If you are somebody who consumes any level of motherhood content, from writing to podcasts, it is likely that you have heard the idea of ‘mum guilt’ being discussed. ‘Mum guilt’ has become a catch-all term for anything that makes us feel bad as mothers, from the light (fish fingers again) to the heavier (missing bedtime) to the supremely heavy (divorce and separation).
I was shocked when, hours after giving birth to Ella, I looked down at her perfect face, barely-there eyelashes, fresh little nose, and realised that one day she would be heartbroken, she would be homesick, she would be lonely. I felt a huge weight of responsibility thicken the air in the room around me, that when I had chosen her life I had also chosen her sadness and her joy. This sensation is the backdrop to mum guilt, but for me at least, that frequent feeling of culpability, that I am lacking, that I have done the wrong thing by my children, has two distinct types or colours.
The first type, is a kind of stockholm-syndrome-response to the entrapment, maternal mental load, and unceasing responsibility of mothering young children. This type of mum guilt is a kind of madness: we are spending every single second of our lives tending to our babies, on little sleep, and with only the bare minimum of time to complete basic tasks such as washing or urinating. In those early months and years, we are in a beautiful love-filled prison.
For me, a sign of this entrapment and overload is that I often hallucinate my baby screaming. I hear it in the falling shower water and I turn off the tap in panic, stretching my ears through the house to listen. I hear it in the early summer morning birdsong, a 5am bolt of electricity shocking my body awake, getting me ready to travel from deep sleep to breastfeeding in the space of ten dizzy seconds. I hear it in the scream of a passing child outside on the street who is not mine but in that first chilling instant could be.
These aural hallucinations are a symptom of the taut and jangled state of our nervous systems as mothers, and especially as mothers of very young children, children who need us constantly, urgently, and relentlessly. I sometimes fantasise about being at a point in my life where my day isn’t repeatedly punctuated by imagined screams.
This overload has a strange effect. When we do finally carve a comparatively tiny window of time for ourself, it feels so unnatural and unusual that our entire experience of it is coloured by guilt. Guilt that makes us cut a walk short and hurry home, despite it being the first time we have been alone for ten days and nights. Guilt that makes us choose a twenty minute yoga class online instead of the hour-long one we want to do, because somebody will need us before that hour is up. Guilt that the baby is spending some of their limited awake time chatting happily to a rattle instead of to us, because we need to empty the dishwasher. To be blunt, feeling guilty for any of these things, is an insanity.
And with this type of guilt there is often a strange relief at thwarted plans. There won’t be time for me to have a bath after all; oh you need to go out then of course don’t worry; no no I was just hoping I might read some of my book which I started in 2010. It’s fine. And I relax, relieved that I no longer have to question my self-indulgence, or worry that I am a bad mother because I am doing a hair mask and listening to a podcast upstairs.
Our window of time in between various naps and feeds and moments of emotional need is so very small that I often find the person so generously helping me out doesn’t realise that by bringing their own schedule to the day, they are obliterating my single moment of peace. It is hard for anybody not directly in the flow of tiny children, to remember or understand its demands. The type of support we need can sometimes feel too mountainous to ask for – but can you drop your entire life and just be here for me now, right now when I know you have plans, because I am broken? – that we simply don’t.
This type of mum guilt should be ignored in its essence because it is the product of an overworked and underslept mind. But it should be paid attention to for the same reason – we should not, in my view, be routinely getting to the point as mothers where we are so strung out we feel guilty for taking a shower, or tentatively attempting a social life.
I would urge you to do the things you need to do to feel wholly you, before you are having to perform them as an emergency parachute cord. Do not wait for your cup to be empty and broken before you start filling it up, because the water will just leak through the holes. You can go for a drink with friends, have a long bath, go to a yoga class, all simply because you are a human being rather than because you have been pushed to the tearful point of needing a break.
There is a second type of ‘mum guilt’ however that often gets confused with the first. I hear ALL parental guilt often being spoken about in the terms above- ‘you do so much for your kids; you shouldn’t feel guilty for X’. But. I would like to controversially suggest that there are occasionally things we should feel guilty about, or rather that it is okay to feel guilty about; Guilt can be an important message from our gut and intuition, that something is off or out of balance.
When I was pregnant with Frankie, we decided that for the last few months of work I would go up to four days a week. My day job is pretty full on, in film and TV production. It does not always respect children’s rhythms, bedtimes, and needs for connection. I knew four-day weeks would be tough, but I also knew that it was temporary and that we needed the money before I stopped work.
I felt guilty almost constantly for the entire four months that I was working four days a week. Sometimes it was a general background of guilt, and other times it was a burning and acute sensation that brought me to tears, as I bundled my exhausted and sad two year old to childcare yet again, missed her bedtime as I raced back from the office, left her screaming in the arms of my husband as I walked upstairs to take a call.
But this type of guilt, for me, doesn’t feel like unnecessary self-flaggelation, or the confused martyrdom or a trapped mind: this feeling mattered. The balance of our family was off. Ella missed me. I was incredibly tired and I knew in my bones that she was far too young to see me so little.
For me, this type of mum guilt is an important emotion and one we should pay attention to. I learnt a lot in those four months, and I now know that I won’t work that much while our children are so young.
Another more recent example of this type of mum guilt is the discomfort I feel every day at how much of my time and energy is spent prioritising the instant needs of my newborn over my three year old. Three year olds are just learning to wait, in a way that a three-month old cannot possibly understand, and so many of my ‘in the moment’ decisions as a mum favour Frankie over Ella.
Of course this is all normal. We are in the middle of a natural albeit tricky period of time after a new baby enters a home. But it is also a feeling that comes from my gut and that I am listening to. Making way for a new sibling is one of the most normal things in the world, but I also know that my eldest is finding it hard, that she is adjusting to sharing me, and that I must make uninterrupted time for her whenever I can. She is unendingly generous in her love for her brother, but I pay attention to this guilt because, just like the feeling above, it matters.
Sometimes this second sort of guilt can be very difficult to sit with; it may be something that you cannot do very much about right now – a messy shared custody situation, a working pattern that doesn’t serve your family, fatigue or poor health that is preventing you from being there for your children in the way you would like. But I think that making space for this feeling of worry and culpability is important; it is a deeply-felt sign of parental devotion; it is your keenly-tuned ear to your children’s happiness, a perfect pitch for each individual babe that jangles when something is wrong.
I think the conversations around ‘mum guilt’ often emanate from a knee-jerk need to disregard negative emotions. Guilt does not feel nice. I think we should try our hardest not to waste any of our precious energy on the first type of guilt, while celebrating the second as evidence of our deep intuition and connection with our children. If we allow this emotion into our hearts a little more openly, even if we cannot remedy the situation now, we can trust that our babies are seen in their struggle, noticed, and supported through change and imbalance. Long live mum guilt!