Saying no to Mum Guilt

09 March 2021 by Anna Keen
blog author

*this is not exclusive to mums, dads can get it too!
For a while now I have wanted to share some of the things I have learned in recent years in the hope it will help someone else. The most significant of all my life experiences seems an obvious place to start – becoming a mum.

In 2017, I became a mum. I was lucky, I had a pretty easy pregnancy and before I knew it, I had my beautiful baby boy Felix in my arms. Now for some reason, maybe hormones (there were a few of them around at the time!), I didn’t have that immediate rush of love that everyone raves about. It really troubled me for a while, but over time I fell in love with my son and we settled into a maternity leave full of coffee and playdates. Fast forward six months and I was bored, not bored of him but bored of the monotony of maternity leave. See, I had spent the previous three years building a business that I loved, a business I was incredibly proud of and my days had been spent busily helping others. I missed it! So after six months off, I signed Felix up for nursery and made arrangements to return to work.

The day came to return and I still vividly remember handing Felix over to his key worker, getting in the car and smiling. I was finally going back to work, to speak to adults and drink hot coffee! Moments later, I was in tears. Why? I felt guilty for not feeling guilty. I had managed to avoid the well-promoted trauma of the first nursery drop off and instantly felt like the worst mother alive. Wasn’t I supposed to be crying at the thought of leaving him? Counting down the hours until I could hold him again? Maybe I didn’t love him enough? Those feelings I had felt when he was first born were back with me with a vengeance. No one else felt like this so what was wrong with me? I eventually composed myself, got stuck into work but was left with this nagging feeling something wasn’t right.

A few weeks later, like many returning-to-work mothers, I was struggling to get back into work. The job I had been rushing back to felt different, unsatisfying, wrong. I was slowly becoming depressed. I didn’t want to be at home and I didn’t want to be at work. Eventually, I broke. I needed help. The next six months were the toughest of my life, but I worked hard with the support of a coach and a counsellor to understand my feelings and redefine my own internal dialogue. I learnt a lot about who I was, the limiting stories I told myself, and the relentless standards I set.

As I write this, I want to make it clear that I know parenting is a privilege and a potentially emotive subject to discuss. But on the off-chance someone is reading this and some of what I have written resonates, I want to share what I've learned:

Mum guilt serves no one, especially not your children.

The most empowering thing I have learned is that I am in absolute control of my emotions. Through CBT, I came to realise that I could choose to entertain mum guilt and be consumed by it or I could recognise it serves no one and choose to let it go. Sounds too good to be true – it’s not. My rationale: I have limited time and energy.

Why would I choose to waste limited time and energy on an emotion that doesn’t improve my life or the life of my son? Whenever I felt myself feeling remotely guilty, I used mindfulness to recognise it and then let it go. I trained myself to repeat the mantra, ‘this serves neither of you’ and I would then focus on something that did serve me; my work or my relationship with my son. It took serious amounts of practice, and sometimes I failed but eventually, the feelings of guilt just stopped showing up and on the rare occasion they did, I was able to kindly tell it to do one!

Find your people.

One of the great things about being a mum is you meet lots of other mums – I love meeting people, I find people fascinating. What I hadn’t expected, though, was to start feeling inadequate and self-conscious because I wasn’t thriving at being a stay-at-home mum. I was different and felt that made me a bad mum. In one session, my coach suggested that I find some women who, like me, thrive at work. Once I started looking, I found them everywhere, like they had been hiding in plain sight! I now consider these ladies not just my friends, but my mentors. I go to them when I'm struggling and I celebrate with them when I have survived a tough day. So, remember to be confident in who you are and please don’t try and compare yourself to anyone – no good will come of it.

Don't be your own worst critic.

My self-talk can be an absolute b*tch! When I went through counselling it became apparent that, subconsciously, I was telling myself that as their mother, I was responsible for how our boys turned out. I hate this! I pride myself on being a feminist and I want my boys to grow up in a world that is equal. Without hesitation, I consider my husband my equal but subconsciously, I had taken full responsibility for raising our children – it makes me angry just thinking about it!

What really brought it home was talking to my counsellor about my desire to return to work full time and my fear that this would make me the worst mother alive. In response, she asked me a simple question; ‘Anna, is your husband a good parent?’ My response, without a moment’s thought, was ‘Yes, he’s incredible!’ She paused a moment and simply said ‘and he works full time, yes?’ In that moment something clicked... I had been destroying myself with the thought that by working full time, I was choosing my career over my children and this, in turn, made me an awful parent - but, I realised I didn’t judge my husband by those same standards! That very simple realisation has changed my life. Now, when I find I’m judging myself, I think how I would judge my husband for the same thing. Funny how I’m far more compassionate towards him!

What are your children learning?

One of the best ways I have found to silence my mum guilt was focusing on what my children were gaining, not what they were losing. When I work, I am happier – happy mum, happy baby. My boys are learning that women and men have careers of equal importance, that it’s the role of both of their parents to raise them. They are having the time of their lives at nursery; messy play, other kids and food pretty much every hour! I love seeing their faces when I pick them up, covered in grime, huge smiles – they get a lot from this deal!

So that's it. It's not easy and sometimes I cry into a glass of wine and feel like the worst parent alive, but I don't carry it with me daily and I don't let it control me. When I had my second child, Max, last year, I had a whole new wave of guilt trying to balance two children’s needs but the stuff I had learned with Felix served me well.

The only benchmark I allow myself for how well I am doing is how happy they are, and on that basis, I think I'm doing ok!