The mum guilt pandemic

Mum guilt is spreading through the nation as rapidly as COVID-19. There is no vaccine to protect against it, and the number of those affected is rising steeply.


What is mum guilt?

Mum guilt has become somewhat of a buzz word and, in the world of Instagram at least, is fast becoming a hashtag marketing tool for well-being brands and even leisurewear. But let’s not allow the beautiful photos of mums cuddling their babies to distract us from what it really is.

It's the inescapable torment of feeling like you are failing as a mother (and I don’t want to exclude dads here) and, at worst damaging your child’s mental health and development. It's having a crippling effect on the mental health of our nation’s parents.

A new strain

The current climate has certainly intensified the pressures on parents, to the extent that even those who were previously feeling OK with the way they had things balanced are now starting to doubt themselves too. Homeschooling, home working, a lack of baby and toddler groups or accessible activities, are leaving mums worried that their child is falling behind both socially and developmentally - and nobody is in a position to do anything about it.

Know the signs - mum guilt trigger points

You’re finding your children challenging

When you have run around all day after them and they return the favour with tantrums and stubbornness, it is OK to feel angry and let down. It doesn’t make you a bad parent if you need to take some time away from them to let off steam. We all lose our cool sometimes too. Dwelling on your failings as a mother will just make you feel more guilty.
Kids test boundaries; it’s what they do. It is not a reflection on you as a parent and it certainly isn’t your fault. We are all human and we get things wrong sometimes. If things didn’t go quite the way you wanted them to, work on ways to change them for the next time. It’s energy well spent and much less painful than spending that time punishing yourself. 

You’re finding your kids boring

You don’t have to love every minute of parenting! Frankly, I find Minecraft utterly mind-numbing. That doesn’t make you a bad parent. Sometimes, you will tolerate a conversation and sometimes you can actually tell them that you would like to talk about something else or even not talk to them at all.
You don’t have to want to inhale the sweetness of your child’s hair and enjoy every minute in your child’s company to love them. You can love them and still find them annoying and boring.
The answer? Do some things YOU like with them. If that means dragging them along to one of your own pursuits, then do it! Oh, and they might moan as they are walking around the shops, have a coffee with a friend, or on a hike but kids moan when they’re doing things they like too. They just like moaning: it’s a kid thing. So why not let them moan while you entertain yourself once in a while?

Not having enough time for your children

This is a really common one and I have no magical solutions, but I do have three important questions.

  • Could you give them more time if you wanted to?
  • Do you want to?
  • What is ‘enough’ time anyway?

The spare time you have is always precious and often non-negotiable. So, you are allowed to share it around. It doesn’t all have to be focused in one direction.  The concept of ‘enough time’ is entirely subjective too. Enjoying the time you do have, guilt-free is time better spent because you won’t resent it while sharing it.

Well done! You are doing your best. If no one has told you that today, then hear it from me.

Super hero mum

Not being a good enough provider

I know it’s tough when you see other parents taking their children on lavish holidays and kitting them out with the latest toys and accessories. However, children do understand the concept of money if you explain it to them. Teaching them the importance of saving and budgeting certainly won’t hurt them.
The pain you feel when you can’t give them something is much more acutely felt within you than it is them, I promise. Look back on your happiest childhood memories (if of course, you are lucky enough to have some). Can you put a price on those?
If you had a pretty rubbish childhood with very little, that doesn’t mean you have to overcompensate to make up for it now, either.
Apart from the basics, most of what a child needs to feel happy and stable comes for free, no matter what the advertising companies are trying to tell you.

The lies we tell ourselves and others

The reason that mum guilt is so insidious is that, without even realising it, we are perpetuating it. The worst thing about guilt is it is difficult to talk about. We keep this unwanted feeling inside of ourselves as we don’t want anyone else to know. We feel like we are the only ones experiencing it and, before long, that guilt becomes shame and we are compelled to lie to others and then also to ourselves. In modern times we now have the perfect accomplice in this deceit: social media.
In previous generations, we only had our parents’ ideals to live up to or perhaps the other mums on the school run. However, now we have a window into the lives of mums across the planet. We are bombarded with perfect images which show us the ‘ideal’ set up.
Even the parents who are posting about #mumguilt, have added a filter, dragged a brush through their hair and washed the crusty snot off their child’s face. (Ugh, I just had a flashback of my mum licking a tissue and wiping my face).
So, even when we want to tell the truth about our lives, we can’t help but lie and so the cycle repeats itself. I am as guilty as the next person for clearing a surface behind me or checking myself in the mirror before taking a photo.
We are trapped in an unreal world, telling made up stories and all the while crying out for somebody to really see us. It’s scary!

Winnicot’s 'Good Enough' Mother

Winnicot, a paediatrician and child psychotherapist, developed the concept of the ‘good enough’ mother. After years of research, he came to the conclusion that children are actually better off when their parents fail to meet their needs in manageable ways. He recognised that the pressure to be perfect was psychologically damaging to mothers, which, in turn, had a detrimental impact on the parenting relationship.
"The good enough mother is one who makes active adaptation to the infant’s needs, an active adaptation that actively lessens, according to the infant’s growing ability to account for the failure of adaptation and to tolerate the results of frustration."

We don’t have to be everything to everyone. Children need to learn that sometimes we get things wrong and that’s OK. We are all human and one day, your child will hopefully grow up to be comfortable with their own failures, faults and setbacks.
"Good enough parenting encompasses being sensitive, warm and empathic towards your baby, being physically and emotionally available for her and meeting her needs responsively. The good enough parent stands in contrast to the ‘perfect’ parent and recognises that it is not possible to be empathic, available and immediately responsive at all times." - Dr Bronwyn Leigh.

Father holding son

How to soothe mum guilt

While I don’t have a cure for this horrible affliction, I do know that there are a few things that can certainly help.
1. Just one person 

If you are able to tell just one, trusted person about how you are really feeling, a person that you believe might just understand where you are coming from, the effects can be liberating. Friend, family member or counsellor, it’s good to talk.
2. Talk to your child 

Have you thought about asking your child what they need? Remember, they don’t have Instagram or Facebook, so it’s likely that they will judge you completely differently to how you judge yourself. Their expectations will be different too.
Ask them what makes them happy and listen closely to their answer. Ask them what they need and see if those needs are as great as your own expectations. A child needs to be loved, to feel safe and to be heard, maybe a Happy Meal as well. Apologies in advance if the answer is a new pair of overpriced trainers!
3. Remember that you are enough

When you wrap that child up in a hug, they won’t be thinking about all the things that you are not, just all that you are, in that moment.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Sittingbourne, Kent, ME10
Written by Catherine Beach, Counselling, Dip Couns, MBACP
Sittingbourne, Kent, ME10

Catherine is a person centred counsellor, teacher and occasional poet from Kent. She is on a mission to rid the world of shoulds and musts so she can work with her clients to discover their passions, wants and needs. She firmly believes that we are all good enough but live in a world that often lies to us.

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