in my archive. Up popped all the mums – from Natalie Portman to Jessica Ennis-Hill – united in feeling crappy because they missed bedtime last Wednesday. Then there are my friends at the school gates, always ready with a self-deprecating tale of a #mumfail.
But no more, I say. It doesn’t have to be this way. Life is mental, hectic and unpredictable enough without indulging this pointless emotion. Being a parent is hard enough without being hard on yourself.
Last year, while working on a project with a life coach, I was droning on about juggling work and family duties, and whatever it was that particular day I was feeling guilty about. “No one else and nothing else is making you feel guilty. You are choosing to feel that way,” she reprimanded. The penny dropped: feeling guilty is indeed a choice. It is something of which you have control. And you can shrug it off, decide not to give a damn and focus instead on what’s truly important: whether you and your children are healthy and happy.
I’m also all about the solution these days. If I shout at my son because I’m tired and have overreacted to a minor misdemeanour, I don’t beat myself up about it for ever. I apologise, explain why I got it wrong, we have a cuddle, The End. Ditto the bigger-picture stuff – when working full-time with no flexibility threatened to overwhelm me with guilt, I left that job and recalibrated my career. Not a quick or easy decision, but a necessary one. If something in your life is making you feel awful, there’s usually a way of changing either how you respond to that thing or the thing itself.
I still get the odd pang – I’m no robot – but I’m quicker to quash it and, that way, fewer molehills get made into mountains these days. I know that I’m doing OK as a mother – sometimes I’m actually properly good; sometimes I’m just about good enough. But the only guilt I will now countenance are guilty pleasures – yes, please, to a bar of cheapo chocolate and rewatching Clueless on Netflix. As a mother, I know my place – and it’s not in the wrong.
This article is part of our Past Perfect series exploring the idea of perfection and the unrealistic perceptions that often surround it.