GUILT – WHY DO WOMEN DO IT SO WELL?
Guilt is an emotion that most mothers rock. Have I fed the kids enough vegies, enough protein, did they get enough exercise, have I damaged them with the number of times I’ve said, ‘No!” in the last day, hour, minute…? These are normal questions to ride the dizzy carousel of a mother’s thinking in those quiet moments before surrendering to sleep.
Interestingly, women are biologically hardwired to be hypersensitive to those nasty guilt related feelings. Women are primed with the neurochemical that promotes empathy and helps us not to eat our young – even when the situation warrants it! Studies show that baby girls are far more likely to be sympathy criers than boys – right from our earliest moments we have higher levels of empathy. In mothering, that empathy helps us to form a deep bond and attachment with our infants and then begin the emotionally fraught life-long journey of stepping up to meet that child’s emotional, social, learning, physical and nutritional needs.
WORKING MUMS AND STAY AT HOME MUMS – IS THERE A BIG GUILT DIFFERENCE?
Perhaps it shouldn’t, but it does bring some comfort that the divide between mothers who work outside the home – part-time or full-time and stay at home mums isn’t as great as we think when it comes to feeling guilt. I recently spoke to a friend who is a full time stay at home mum and her feeling of mothering guilt was not that much different to mine. Our society demands from mothers this instant bonding, provision of warmth, nurturing and faultless nutrition, having all the answers to life’s big questions like, “Why doesn’t she like me?” We are charged with the responsibility to pack in everything developmentally good in the frighteningly small window of time we have to get it right before, apparently, we cause irreparable lifelong harm to our child. It is little wonder that as women we feel often that we fall way short of this seemingly impossible level of parenting perfection.
THE RETURN TO WORK
When we add to that a return to work, it can become a compounded, complicated and confusing feeling. In all things parenting, growing our little and big people on a firm foundation of unconditional love is key. However, the reality is that love is not all about the warm fuzzies of cuddles on the couch and little love notes in the lunchbox. It’s far greater, far more difficult and far more noble pursuit than that. It means establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries, sensible rules and consequences that keep a child safe while their rational and logical brain develops. The giving of unconditional love is the easy part – holding fast to established routines and behavioural expectations in the face of guilt – well, that’s the difficult bit.
When guilt rears its ugly head at the beginning or end of a long working day, it can cause stress and angst when calm and connection are most needed. When we look through the eyes of guilt, an angry tot shouting, “You’re not my favourite mummy” might grow into horrendous thoughts about it meaning our child feels abandoned. Looked at otherwise it is simply an expression of a little person saying that your boundaries are not what they were hoping for in a rule-free world. Nothing more than that – however, guilt will often make a mum see it as a sure sign of everything she’s feared by not being there at every moment of her child’s growing up.
WHAT DOES MATERNAL GUILT LOOK LIKE IN OUR HOMES?
Sometimes maternal guilt translates to feeling the need to make up for our maternal shortfalls and failings with the granting of ‘extras.’ It might look like pushing back bedtime in response to pitiful wails of, “But I just want to sit with you a bit longer.” Again, looking through the eyes of guilt the immediate interpretation is that a child needs us a bit more and that we should be making up our not available hours which will somehow be the magic tonic in gaining the world’s happiest and most well-adjusted child. However, this is every child’s behaviour – pushing back bedtime boundaries, homework boundaries, chores – anywhere a boundary exists most children feel the need to take a good hard run up at it and try to push it over. Guilt is one of the greatest weakeners of a mother’s defence against the dark arts of childhood boundary pushing because we are so fearful that this normal childhood behaviour is actually only because we’re a working mum and somehow our child is most probably missing something vital towards being a fully flourishing human being.
So, what’s the solution to this issue that is the cross that many women bear? How can we throw off the guilt and parent our children free of that murky lens that so often changes our interpretation of perfectly normal and expected childhood reactions to life’s many happenings?
We need to acknowledge and face our feelings of guilt. Where do they come from? Do they come from society’s expectations of mothering equating to always being present and available for our young? Do they come from the standards and expectations of the women in our tribe? This might be the disapproval of a mother who stayed at home to raise her child full time – the disapproval of our own mother or other mothers in our circles. Do they come from the hideous images in the media of the perfect mother – always smiling, patient, emotionally available, proudly displaying the ‘Mum’s Taxi’ in the back window of her car?
We need to bring back the concept of good enough mothering. There are so many experts out there giving us all the do’s and don’ts, telling us that we need to do more of this and less of that. There are so many books giving us the promise of a scientifically proven path to perfect parenting. Ahhh! In parenting the only given is that there is no perfect, there is only progress. Our progress is most surely going to experience setbacks, revisions, complete throwing out of what started out as a brilliant plan. What works today will most likely not work tomorrow – so being flexible and open is the only way towards child-rearing that won’t result in insanity.
When we get to the happy place of being a good enough mum we throw off the mantle of needing to be perfect and to be seen to be perfect. We start to parent in the best way we can and not in response to our feelings of guilt. We support others on their individual mothering journeys and in doing that we grow in confidence about what we’re doing towards raising happy, healthy and emotionally robust little human beings.
We need to keep adding to our knowledge base about parenting. In every job there’s an induction, there’s the requirement for ongoing professional learning. And parenting should be no different. If guilt comes from a place of not knowing but being too busy to do something about it, then stop. Get help – buy a book, Google it, ask your mothering tribe, go to a Workshop. In those immortal words, just do it! This mothering gig is far too important to leave to chance.
And let’s not forget some really great self-care. Guilt over not being there results in many women setting aside their own need for space, exercise and relaxation because it might mean even more time away from her child. You can’t pour from an empty jug – so don’t. If you want to pour love, resilience, self-acceptance and self-worth into your child – then start by filling your own jug with all of those essentials.
The reality is, is that mothering – full time or around work is never going to be perfect. We’re dealing with complex little creatures cutting their own path through life and all we can do is, right now, in this moment be the best mother we can be to facilitate, guide and shape that journey. Guilt added to that immense responsibility can become toxic and damaging – to us and our children.
A wise woman said to me once, as I pushed my trolley of little boys through a shopping centre (all demanding my attention and focus, treats, wanting to go home, a ride on the dragon out the front… that messy stuff of mothering), “Some days are diamonds and some days are coal.” How right she was. While adding work to the mothering mix does change some aspects of our thinking, at the end of the day, we’re still all at the mercy of the mothering journey with its highs and lows. Set your guilt aside and know that you are doing the very best you can and you can plug the gaps with adding knowledge and skills, support and resources and some good ways of filling your own emotional jug.