Okay, so the above quote is from the late, great Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novel, Mort, and the character, Death, is actually referring to the experience of eating a curry. I think we can all agree, however, that mummy guilt feels pretty much the same. That hot, sudden rush of adrenalin, that slow, cold kick in the guts; that awful sensation that the bottom might just be able to fall out of our world, or possibly vice versa…and it’s all our fault.
We all feel it. We’d be lying if we said we didn’t – or possibly delusional, living in a perfect house somewhere on Pinterest St. Mummy guilt can be as simple and as fleeting as that flicker you feel when you say no to something you could (or should) as easily have said agreed to. Or it can be as consuming and as pervasive enough to completely ruin lives. And families.
Image courtesy of morgueFile free images
A quick search of the internet will provide you with hundreds of pages of conflicting advice on how to embrace or ignore feelings of parental guilt. “You deserve ten minutes to yourself!” (You do.) “It’s okay to say no!” (It is. Sometimes. It’s also lovely to say yes when you could have said no!) “That’s how they learn to deal with disappointment.” (Shaky ground, this one.) “Guilt just reminds me that I love my kids and want the best for them.” (Never in doubt.)
Guilt, of course, is not just limited to mothers. Fathers have to deal with their own brand of parental guilt, and guilt of any kind is never pleasant. But we mothers just have a special talent for it, don’t we? Let’s face it, there have been days where we’ve managed to organise and execute a picnic lunch at the park, a full grocery shop, four loads of laundry, two hours of make-believe play, a craft activity that didn’t involve a trip to Emergency or your insurance company’s details being handed over, all while balancing a baby on one hip and a toddler on one foot, and usually suffering the kind of sleep deprivation banned by the UN as cruel and inhuman torture…but still felt guilty because you dared to sit down and pull out your phone for five minutes to check in with the adult world on Facebook…
Time for some honesty. For stay-at-home mums, put your hand up if you’ve ever woken after a night of child-broken sleep and, even for the briefest of moments, had that thought flash through your head: it should be me going to work today. My partner looks tired. Maybe I should have taken Johnnie into the other room to feed him last night? I should be more considerate!
For working mums, put your hand up if you have ever felt guilt at even the thought of dropping your child off at care for the day? I’m failing my child. I should be the one looking after her!
Why, why, why do we do this to ourselves? Have we, as a society, so conditioned and devalued mothers and motherhood that self-depreciation is not only the norm, but even expected? To the point where we do it to ourselves as a way of putting ourselves in our proper place…? And even when we know better, even when our heart tells us we’re doing something beyond important, why is there still that moment of internal conflict when, no sooner does the coffee cup touch our lips and Little Janie asks us to play dolls one more time, that we think, Am I a bad mother if I don’t say yes…? A real mother wouldn’t need five minutes to herself. She would appreciate spending time with her children all day. They’re only little once…
Why, when we’re doing the very best we can do, with what circumstances and resources we have to hand, do we insist upon telling ourselves that we could be doing better? That we’re somehow failing our children? That we are worthy only of shame?
We sigh. We put our cup down (hey, ice coffee is nicer anyway…right?). We play, or we say no. Or we wipe our tears away in the car where no one else can see our ‘silly’ pain. Either way, we love our kids. But do we love ourselves?
Image courtesy of morgueFile free images
A negative feedback loop is a reaction to stimulus that causes a decrease in function. In this case, function refers to our feelings of self-worth. We wake up tired; we feel guilty because we should feel refreshed, or at least be able to fake it. We feel too tired to play; we feel guilty for ruining their childhood. We go to work; we feel guilty for ‘abandoning’ our child into someone else’s care. We serve up cheese toasties and salad for dinner because it’s the only thing the kids will eat without drama; we feel guilty that we have somehow failed to produce perfect children who eat gourmet meals and only drink spring water. The feedback loop grows larger, wilder…it feeds and thrives on guilty creativity. Or possibly on cheese toasties. Sound familiar? And so on.
We are constantly reinforcing the guilt. Over time, and added to the palpable weight of social opinion where women and mothers are concerned, we begin to own the guilt. Whole-heartedly. Unashamedly. Unfairly?
Have we actually got the point where feeling guilty makes us feel better? Not emotionally, for sure. But because we know, deep down, that we somehow deserve to suffer in order to justify motherhood? If this is the case, then there are some challenges ahead.
If ever motherhood is to reclaim its rightful place in our society – as a vital, powerful, precious thing worthy of value beyond lip-service and community service announcements, then we, as mothers, need to stop doing this to ourselves.
Stop the feedback loop in its tracks. Step outside it completely. You are allowed to be a mother – a stay-at-home one, or a back-to-work one. You are allowed to have good and bad days. Rejoice in the good ones. Learn from the bad ones – it was only a bad day, not a bad YOU. You are allowed to wake feel resentful of your partner’s eight hours of unbroken sleep. You are not selfish – you are tired!
You are allowed to dump your clean laundry back on top of the machine (or bed, or floor) to fold later. Or not. This is not inadequacy, poor house-keeping or failure. It is just a pile of laundry. You are allowed to be exactly as you are in any given moment – to experience the full gamut of experiences that comes with motherhood without feeling like you are somehow failing your child simply for being their mother.
Bite the ice cube. It might well be red-hot, but I hope it tastes like victory. I hope it tastes like confidence. I hope it tastes like Pinterest St, except with a messy floor and noise, and chaos, and a guilt-free you in the centre of it all.