How to silence the inner critic in the postnatal period
A conversation that is common, both in my role as a postnatal counsellor and with my own friends, is that of mum guilt.
Although there are many factors that contribute to the feeling of mum guilt, comparisons with others often play a key role. This article will explain this role and outline the steps you can take to free yourself from your inner critic and be confident in your own decisions.
Let’s meet Caitlin*
In pregnancy, Caitlin couldn’t wait to have everything sorted for the arrival of her baby and, though a bit apprehensive about the birth, was so excited to meet her little one. She spent a lot of time researching what to get, decorating the nursery room, picking out first outfits and much of that was done by scrolling social media to gain ideas.
Caitlin welcomed her gorgeous baby boy into the world and is now in those early months of motherhood. She’s sleep-deprived and desperate to get things right for her boy. She looks around her; at what appears to be her ‘mum’ wardrobe, at her body that she doesn’t recognise, at the stain on her shoulder and the mess of the house and feels like she’s failing. She feels guilty that she isn’t getting out of the house often enough for her baby, guilty about her struggle with breastfeeding that resulted in using formula, guilty that she counts the minutes until her partner comes home, guilty that she’s not enjoying being a mum.
What Caitlin doesn’t realise, in the depth of the fourth trimester, is that she was set up. Social media, with its images of beautiful mums and content babies, all dressed in matching beige outfits, in tidy homes, showing how naturally they have taken to motherhood, how much they enjoy every second of their day, tricked her brain into thinking that this is how it would be.
Now Caitlin is measuring herself against this perfect picture she has painted in her mind and feels inadequate, anxious, and low.
Is it just because of social media?
In a word, no. Mum guilt has always been around. Perhaps social media makes it more common, though there are other factors to consider.
Mum guilt is a tricky mix of outside pressures and personal beliefs that can make you feel like you’re not good enough. Society, with its high expectations, wants mums to do it all effortlessly because that makes it easier for society. Family traditions and cultural backgrounds add their own flavour, making you think you should be a certain way or a certain type of mum.
But guess what? It's not that simple. As a therapist for new mums, I help unravel these ideas. Each mum I meet feels she’s not doing enough in some way and I can tell you that each mum I meet is actually doing an amazing job and I have no doubt that you are too. Sometimes recognising where the feelings come from helps shift perspective and all of us could be a little bit kinder to ourselves.
How do I know if it’s societal expectation or the wrong decision?
Choosing what feels right for you as a postnatal mum is difficult and it’s important to listen to our internal physical and emotional responses to the decisions we make. While societal expectations may push for a one-size-fits-all approach to motherhood, recognising and honouring your unique needs is empowering.
Take a moment to reflect on your values, priorities, and personal strengths. Typically, when we make a decision on how we do things we feel one of two ways:
- Discomfort: something feeling off, you’re unsure, it’s not quite right. Perhaps there’s something in the pit of your stomach, you feel slightly anxious or on edge.
- Comfort: a sense of contentment around your decision, you feel, sometimes suddenly, calmer. Perhaps your shoulders relax slightly or you feel lighter.
Consider these reactions to your decisions. If you feel you ‘should’ be doing something and you’re feeling uncomfortable, chances are it’s coming from external pressures.
Trust your instincts. For example, if rest is what your body craves but societal pressures push you to be constantly active, listen to your own needs. If you’re sleep training your baby but you are constantly anxious about it, perhaps that method or training isn’t right for you. If you’re being pushed to the brink with breastfeeding and the only thing that is keeping you going is what others will think, go with your needs.
You are worthy of having your needs met, your instincts are worthy of being listened to, By aligning your choices with these you create a nurturing space for yourself and your baby.
Silencing the inner critic
The inner critic and mum guilt go hand in hand. Silencing it starts with awareness of where it comes from and then recognising your common negative self-talk. For instance, the pressure to exclusively breastfeed, the belief that you should fill your days with endless baby activities, or the unrealistic expectation to look flawless.
Actively challenge these thoughts, even if you don’t fully believe them to start with.
- Challenge "I should be exclusively breastfeeding" by acknowledging that a mix of feeding methods is okay, as is bottle feeding. Instead, you could say ‘My baby is well-fed and content’.
- Reframe the notion of doing constant activities and lots of baby groups to embracing quality over quantity.
- Instead of criticising your appearance, focus on the incredible feat your body has accomplished e.g. ‘My body has grown and birthed this whole new person and is allowed time to recover’.
Your mind is complex; it’s received so many messages that you might not even be aware of. Reframing your thoughts like this allows you to retrain it, allows it to see another perspective and you would be amazed at the impact it can have.
What should I do now?
- Save this article so it’s easy to find when you’re in the mum guilt trenches.
- Begin by celebrating small victories, and recognising the strength in every choice you make.
- Unfollow anyone on social media who doesn’t fit your values, who makes you feel anxious, not good enough or low.
- Cultivate a supportive network of fellow mums who understand the challenges and celebrate your choices with you, finding those people who lift you up can be really beneficial in the long term.
As a mum, I beat myself up for countless ‘failures’ when I had my first child and I get it. I also know you can come out the other side stronger and more confident with your decisions.
Head over to my profile and get in touch. Let’s work through this together.
*Caitlin is a fictional character who summarises the common difficulties my clients face.