'Like a punch in the stomach': The brutal truth about 'Mum Guilt' - and how to overcome it

Photo: Alice Monfries
Photo: Alice Monfries 

Mum guilt. 

I'd heard about it and I expected it. Particularly as someone who knew they were going to try to balance their career with their baby.  

What I didn't expect was how brutal it could be.

Photo: Alice and Max
Photo: Alice and Max 

That it could physically hurt. That dropping your baby at daycare for the first time could feel simultaneously like a punch in the stomach and a knife in your heart. 

That the very thought of letting them down could tighten your chest.

I also didn't expect that it would start before I'd even met my baby. 

From the moment I first saw those two blue lines and ran with tears in my eyes to tell my husband, I became committed (obsessed) with researching and googling everything within my control to give this little human the best start to life possible. 

I was also determined to maximise my opportunities at work before taking time off.

I'd read Sheryl Sandberg's 'Lean In', and knew I had nine months to keep proving myself. 

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But then I hit week eight and the only leaning I was doing was over toilet bowls, out of crew cars and in bushes between live crosses. 

Eventually I landed in hospital and my incredibly supportive news team and bosses gently pointed out I wasn't coping and we scaled my days back to three a week.

Mum Guilt begins early

This was my introduction to Mum Guilt. And it's even more debilitating than Hyperemesis.

This little baby hadn't even arrived yet and already I was feeling constant guilt from the juggle.

Like I was letting work down, and even worse, my baby.

How on earth would that tiny being get all the nutrients and folate they need from my diet of jatz crackers and vegemite toast? I couldn't even keep down pregnancy vitamins, let alone the green smoothies and fermented vegetables I'd envisaged myself diligently consuming.  

Eventually, I accepted the situation, focused on my health and pregnancy and decided I'd make up for it when I returned from maternity leave.

But it turns out that juggle is not exactly a walk in the park either. 

It started out easy enough. It meant my son and husband for the first time had a couple of full days together ("Man Time" my husband would call it as I left the house in the morning.)  They LOVED the one-on-one time, and I LOVED being back at work. I felt like I got a bit of my old self back and dusted off parts of my brain that were desperate to get back into action.  

Until one day I was called in a few hours early.. and then had to stay back late.. meaning I missed seeing my little boy at all that day.

The next morning when I was driving off again not long after he'd woken up, he was out the front, clinging to his Dad with his adorable little face watching me leave, and I felt sick.  

They both started waving and I rapidly buzzed my window down and shoved half my body out to wave back as enthusiastically as possible. 

I was giving it my all – hoping my body language said "see little guy, I love you more than anything, I'm not leaving for long, I'll be back" until suddenly I heard an enormous crack and discovered I'd been waving so hard I reversed into a concrete wall. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Wasted emotions

Not all episodes of Mum Guilt end up with a smashed rear bumper and tail light (thank god), but they do strike often, and in varying intensities. 

And almost every single one is a wasted investment of emotion and energy.

Especially those little guilts, felt over all the "shoulds" we should be doing, according to the overwhelming wealth of parenting information available on our iPhone. 

They should be eating more vegetables. 

They should be doing more tummy time.

Am I engaging with them enough when they're playing? Am I giving them enough space to grow into their own person? 

They should be sleeping through the night by now.. 

I should make the room darker, or warmer, or colder, maybe they need a new sleep suit, or that pink noise glow machine I keep seeing ads for on Instagram (yes, I bought it too). 

If this sounds familiar, you're in good company. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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We all suffer 

Psychologist Dr Libby Quinn of the Women's Psychology Clinic, says up to 90 per cent of new mothers suffer from varying degrees of mum guilt, thanks to the overwhelming (and often contradictory) amount of information and advice we consume, societal expectation of the number of roles we should be able to competently juggle, and comparison through social media of what we THINK other mums are doing. 

The "shoulds" are all little and harmless enough on their own, but they become a problem when they build up and cause overwhelm, stress, and if allowed to keep snowballing, anxiety and even depression.

"It's a phenomenon that has increased at a staggering rate and is a direct reflection of advances in our modern technological age," Dr Quinn says.

"More than ever women are comparing themselves to other mothers and have unknowingly internalised the image of 'the good mother' who cooks her food from scratch, has an ever growing career, exercises every day, takes care of everyone and still finds time to meditate.

"This is what I like to term 'the unreal ideal' that sits in every mother's subconscious."

Unrealistic expectations 

And that is Mum Guilt in a nutshell. 

A complete mismatch of our expectations and our reality. 

It's at its worst when our expectations of ourselves are totally unrealistic, and in many cases, physically impossible. 

We simply don't have the hours in the day to achieve what we often believe we should.

We can't physically be in two places at once – home with our kids and at work – so how is it fair to heap guilt on ourselves when someone else is helping to care for them?

And if we are working from home, thanks to the pandemic, this has only exacerbated guilt in most households.

Poor burnt out mums are unrealistically trying to stay on top of their workloads and their housework, beating themselves up for not being 100 per cent present and allowing more screen time than usual, while their little wrecking balls tear the place apart. 

Our expectations are not only unrealistic, they're often also outside of our control.

You'd love your child to eat a medley of organic vegetables with the right proportion of protein each meal, but in reality, sometimes your kid would prefer to just throw their food across their high chair tray, the floor and the walls

And this is where women who have tendencies towards perfectionism really struggle. 

Those traits that serve many well when they're striving in their careers, don't transfer so gracefully in the swift and brutal adjustment from career girl to CEO of Mum Land.

Your daily KPIs aren't always up to you.

You can't force a child to sleep, or eat.

And the age they start crawling or walking is no reflection on you as a mother. 

But try telling any mum that. 

So how do we do curb the guilt?

Dr Libby Quinn says we need to start by meeting ourselves in our reality. Not our wildly unrealistic expectations. 

By taking a serious look at our life situation, week by week, and evaluating what is actually possible and what is just setting ourselves up to fail. 

It's amazing how this one question can cause you to suddenly realise the ridiculous demands you're placing on yourself, and often that's enough to ease the guilt. 

Last week we moved house. I also increased my days at work from three to full-time. My husband and I juggled my son who wasn't in day care. And at the last minute we also decided we'd throw him a little party. From our new house. That we'd moved into a day earlier. 

My reality was that I had zero time to do anything other than put a few bags of chips and chocolate "rocks" out in little dump trucks and do my best to unpack what I could to make our new place look semi-presentable.

But of course, I caught first-birthday-itis, and after spiralling down a rabbit hole of internet searches into construction themed parties, I began berating myself for not having put more effort into my little digger-obsessed boy's first birthday (even though we'd only decided that day to do something). And mum guilt made me panic buy no less than 18 little toy dump trucks and diggers from Kmart to assemble on his party table.

As my husband said when I arrived home, two would have done the job. 

And if I'd taken a look at my reality that week and reduced the expectations and pressure on myself, I could have saved a lot of stress and anguish. I knew Max wouldn't care, and my few friends that were celebrating with us wouldn't care, but mum guilt is sneaky like that. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Top tips to overcome Mum Guilt

So here are Dr Libby Quinn's top tips for overcoming this unproductive emotion. 

  • Accept your current reality. Easier said than done, but a game changer. It's just a moment in time, you won't be here forever, but refusing to accept that you can't do everything all at once will only cause you – and likely the rest of your family – unnecessary stress. 
  • Adjust your expectations. Make them realistic. I assumed I'd launch a podcast and write a book while having "time off" on maternity leave. In the end, showering was an accomplishment.
  • Still set goals, but set them with flexibility. Children are unpredictable. If something doesn't happen the way you planned, don't beat yourself up. 
  • Up the self-compassion. If this doesn't come naturally, try talking to yourself like you would your own child. When they're learning to walk, you don't berate them for falling down. You get excited and proud to see them trying their best. 
  • And stop the comparison. It's not fair to compare your mothering to your stay-at-home mum friends or your career to your childless friends. 

The mums who I see nailing the juggle, are the ones who don't allow themselves to feel guilty, because they know they're doing their best. 

They too have balls hitting the ground, daily. 

But they keep picking them back up and importantly, don't beat themselves up over it. 

You're doing your best

Lorraine Murphy - entrepreneur, business coach and mother of three year old Lexi – says it's unfair to feel guilt, without also acknowledging our incredible efforts.   

"When we recognise ourselves and our contributions to our family, it immediately makes the mum guilt fade away," she says. 

"The very fact you are experiencing mum guilt says you are someone who cares deeply about your family and children and are very aware of their needs and their desires and requirements. 

"That's commendable, but don't let it be at the expense of achieving your own goals and dreams."

So you know, all those nights you got up every few hours to feed, the long days spent holding your baby and walking laps of the house when they wouldn't settle, the hours spent steaming and pureeing food only to watch it be thrown in the vague direction of their mouth.

And the googling. The incessant googling. Taking you down a rabbit hole until you're reading a forum post from 2002 where Mumofthree finally gives you the confidence that yes, it's ok that you're using a dummy and you've rocked your baby to sleep.

That was you, doing your very best. 

You love these little humans so much, and they love you, and the ridiculous amount of hours you put into making your family run are worth celebrating.

So this week in Your Village, I want us all to acknowledge the amazing but hard, messy but incredible, exhausting but rewarding job we're doing.

And for once, even if just for today, let's let ourselves off the hook. 

This is Your Village.

Alice Monfries in a reporter for Channel Nine news in Sydney. You can follow her on Instagram or Facebook or email her at AMonfries@nine.com.au