By Charlotte (@power.of.the.parent)
If you’re a mum – expecting, new, experienced – we can guarantee that dreadful guilt has crept up on you, probably more than once. Learning to overcome mum guilt is sure to make motherhood a smoother and happier experience but it’s a skill easier said than done! Charlotte Speak, owner of Power of the Parent works with parents and businesses to ensure they are empowered in the workplace. Today she’s talking to Motherhood Edit about mum guilt – what it is, when it’s useful (and when it really isn’t!) and how to overcome it.
‘Guilt’ is a word that took on a whole new meaning for me when I became a parent. Was I doing enough? Was I feeding my baby properly? How bad a friend had I become? What was getting my focus and attention? It was all over the place and there was a consistent under current about what I ‘should’ be doing taunting me. Mum guilt is REAL.
When I was returning to work after maternity leave, I didn’t feel guilty. So of course, I FELT GUILTY ABOUT NOT FEELING GUILTY! I’ll give you a minute to get your head around that one.
I loved the idea of being back in the workplace. I would have four days where I didn’t need to think of new games to play, decisions over what to give my daughter for lunch or enter the nap battle (she was a resistant sleeper!) I know they are things that lots of people enjoy and many people would love to have the opportunity to do – so I say this from a place of being abundantly grateful for my kids, but with a side dose of reality that I don’t LOVE every moment of parenting.
This was when I discovered the concept of functional and dysfunctional guilt – something which has been a work in progress for me personally, and a fall-back activity that I use with many of my clients. I pass it on to as many people as I can, so let’s explore what it means…
The two types of guilt
Functional guilt is there to play a role and will have a purpose attached to it. It’s a big indicator that you’ve stepped away from your values and you’re doing something or behaving in a certain way that doesn’t align with what’s important to you. For example, the parent who feels guilty about checking their work emails when they’re with their kids, but they have a core value around being present and family.
In this instance, the functional guilt is nudging us to make a change. Overcoming mum guilt might include resetting some boundaries around your screen time, deleting the email app or switching to a separate device. If it had a voice, it would be supportively saying “come on, you know you don’t want to do this – let’s have a reset.” It’s not about forming a judgement – think of it as supportive.
Dysfunctional guilt is a different kettle of fish. This is the stuff you can do very little about, and often comes from a place of other people’s belief systems. I see it a lot with parents over working patterns or returning to work full stop. One of the most common stories I hear is: “my parents / in laws think I should be at home with the baby, it’s what they did and they can’t get their head around why I want to be back at work.” Well…hold my drink because it’s time to shake this stuff up.
Maybe you decide to leave your baby with their grandparents or a trusted sitter while you go on a weekend away after 6 months. But someone else didn’t leave their child until they were 5. Maybe you chose to formula feed but your mum doesn’t understand why you’re not breastfeeding. Maybe you and baby didn’t leave the house today but Instagram is full of shiny, clappy baby groups.
Other people are entitled to their opinions, but that doesn’t make them facts. It’s also not something you have to align to – there are a million reasons parents want to return to their place of work (see a few of mine above!), or feed in a certain way, or need a day at home and it’s actually nobody else’s business. It doesn’t automatically stop the guilt though, and because it’s not attached to your belief system, it can be even harder to shake – you’ve got nothing solid to anchor it to.
Maybe you’re feeling the mum guilt about something nobody but you is actually bothered by: like what they had for dinner or how ‘fun’ you were that day.
In these instances it’s about acknowledging the dysfunction of it. If this one had a voice it would have very little to say other than “I’m being triggered by other people’s opinions”.
And that’s where we need to begin to leave it. If it’s not your belief, it’s time to overcome mum guilt by Elsa-ing it up… let it go.
Overcoming mum guilt doesn’t happen overnight
Saying all of this, I know overcoming mum guilt doesn’t always happen smoothly. It takes time, self-compassion, and patience to ultimately challenge years of conditioning when it comes to guilt.
I’m going to share some self-coaching questions with you that can be helpful in the moment if you’re trying to overcome mum guilt, but also as a reflection tool when the guilt is creeping in. Keep them to hand, save them as notes on your phone or pin a picture of them in your camera roll. Whatever works for you, think of these as your small pocket guide for big transformational change…
- What kinds of things are triggering your guilt?
- Using your insights, what falls into the functional list for you?
- Is there a pattern to any of it?
- What’s the one thing you could do differently today to help you?
- Are there any themes to the things that are causing dysfunctional guilt?
- If a friend was experiencing these feelings, what would you say to them?
- How do you want to hold yourself to account for beginning to remove the dysfunctional guilt?
And in the spirit of not overwhelming, I’ll leave it there for you.
Remember this is about progress, not perfection.
I know lots of people think we should work to erase the concept of mum guilt completely, but to be honest I think we can all benefit from a reminder of functional guilt at times.
Maybe it needs a rebrand though, I’ll get my thinking cap on!