The Playful Den


‘Mum Guilt’: curse of the modern mother

There are many practical things that have made it easier for parents today to raise small humans; the inventions, the child-friendly facilities, the ways of connecting to other parents, the endless experiences, the world has been opened wide to family life

But it’s come at a price. The mental load of being a parent today has increased exponentially. “I feel like such a bad mum” rings on the lips of 1000s of mothers everyday. Feeling inadequate in the motherhood department is now commonly referred to as ‘mum guilt’ and whilst not an entirely new phenomena is undoubtedly the curse of the 21st century mother. 

I am referring to the women who continue to show up for their kids, who work endlessly to give their offspring a safe and enjoyable childhood, who play with them, feed them, cuddle them and care so deeply it hurts their heart and yet still claim to feel like a ‘bad mum’. The feeling part in this declaration is significant for rarely will you hear them actually saying ‘I am a bad mum’. It’s a pandemic of perceptions we’re dealing with here, not facts. And for that I blame our good friend, doubt. 

Doubt is suffocating mothers. 

Doubt is an absolute bitch. 

Doubt is our enemy. 

A cocktail of rising expectations, overwhelming choices and increased life tick boxes are now viewed through a window into the lives and homes of others, tasking us with the icessent chore of ‘possibility management’. Hoards of women wander through motherhood with a pestering niggle that never stops whispering at them – “could you have done that better though?” 

Mum guilt is the disclaimer we add to the end of everything we do and the barrier to giving ourselves a well deserved high-five for continuing to get shit done. It has become the modern mother’s signature and we leave it everywhere we go. Sadly our kids are absorbing this relentless doubt and anxiety about not living up to standards and this uncertainty of self is trickling down. And the most frustrating thing about it all is that it’s built entirely on a foundation of fake news. The bad mother we seek to avoid being, and the good mother we chase to become, DON’T EVEN EXIST. They are fairytale myths sent to suck joy out of our experiences. 

Mum guilt is a deep and complex issue with many twists and turns, but at the heart lies a lingering societal inability to allow women to exist on a complex spectrum. Our mission to avoid ‘bad’ and be consistently ‘good’ translates into the parenting pursuit of ‘right and wrong’ choices. Problem is, that just doesn’t really work in the arena of child-rearing. We do not exist in binaries of good or bad, and choices about how to raise children and run a home are very subjective and highly nuanced. On the whole, we’re all a bit of everything and most parenting choices come with a mixed bag of pros and cons and a trial and error of successes and fails. I think what I’m saying is that we’re all basically a bug back of ‘pick n mix’ sweets. And I believe our mental health might be improved if we if we considered one another as a unique bag of sweets versus a ‘good or bad’ mum (not too many sours, lots of mice, a couple of brazil nuts and a giant snake thrown in a last ditch panic for me in case you’re wondering). 

But how did we land up deep in a culture of mum guilt? 

For many, parenting has sadly become not an experience or relationship, but a career. This is bad news for us and even more tragic for our children. Climbing the parenting career ladder means reaching for never ending status levels, social promotions and those oh so elusive bonuses such as the much coveted organised home (rainbow toy organisation will make your life better), the ideal work life balance (you can have it all now, so get on with it!) and aspiring beautiful relationships with partners and children (you can totally be BFFs a 3 year old now you know!). But in the absence of a payroll, constructive feedback or tangible success milestones, it is left to us to assess exactly how well we’re doing in this role. And this my friends, is where things start to go really tits up (or tits down, depending on the status of your boobs these days).

So whilst we seamlessly take on work, home, school, remembering to send birthday cards when required (I do not count myself entirely in this list) and whatever else falls in our personal remit, we seem to always come up short in the department of recognising progress, acknowledging skills and understanding that good enough really is…good enough. Nothing ever seems to validate that imaginary parenting certificate. Instead we zoom in on all the things we didn’t do, the mistakes we made and what everyone else is doing better – something we truly are experts in. When you look at the scale of this issue, it gets more and more messed up. Women: we are our own worst enemies. 

Intuition is the yin to doubt’s yan. Unfortunately many of us have lost touch with how to dial into our intuition and struggle to lead with and trust it. Somewhere along our journey intuition gets rubbed away by internet rabbit holes, social media images, whatsapp thread notifications, societal beliefs, family expectations, cultural conditioning and the volume of our inner critic just gets louder and louder until we can no longer hear our own gut. 

As doubt grows bigger, intuition shrinks back. And one of the worst outcomes of this is that it can prevent us from seeing our child in full which in turn gets in the way of us confidently making decisions in a way that is authentic and right for our family. We become paralysed by the need to find the ‘right solution’. We get fearful of stepping away from what is ‘normal’ or deviating from predefined paths to ‘success’ or markers of ‘good mothering’. We allow the rest of the world to make decisions for us and the more we do this, the more we move away from our values, our identity and true purpose. 

I do not deny that there are times when we seek improvements or encounter times where we could or would like to do things differently. This is a positive thing. But labelling it as ‘feeling like a bad parent’ makes it harder to move things on. I’m a real advocate for ‘growth mindset parenting’. Growth mindset is a term originating from the field of education and one that I think could be used more to move us away from the ‘good / bad parent’ mentality. 

Those who parent with a growth mindset assume a continual state of learning. Mistakes and failures are welcome and all part of the course, the aim is to just keep moving forward at a pace and direction suited to you. It means a self-belief that you’ll figure it, you’ll have a go and though maybe you won’t nail it first time, you are always moving forward and know you’ll get there eventually. Maybe you’ll ask for help, maybe you’ll try out some different ideas, whatever you do, you will be active in working through a problem without the need for panic, negative self-talk, comparison or assuming there is a fixed skill, resource or piece of knowledge preventing you from progressing. The opposite of this would be a ‘fixed mindset’ and this is where ‘good / bad mum’ narratives belong. A fixed mindset assumes your abilities are only limited to what you know, you are threatened by others’ successes and you don’t respond well to feedback. When we consider a fixed mindset in the context of parenting, then the feedback here could be our child’s behaviour. It could also be the way we negatively react to seeing other people’s lives and actions and take a response of self-criticism. In a fixed mindset, we also assume a right and wrong solution and sprint off to find the right one rather than just onboarding with the marathon and embracing the inch by inch forward strategy. 

Those with a growth mindset are also more likely to find more enjoyment in tough challenges. Whilst they may still be difficult and trying, and not come without some pain, the underlying belief that they can find a way eventually, lowers the risk of mum guilt because you know you are always moving forward, which given kids change on the daily also makes a lot of sense. 

It is worth noting here that a parent who tries things out and who can be comfortable with mistakes and respond positively to them correcting and improving and showcases the ability to have a go and be proud of their efforts is a huge asset to a child. Many professionals would argue that a healthy relationship with mistake making accompanied by a positive alteration in behavior to them is one of the best modelling behaviours a parent can give to a child. On the flip side, a child who grows up with a parent who seeks perfection and consistently pursues ‘right’, feeling down and anxious when they dont feel they’re hitting it, is sadly much more likely to be headed straight for the therapy chair in later life. 

This is why I feel so saddened and frustrated by parents who torture themselves with doubt and feelings of being ‘bad mum’, when evidently they are not. As well as sucking the joy from their experience, it does nothing for their ability to progress and trickles down to the child. So next time you feel yourself thinking or saying out loud ‘I feel like a bad mother’, stop yourself, put a line through that thought track and try out one of these instead: 

  • I don’t think this is working so I’m going to have a go at xxx
  • I tried really hard today and I am proud of myself for that  
  • I have been doing xxx but I think what my child really needs is xxx 
  • I show up for my child and I know everything can’t always go right
  • I don’t think we are living by our values so I’m going to xxx
  • Some people do things differently to how we do things and I’m ok with that 
  • I’d love for xxx to be different so I’m going to try xxx
  • I had a go at xxx and I’m proud I had a go. Next time I’m going to xxx 
  • I think I might be trapped in a fixed mindset here 
  • I am feeling intimidated, to help me move on from this I’m going to xxx 

And so on and so on. You get the picture. Basically just don’t hang around the mum guilt pity party for long, it’s dull AF there, seriously, nothing cool, fun or interesting EVER happens and your kids will dread you knocking around there. Hop on over to the progress party instead, it’s a wild ride full of motivation, ideas and cheerleading and far more rewarding and energising. 

If you only take one thing from this piece, remember that good enough really is good enough. Kids are not assessments or projects, they are people that you are in a relationship with. That is what parenting is. So if you really want to go down the path of seeking to do what is ‘best’ and what is ‘right’, then take a deep breath and commit to connecting more deeply every day to your intuition. Live more and more authentically by our values and focus on the relationship not the noise around it. I can assure you that once you get the hang of doing this you will continue to live more and more mum-guilt free.