Pretty much every Mum will feel guilt for the things they cannot provide their children. We all know that loveable childhood book ‘Funnybones’, well guilt can lie within every part of us, bubbling away beneath the superficial surface layer. Why does Mum guilt exist? How can gentle parenting help us be at peace with it? Will others know we are failing at all these things we wish we were doing better? Most importantly, will our children know we are failing, sometimes constantly? This blog post aims to answer these questions and help us feel stronger and prouder for the Mum within us, skeletons and all.
What is Mum Guilt?
Mum guilt can be caused by anything that you feel your child deserves better from you. This could be that you have to return to work and place them in childcare. It could be because you are unable to provide them with exciting activities to entertain their daily lives. You may worry that the house is too small, or dirty, or cold… that the garden is not safe enough… Your anxiety may be that your children do not have an amazing support network of friends or family around to build your strength as a Mum or give them a different perspective of love – and that this is your fault for not creating this network prior to their birth. There are so many reasons you can feel less than adequate as a Mum, whether that be some of the time or virtually constantly throughout your parenting life.
Unfortunately, our current societies cause maternal guilt no matter what you do. Whatever parenting choice you make, you will experience a backlash of ‘should have done…’, ‘could have done…’, ‘I would have done, I’m just saying’ style of responses from others. Even if these responses don’t personally get told to us, we can read them in the choices we make through online research or our own internal dialogue can create these thought processes. We want to do the best for our children. When our choices are so important in affecting our kids’ lives, it is natural to worry that maybe the other choice would have been better.
The commonality of experiencing different judgments is discussed in this article about one of our first choices we make as new Mums. If we chose, or felt forced to choose, formula feeding to feed our newborn baby we can experience shame about our ideals not being met. If we breastfeed, we can feel shame about the sexualised society’s view of the act of breastfeeding. In terms of Mum guilt, whatever we do, the guilt or shame will be there.
Common Causes of Mum Guilt When Starting Gentle Parenting
If any decision we make as a parent can trigger the guilt reflex, then even something as considerate as gentle parenting can have a backlash of Mum guilt within us. This is especially the case if you and the people in your support networks were not raised gently. Some examples of those guilty feelings can include:
Being told by others (or feeling it from within ourselves as a result of our own upbringings) that we should control our children. That we should physically or emotionally force our children to ‘obey’ or ‘respect’ us and our requests. Of course, the more we learn about gentle parenting, the more we realise that controlling any other human being is not only not possible but also can cause friction in the relationship going forwards. Control can cause the other person to feel invalidated, untrusted, hateful, frustrated, to name a few.
Gentle parenting teaches us how to deal with this guilt caused by others or ourselves. If we imaging our own children coming to us saying they had pressure from a teacher to control their friends and force the friends to respect them through smacking or yelling… what would we respond with? That’s the response you need to offer to yourself or to those who are insisting that you need to ‘control your children otherwise they’ll walk all over you.’ Gut response says “that’s absurd, forcing my child to do as I say will not instil respect within them just like me hitting you for having a different opinion to me now is not going to make you respect my views either…”
Another aspect of gentle parenting is to view control in terms of controlling our own behaviour towards our children, instead of controlling their behaviour towards us. This forces us to learn how to express our needs respectfully and with assertiveness. In doing so our children learn to be assertive but respectful in their communications with others.
Breastfeeding / Longterm Breastfeeding / Tandem Breastfeeding
Gentle parenting has strong links to attachment parenting. It encourages us to respond to a baby’s needs as and when they cry. It supports breastfeeding through to term if the Mum is able to. Sometimes your own family may not be so supportive of you continuing breastfeeding past a few months of age. This can add to your pile of Mum guilt as you now start doubting whether you are doing the right thing for your baby. Comments can suggest that you are being selfish as the baby is ‘clearly hungry’ or that you will cause your child to be bullied by their friends as it’s a tad disgusting, or that they’ll remember sucking on your boob and that it’s not quite normal. When you sit and think about these comments logically, the comments themselves are quite disgusting in nature, but your breastfeeding has not caused those comments.
Firstly, a toddler breastfeeding at the age of 1 or 2 or 3 is unlikely to have clear memories of breastfeeding (known as explicit memories), but will have a subconscious memory (known as implicit memories) that their needs were met quickly and effectively. Most childhood memories are subconscious until around the age of 7. For further information on the formation of memories in early childhood, the book ‘The Whole Brain Child’ is worth reading.
Secondly, if nature did not intend us to breastfeed until our children were ready to stop, why would our breasts still produce milk past a certain age? For example, nature did not intend us to carry our unborn babies past 9 months of age and it is a very rare instance for a mother to need to be induced for going beyond the due date. Our bodies, and our children’s bodies, know when the time is right for breastfeeding to end or reduce or change in some other way. In fact, this study suggests that women having babies after the 42 week mark does not tend to be caused by the body but rather the mind. If you apply this to succeeding with breastfeeding, tandem breastfeeding or longterm breastfeeding, it may be that the mind has more to do with it than the body. So other people’s contributions to our mental attitudes towards breastfeeding can play a huge role in our success. Bear this in mind when someone says something your gut feels is not right for your family.
Thirdly, some people feel they have to make comments about something ‘different’ to the way they did things because they are alleviating their own internal Mum guilt for not continuing breastfeeding past a certain stage. They would rather justify their own stage of breastfeeding as normal and your way as abnormal, because simply it makes them feel better about their own guilt.
Finally, as the days and nights pass and you have done the majority of the parenting task by yourself, you start to realise that most of the people telling you to do things differently are not around to help most of the time. How can they know what is best for you and your baby when they are not the full time carers. Feeding your baby, whether by breast or bottle, is hard work. It does not get easier by switching methods. In fact, bottle feeding involves more washing up, risk of illnesses, and you may need to find other ways to comfort a distressed baby at night. Only you can decide which form of feeding is best for you and your child. Formula feeding is not necessarily easier, unless you have a support network to take over much of the extra work involved in bottle feeding.
Not Having a Vibrant Social Life
Many Mums say the support village no longer exists for raising a family. New Mums find their friendships may change as their friends may not have young babies so do not want to spend so much time with you anymore. You find it harder to meet you new people and are unable to easily take up hobbies to make friends. This can lead to quite a lonely life, which can also contribute to depression (see my blog post about PND).
It is easy to fall into the trap of noticing other families having such vibrant social networks. Whether they do or not, the only social network your babies truly need are that of their family. Your children can learn to walk, talk, dance, and achieve many of the things they want to do, without having anybody but the freedom to explore in a safe environment with a supportive parent. They do not need other children to learn how to sing or crawl. Whilst networks can alleviate some of the parent’s need for socialisation, realistically our memories as children are about fun with certain activities and imaginations rather than who we were with. Many of us are no longer still friends with our childhood friends. To gain a true friendship you need to have matured into who you really are. Once you know who you are, you value the people who respect you for being you. That does not necessarily come about from the toddler years when you are still learning about yourself. There is therefore no real pressure for forming early childhood friendships.
Just to expand on this point about early childhood friendships, my children are not exposed to others their own age much socially. Particularly now with COVID-19 restrictions. However, when we did go to soft plays or to meet cousins, my kids would bond very quickly with other children. They seem to find it easy to value others and enjoy their company, in spite of not being around other children much. One new family we met said their daughter, who goes to nursery and has a more varied social network, had never connected with another child as quickly and comfortably as she did with our eldest daughter. Our eldest daughter feels safe to make friends with others because she’s only ever been safe in her family home. She has never been hurt by another person so she has no fear of playing with someone new.
Not Being Good Enough
I discovered gentle parenting because I was raised through physical and psychological control. It caused me huge mental anxieties and fears. When I had children I started searching for better solutions. When you are raised in a traumatic environment, you often have the feeling of never being ‘good enough’. You may worry that all sorts of aspects of your parenting are not up-to-scratch. They are. You are what your children need. You are good enough just for being there and loving them. For further healing from being raised in an environment where you never felt good enough, this book ‘Will I Ever Be Good Enough‘ is hugely helpful for personal healing.
Gentle Parenting Our Children Successfully Through Our ‘Failings’
We are human, destined to make mistakes. Mistakes are the triggers that help us see that changes need to be made. If our children make mistakes, we applaud their efforts and encourage them to try again. It should be no different when we make mistakes on our parenting journey. If we hurt our children in those mistakes, an apology for the mistake and a resolution of what you will try the next time, can be all they need to see you care about them.
Can Others See What You Feel You Are Failing At?
Sometimes Mum or Dad guilt can be made worse if you feel everyone around you is judging things you doubt within yourself. Other people always have something to say about parenting, and if you are confident with your approach then you dismiss the comments. If you have internal self doubt about the topic in discussion, you may start reacting to it or justifying your ways. The other party feels you are oversensitive to their ‘helpful comments’. It is best, when someone triggers your emotions in this way, to try and reflect on what made their comments so infuriating to you. Is it that you have some doubt about the approach you’ve taken that needs a bit of research to confirm the choices? Is it that you were not assertive in valuing the other person’s view but explaining that it is not how you are raising your children? Whatever the cause for feeling annoyed at their comments to you, it is worth seeing if there is anything you can do to make you feel less sensitive to the unwelcome comments.
Do Our Children Feel We’re Failing Them?
No. Not usually. Unless you are a narcissist, i.e. are unable to love another or have empathy for them. If you are a narcissist, you would doubtfully be caring enough to read this post anyway. See my blog post about being raised by a narcissist. If you have love and make every effort to do the best you can as a Mum or Dad, your children will feel that deep down in the longterm. You cannot fail if you have love there.
What About Dad Guilt?
Dad feels guilty for going back to work. Dad’s can feel guilty for not being able to settle a newborn baby. They can feel guilty for much of the same reasons that Mum’s feel guilt. Sometimes it can be harder for the Dad figure to grow from the feelings because the Mum often spends more time with the children and can add to the Dad guilt by saying they’re not doing things right, etc. It is important to acknowledge these guilty feelings and discuss them with your partner. They will probably be grateful you’re opening up about what worries you and find solutions to help you on your path to gentle parenting.
Initially my husband took my little prompts to ‘say this’ or ‘do that’, personally. We had a long talk about our aims of raising our children the best way possible, and that I had more knowledge of gentle parenting so could help him, that it was not personal but we were a team. He realised he really appreciated my helpful comments and needed them to be the best Dad he could too. He now asks me for advice if he’s not sure what to say or do in a situation. See my blog post about differing opinions when parenting.
Steps to Lessening the Mum or Dad Guilt
- Define your own essential needs for being a successful parent. My aims are: to be gentle all of the time. If unable to be gentle, to get back on the ‘high road’ as quickly as possible (see the book ‘Parenting from the Inside Out’ – link below – about high road and low road functioning, as well as my blog post about dealing with childhood traumas). Also to apologise if I was not able to achieve my first aim of being gentle at all times. The next aim is just to do my best given current circumstances. And my final aim is to know that the future will be different to the here and now. I look to the future of what activities and people we will spend our time with when the baby years are no longer restricting our lives so much.
- Any other judgments for being a ‘good parent’ criteria should be disregarded. If it is not something you feel is 100% important to your own kids’ lives, scrap it. Let it go. It’s not necessary for your family to run a marathon each week just because the neighbour’s kids do it.
- Realise that every human is different for a reason. We are all raised differently. Style of parenting, such as gentle parenting, does not even give a child the same upbringing as another child raised through gentle parenting. They may have other traumas to deal with, or different grandparents, friendships, interests… there are too many facets in life to know that ‘that way must be better…’ What is better for one child or parent, may not be the best for another family. If we accept others for their differences, we soon realise our way is the best way for our families. And that’s surely the most important thing – we are doing what our family feels is best in each situation and with our circumstances. The next family’s circumstances and situations will be different – so theirs will also be best for them at that time.
- Identify where the guilt comes from to help find ways to alleviate it. If the Mum or Dad guilt is coming from a certain unhelpful person, you can try to lessen your interactions with that person. If it comes from being at work, see if you can speak to your children on your lunch break, for example. I personally felt really bad about not getting out and about. I eventually started to retrain my brain to knowing this is a normal phase for someone with 3 young babies, combined with ridiculous levels of sleep deprivation. Accepting that life circumstances change with time and as children mature slightly. This helped me to try to relax with my children at home, and allow them to explore a secure home environment with their Mum around. Instead of feeling guilt about how many social interactions they could have if I were a different person / ‘better Mum’… I realised that they have more interaction with me as a loving Mum at home than some socially exposed children have when placed in nurseries or with relatives excessively. My children did not have interactions with hundreds of other people (or barely any people really), BUT they did have me.