Five Ways to Tackle Mother’s Guilt
Updated: Jul 8
Parenthood, like marriage and a career, is a long-term game. Finding what is sustainable without diminishing our own physical and mental well-being is therefore key to leading a fulfilling life.
‘Guilt to motherhood is like grapes to wine’ (1)
There was a time when a few pre-occupying “demon thoughts” could completely destroy my day or my week. It could even force me to question the multiple fundamental decisions I had made in almost every aspect of my life since motherhood. They were enough to convince me that I was truly the worst mother. The irony in all this was that while being consumed by mother’s guilt, I was not only unproductive but, if I am honest, occasionally self-destructive and certainly not at my optimum for my children.
“Happy wife equals happy life,” I used to quote to my husband at times of friction during our marriage in the past. Then I came up with another phrase, “Happy mum equals more fun.” The new phrase doesn’t scan quite as well, but it is still true. When I was burnt out, overwhelmed, and trying to battle the frequent negative thoughts about my failures as a mother, I was not mindfully there for my children. And unless I had the attention and tailored reassurance from my husband when expressing my mother’s guilt, I would find myself becoming provocative and frustrated with him, too.
Fast forward to the present and I am pleased to say I am not such a chronic sufferer of this guilt these days. It is still there, and at times I appreciate it as overall, I feel it makes me a better mother, but I am able to park it and sit with it. I have learnt to appreciate it for what it is—a wake up call. But it is no longer the life sentence it felt like before.
Mother’s guilt is an area I frequently see in my clients, and it really satisfies me to be able to ease some of their suffering. It forms a very big part of my coaching and I address it very early on by using acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) to ensure transformational work can progress. As a coach, medical doctor with a background in psychiatry, and relatively new mother (both my children are under the age of 4), I had to find a way of dealing with my own family life and ensuring I was at my optimum.
I researched why women felt these strong emotions. It was clear when I was studying childhood psychology that the child would actively seek out the mother figure (2) and arguably even manipulate the mother into care and commitment (3). Were we truly expected to operate like our evolutionary chimpanzee counterparts? Was it even possible for women to juggle children, husband, home, and above all, ourselves? This ‘motherhood myth’ has the potential to be an incredibly damaging prospect, especially to high-achieving, working mothers with successful careers, which they feel much frustration leaving behind with fear of no return.
Our modern society encourages us to share the childcare workload and the burden of responsibility. We do not need to feel we must be martyrs. Just as importantly, we are free to explore what we need to be at our optimum. Note I use the word optimum and not at our best. Parenthood, like marriage and a career, is a long-term game. Finding what is sustainable without diminishing our own physical and mental well-being is therefore key to leading a fulfilling life.
Let me conclude with 5 top tips to reducing mother’s guilt:
If you can afford it and are willing and ready to invest in yourself, your family, your marriage and your career, then employ a coach. This is by far the best way to deal with mother’s guilt. Working through your pain points and struggles in a relaxed, non-judgemental, and confidential environment can prove far more rewarding than confiding in family, colleagues, and friends.
Stop comparing yourself to others. It is a pointless task and can conjure up unhealthy failures in yourself and your own support team as well as jealousy and resentment towards others. We are all different and each of us has strengths and weaknesses in the family-work-life ecosystems we have created.
Recognise the value of being “unproductive.” In your eyes, it may be a day where you get nothing done, but in the eyes of your children it can be a really great day that strengthens the mother-child bond. Document, photograph, and even video the day to see what you may have actually still achieved and re-visit during times of need.
Be kind to yourself. Park those negative and self defeating beliefs. Self-compassion is so important and should be practised frequently.
Set realistic daily goals and regularly re-evaluate those expectations. Accept that motherhood is a process. There is no end product in view, and it is important to be flexible and comfortable with this insight.