Letting go of 'mum guilt'

Mum Guilt And Why We Need To Let It Go

Mum Guilt And Why We Need To Let It Go

Author: Sam Hardcastle.
16th June 2021.

Last week, my youngest daughter asked me if we could spend an evening together and watch a film. On the surface, it was a perfectly normal and reasonable request. Possibly a slightly surprising one, given that lots of teenagers choose not to spend time with their parents. However, for me, it made me so desperately sad; the reason she was asking was due to the fact that we had barely seen each other in the last few weeks.

Sure, we had grunted at each other during the morning ritual of coffee, shower, more coffee and departure for our respective schools. I had moaned about the washing up she had left on top of the dishwasher (I’ll explore this phenomenon in another post) and I’d chided her about her homework, room tidying and cleaning of the cat’s litter tray. I’d thrown some dinner at her in the evening – not literally, I hasten to add, although teenagers can be known for invoking ‘food throwing’ responses from their parents. But we hadn’t spent any meaningful time together and my realisation of this not only broke my heart but allowed the floodgate to break and drown me in the all-too-familiar sense of mum guilt.

My working week is challenging, to say the least. You don’t become a teacher for an easy life (regardless of the picture painted in certain sections of the press). Being a teacher involves riding a merry-go-round that is hard to jump off: planning, preparation and delivery of lessons; marking and feedback, assessments, supporting pupils’ pastoral needs, report writing and – thanks to Covid – the current Teacher Assessed Grades. It’s a lot, sometimes too much, but I love it. It is, without a doubt, the most rewarding job I have ever had. But it comes at a price. .

Expectation vs Reality

The price I pay for being a full time working mum, is that for many weeks in the year, because of my job, I am simply not present at home. I’m there in body to cook, clean and, literally and metaphorically, herd cats but that’s it. Add into this the fact that I have a teenage son who plays football all across Hampshire, an older daughter and two grandchildren, elderly parents and a mother-in-law (although they’ll probably kill me for using that particular adjective!) and a long-suffering husband, there are times when there are simply not enough hours in the day. I’m overworked, overwhelmed and overtired and I’m failing.

Failing at being the mum (and wife) I think I should be. You know, the one who greets their children with freshly baked pastries every morning. The one who whips up a delicious Jamie Oliver meal, every night, using fresh, organic ingredients. The one who organises a dazzling array of family-focused activities every weekend. The one who sits up late, chatting with their children about Aristotle or the Middle Eastern peace process. The one who represents the iconic 1950s image of a mother and housewife – tidy hair, tidy home, tidy life. The one we’re implicitly led to believe we should be, thanks to parenting manuals, saccharine Hollywood films and the internet. But it’s not real.

The reality of my week is that, once I’ve finished work and met everyone’s basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, I’ve passed the husband-shaped ship and said hello and I’ve maybe text or called a few family and friends to check-in on them, I’m done for. It’s not unusual for me to be asleep on the sofa by 9pm, attractively drooling into my half-read novel that I’ve been trying to finish since Easter. My glorious grandchildren are demoted to only visiting at the weekend, my poor son and daughters are frequently relegated to the ‘yes, when I have a spare five minutes, we’ll do that’ league and date nights are well and truly resigned to the territory of school holidays. ‘Me time’ exists at 5.30am, when I squeeze in a workout. And all the while, I am battling to keep my head above the guilt floodwater.

Busy, Modern Lives

Sadly, I’m not alone. Research conducted by babycare company NUK, shows that many of us suffer from the dreaded mum guilt phenomenon, where we are pulled in too many directions at once. Yet, modern life almost demands this from us. Most households need two incomes to run efficiently, so both parents have to work. Life expectancy is increasing and we now belong to the sandwich generation, where we have dependent children, as well as increasingly dependent parents. We are bombarded with endless opportunities for meals out, trips abroad and other memory-making experiences that we absolutely must do. It’s no wonder we feel that we’re failing. Every. Single. Day.

So what is the answer? Quite simply, we have to let the guilt go. We have to parcel it up, tie it with Kath Kidston string and launch it into outer space. We have to realise that good enough, is good enough.”

Good enough is good enough

When my children were toddlers, it took me a long time to accept and fully embrace the concept. I was one of those parents who bought – and later, ritually burnt – the Gina Ford baby manual, who tried and failed to entice my young children with delicious chicken and couscous from Annabel Karmel, who was utterly convinced that I could raise three children and my house could still look like it belonged on the cover of House Beautiful (if there was a magazine publication titled Bombsite, I would have made that cut). I can’t even remember who coined the phrase ‘good enough’ but it resonated with me and I slowly started to realise that, as long as I had survived a day with my – quite frankly, feral – children and they were fed, semi-clothed and safe, I was good enough.

Whenever the mum guilt levels rise over my head, I force myself to remember that I am doing what I can, with what I have available to me. My youngest daughter knows that sometimes I can’t watch that film with her but I’ll make time for an episode of Friends. My son knows that I will sit with him until late, talking about the usual array of worries over relationships, college and his future. My eldest daughter knows that I will drop everything, when she needs me, to help her and my grandchildren. Most importantly, my children know that I love them with every breath in my body. They know that I am, like so many others, doing my best. That I am good enough.

So, for now, I can keep my head above the floodwater of guilt and, as Dory once said, "Just keep swimming." You can too.

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