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Enough already! Yes, I’m talking to you and every other mother out there who gives herself a hard time believing that she’s not good enough. This parenting gig is hard work. Sure, it offers plenty of magical, heart-warming moments, but, let’s face it: raising a family is an incredibly challenging role.
I remember the long and painful guilt trip I embarked on when my second daughter was born. I fell in love with my beautiful baby immediately and the weeks that followed seemed easy. And then I took my first wretched step by questioning my emotions: Why was I so confused after the birth of my firstborn? Why was I miserable for weeks to follow? Why did her colicky cries grate on my nerves to the extent that I would hide myself in the bathroom and weep for hours on end? Did I love my second child more than my first?
No, of course not, and I intended to prove it. For the next two years, I continued along this journey, questioning my every “failing” in parenting two children equally and fairly. Guilt robbed me of my sleep, sanity and self-worth. Guilt forced my friends and family out of the way while I focused solely on “getting it right” with my offspring. Guilt transformed my carefree children into confused little beings. I finally sought help.
It just so happens, I know Superwoman. I’ve known her for years. She is amazing. She once jumped off a speeding train to save her headstrong little girl from disappearing out of her sight forever. She threw herself into a blazing fire to rescue her mischievous young boy from burning alive. Despite the many adversities that threatened to break her resilience, she raised her family with patience, love and integrity.
Knowing she would not judge me, I confided in her all the pressures that I believed parenthood had placed on my shoulders. She shared with me her secret to positive parenting, free from the power of debilitating guilt: Forget the “shoulds” and focus on the “coulds”. And then she said something that gave me a much-needed boost of confidence: “You think I’m Superwoman because I’m your mum. I did what I could and, in your eyes, that made me good enough.”
Coulds versus shoulds
Charmaine Lam, a mother of two, works full-time to support her family and, she quips, to keep her sane. Yet she feels guilty. “Obviously working is necessary as we need two incomes, but I can’t help feeling that I should be at home with my children.”
Meanwhile, stay-at-home mum Barbara Ashbrook, who raises her children without a helper and, often, without her pilot husband, feels guilty for seemingly pushing aside the love of her life. “It seems like a time constraint, children first – somehow that takes up the whole day, and the poor guy comes last while I slump exhaustedly off the chair halfway through dinner.”
Regardless of individual circumstances, mums all seem to share one emotion in common: guilt. Mums make their lives harder than they have to be by analysing their own actions and time spent on certain things in their lives – and feeling like they are not living up to impossibly high standards, explains Hulda Thorey, midwife and director at Annerley.
But rather than feeling guilty about being a working mum, for example, it would be more productive to think about what you could do with your children when you are together, she advises.
“Spend time with your baby in the morning before work or at night, if he is awake. Ask your helper to bring baby to work for lunch. Ask work if you can come in late one morning a week,” she suggests. “It really is about making the most of your time, being happy, relaxed and enjoying every moment, rather than being there for every moment.”
Hulda believes that balancing work, home and relationships is difficult for women who are used to being on top of everything, who suddenly find that there is less time and less predictability in life with children.
“Realistically, we can’t be or do everything for everyone. Everyone lives within the basic constraints of time, energy and resources,” says Cora Ha, parenting and family coach at Family Foundations Ltd. She continues, “Mums need a plan for their own lives, short-, medium- and long-term, as individuals and in the role of mum. When they can integrate what they hope for themselves as people, their children and their family as a whole, with the realistic constraints of life, they can let go of what can’t be done and embrace wholeheartedly what can.”
You’re the master
Greenie Tsoi’s guilt comes from her belief that she should have been able to exclusively breastfeed her daughter, Adelaide. “I tried all possible ways that I had researched, but she didn’t gain any weight for a week when she was six weeks old, so I finally caved into the formula idea,” she says.
“If you choose to give formula or breastfeed, encourage independent sleep or co-sleep, raise an only child or ten, take responsibility for your decisions and stop giving yourself a hard time,” Hulda advises. “And if there was not much choice in the first place – in Greenie’s case, there was NO choice! – don’t beat yourself up about what you cannot change.”
Sharon Watson decided to breastfeed her son for six months because “that’s what everyone tells you to do,” but admits that she feels guilty for not having enjoyed the experience. “I had recurring mastitis and would’ve chosen to give up breastfeeding if it wasn’t for my lactation consultant and doctor insisting I continue,” she admits.
Whatever you do, do it for your own reasons, advises Hulda. Try not to absorb outside pressure. “Be the master of your life. Don’t try to be like someone else says you should. Society will not change easily, so you will need to toughen up so that it affects you less.”
“Equally, we are all society so we have the responsibility to not pressure others, or be judgmental to other mothers and parents,” she adds.
It’s entirely normal, as a mum, to feel guilty once in a while. As Barbara points out, “Guilt is a natural consequence of wanting to be a good mother to my children.”
But when guilt regularly pulls your pillow out from under your sleepy head, ruffles up your duvet and prods at you all night long, leaving you tired and in no mood for niceties when your child is dawdling in the morning, things can go awry. As Charmaine attests, “Guilt can put me in a really bad mood in the morning. I end up snapping at everyone, including my kids.”
“Ultimately, guilt is paralysing,” says Cora. “It makes us defensive. These emotions do not help us to be open-minded and free to explore the multitude of solutions there are to the complex challenges of parenting. If you’re a mum who’s yelling and out of control, for example, is guilt changing any of that? Not likely. In fact, it tends to fuel the next fight.
“Instead, get help. Search the roots of your anger. If you’re yelling because you’re too tired and never have time for yourself, get some time to yourself. If it’s the children misbehaving, learn some techniques to set clear and healthy boundaries in the home. Stressing out and feeling guilty doesn’t lead to anything good,” she concludes. “When guilt is gone, solutions come.”