The joys of becoming a parent come hand in hand with a constant feeling of guilt. It manifests in everything we do: from our own behaviour and actions to the way we bring up our children. And there are plenty of those that take advantage of this feeling as we make our way through this thorny path. It can come from our nearest and dearest but also via the unachievable parenting ideals projected by the media.
The bad news is that from the moment your children are born, the feeling of guilt will be your constant companion. And everyone will have their five cents to add. But the good news is that we can learn to differentiate between what constitutes our genuine duties and what others expect of us, which, for most part, has nothing to do with us.
«What about the children?»
This question echoes all the way through motherhood. Whatever you plan or do, for yourself or others, there will always be this extra dose of guilt potential.
Looking to have some time alone with your husband? “What about the children?”
Dying to go back to work? “What about the children?”
Pencilling a meeting in a café with friends? “What about the children?”
Want some time to yourself? “What about the children?”
Have you considered your children? What about their interests and needs? Saying “no” to questions like these breeds a feeling of guilt which will keep coming back to you like a ping pong ball again and again. When becoming a parent every woman gains an unimaginable amount of responsibility.
As a mother I should…
I set out writing this article with all parents in mind, irrespective of whether they consider themselves fathers or mothers. But as I wrote it, I could not help thinking back to all the times when during a job interview the inevitable question came up: have you got any childcare in place? Mind you, my husband has never been asked the question.
So, in every discussion around parental burnout, I always suggest making a list of everything a society expects of both parents. The list of maternal duties expected by society and children is typically much longer. It is usually the mother that is considered responsible for a child’s health, development, overall upbringing and education. And any failure in this regard fuels fervent criticism from outsiders.
The thing is maternal instincts are in our cultural DNA. While in certain situations we can push back when made to feel guilty and mark our boundaries, when it comes to bringing up children our defences drop. The guilt is made up in part of the mental projections we once had of ourselves as parents before the children were born. This mismatch between an idealised image and reality is a hurtful blow to our self-esteem.
“My child never gets to see me: by the time I am back from work, she is already fast asleep.” “The baby gets to overhear all of our arguments; it is bound to be traumatised for life.” “Look at other people’s children learning new languages and doing sports, while all I can summon myself to do is drop mine off at the nursery.” This kind of negative self-talk can go on indefinitely. Even a star Mum who gets everything done and finds the time for everyone will always have something to beat herself up about.
And there will always be someone who will encourage this thought cycle. It can take the form of harsh criticism but also come disguised as seemingly concerned remarks: you do not pay enough attention to your children or, on the contrary, you suffocate them with your love. It can be about how overly demanding you are or, perhaps, too lenient. We all know, however, that there is no middle ground to be found here.
The benchmark for what is expected of a mother is incredibly high in most countries. What does it mean to be a good mother? The American writer Bunmi Laditan has a few ironic things to say about that:
“Make sure your children's academic, emotional, psychological, mental, spiritual, physical, nutritional, and social needs are met while being careful not to overstimulate, understimulate, improperly medicate, helicopter, or neglect them in a screen-free, processed foods-free, GMO-free, negative energy-free, plastic-free, body positive, socially conscious, egalitarian but also authoritative, nurturing but fostering of independence, gentle but not overly permissive, pesticide-free two-story, multilingual home preferably in a cul-de-sac with a backyard and 1.5 siblings spaced at least two year apart for proper development also don't forget the coconut oil.”
It certainly seems like we constantly have to pass the test of being a good Mom in front of everyone we meet: from our partner and the child’s grandparents to doctors, child minders and teachers. But also, in front of ourselves. Hundreds of books about parenting talk about the importance of a secure attachment bond or how to manage children’s tantrums and regulate your own emotions. But few teach parents about the reality of making mistakes, being imperfect and getting rid of guilt, even if everything is seemingly going to plan.
Stop the vicious cycle of guilt
The main thing to realise is that it is virtually impossible to give children the best of everything. And there is one simple reason for that: children will never be fully satisfied with what we give them. They do not grasp the concept of having enough. They can only take. This means that they will continue to take everything that you give them. And they will come back and ask for more. And more.
As someone with an experience of sufficiency and a sense of moderation, only you have the perspective to define what you want to give your children and how much of it. It all stems from your own values. Children will learn from you and stumble upon the limitations that you set. In order to prevent the feeling of guilt from marring your experience of motherhood, remember these three key principles:
1/ You cannot give them everything
First and foremost, you cannot be a perfect parent. No matter how hard you try, your children will always have some grudge against you and plenty of material to share with their therapist twenty years down the line.
One time, I was on my way back from holiday with my friend, my children and her daughter. We were an hour in on our drive back to Moscow. The children just had a nap and share some candid thoughts. “I think I will be a better Mom than you,” states my daughter. Me and my friend exchange a few glances. We are both familiar with the attachment theory, with mental quotes by renowned children’s psychologists popping up in our heads. I reply: “Tell me more. I’ll even get my notepad ready.”
“I will spend more time with my children and let them eat more sweets and watch more cartoons,” – goes my daughter’s formula for being a perfect Mom. See? There is no way of making them happy. It is because their idea of happiness simply goes against all common sense.
2/ You cannot protect them from everything
Accept this as a given. Children get bruised and that is totally normal. Sometimes bad things happen to them right under our noses and it is no one’s fault. This is life in all of its manifestations. What you can teach your children is that any mistake has an outcome. Making mistakes is not a failure but a learning curve. To be imperfect is to be alive and authentic.
You can support them when they need you. When coming to help, do not have a go at your child for not being self-sufficient. You can try and explain to them that it is never too late to change their mind, turn around and make amends. It is not embarrassing to show weakness, to shout, to ask for help or to cry.
3/ Get rid of toxic people
Many parents feel a huge sigh of relief and really grow into their role, when they manage to get rid of the so-called third wheels in a relationship with their child. These third wheels can include anyone that convinces you of being a bad mother. More often than not, these people tend to be our dearest and nearest: i.e. our own parents, relatives and friends. It is important to reclaim your space and find common ground.
But if a feeling of guilt keeps creeping up on you every time you read an article about parenting or see a photo of a perfect mother with countless children on social media, you know what to do. That’s right, put your phone down and come back to your imperfect but authentic life.