How to survive mum shame
What is shame?
“Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.”
Shame is something we all feel, but a word we rarely use to express how we feel. For most mums, shame is something we bat off from the moment we wake up. I feel shame when I'm rushing my kids to get ready and they just want to talk and play. I feel shame for giving my daughter my phone as a bribe so she lets me brush her hair. I feel shame for getting frustrated with my children for not letting me get on with housework. I feel shame when I'm not working I should be focused on them all the time. Shame is so inherently built into motherhood we can become so used to these intrusive thoughts we start to see them as normal.
How does shame affect mothers?
"Most of us, if not all, have built significant parts of our lives around shame. Women often experience shame as a web of layered, conflicting and competing expectations that are impossible to meet."
Needing to clean the house, but feeling like we need to be with our children is the perfect example. We can't possibly be everything all the time so why do we continue to criticise ourselves for these impossible expectations?
Shame makes ideals and myths that we deep down know no woman could possibly keep up with feel like other people’s reality. What makes shame even less attainable is the way the layers of expectations often conflict and compete with one another. Reminding ourselves how unattainable our expectations are is a great place to start in overcoming shame. It helps us focus on what we have achieved and feel less shame for what we haven't been able to do.
Expectations we try to live up to can come from every angle so it's not surprising shame is such a huge part of our lives. Family, partners, our friends, co-workers, our children, health professionals and other mothers can all contribute to that feeling of not being good enough. I can't remember how many times my mum has told me she had four students when I was young and she still managed to work and look after two children. Often though it's not even comments that are directed at us that can lead to us feeling shame, It can be hearing someone does something differently.
We can never be 100% sure about any decisions we make in our lives so hearing others making different choices can make us doubt our own. I have 2 children who sleep well (now) and I am pretty sure that is because I sleep trained them early on. Even writing that I start to feel a pang of shame as I know sleep training immediately opens us up to be judged. My rational brain knows my children have a much happier mother because they sleep through. I believe they are much happier when they have had a good night’s sleep, but shame is still making me feel like I need to justify my decision.
On social media this week I saw a desperate mum ask an influencer if she sleep trained her children, she said no as she understands how cruel it is. Even though I don’t agree with that, the comment has stayed with me all week. Partly because I was angry for how much I felt she was trying to shame a mum who is desperate for a full night sleep, and partly for how I felt she judged me. I was on the internet looking for a Christmas party outfit and out of nowhere, I was shamed for a decision I made months ago.
How does shame relate to motherhood as a social issue?
How much screen time we allow our children, how much we work or whether we choose to stay at home, how much sugar our kids eat, how we discipline our children are just a few expectations we navigate daily as mothers.
“Many of us actually fall prey to the same sources of shame as other women, and we experience very similar reactions. However, due to the isolating and secretive nature of shame, we feel like it is only happening to us and that we must hide it at all costs.”
Shame can also become something we put on other women as a way of making us feel better about our own decisions. "As mothers, when we finally find something that feels right and true for us, we cling to it, So when another mother makes a different choice, it's sometimes easier to shame and blame, rather than sit with the fear that we made the wrong decision."
Feeding is the eternal battle all mothers will face. Women are divided into those who bottle feed and those who breastfeed and separating the 2 camps almost feels like the best way to minimise shame. When we are at our most vulnerable rather than support each other to make our own choices we become so divided.
If we could just be proud of our choices and own them we could make being a mum so much easier. I know my husband isn’t in the pub having a conversation with his mates defending our choice to bottle feed. Even as I write that I feel the need to write a caveat that I did breastfeed for six weeks. What I could say is I find breastfeeding really inconvenient so I choose to bottle feed. I know so many women would love to hear that, but we focus on that one negative voice that could potentially be judging us. We go to the worst-case scenario and start focussing on shame and self-doubt.
How can we reduce the harmful effects of shame?
Accepting shame is a huge part of all our thought processes is the first step, knowing when thoughts are unnecessary or unhelpful is the first step in changing them. Being able to recognise what’s happening means we are more likely to feel comfortable sharing difficult experiences with people we trust to respond with kindness and empathy.
Sharing stories. My husband is often really helpful when I am feeling shame. The things I am struggling with are often so alien to him can really put things into perspective.
Accepting our part. It's also to remember our part in this, if you feel yourself judging another mother before you say anything try and work out where that is coming from. If it is coming from your own shame it may be better to keep it to yourself, we are all guilty of it and we are less likely to feel judged if we listen and offer advice when we are asked.
Remembering shame may be more about our process, we can never be 100% sure of any choices, we are not perfect and what our children need is for us to be doing our best.
These tools can help us stop internalising shame, stop us from being anxious about every choice we make for our families. They can help us to be less focused on being perfect and be happier about being good enough.