mother and daughter maternal guilt
Blog Post, Practices

Maternal Guilt

Maternal guilt seems to be almost an inherent part of modern, intensified motherhood. The idea that maternal guilt is just part of the component of mothering is really widespread in our culture and it’s almost like a right of passage you go through. Guilt about everything, right?

There can be guilt even from (pre)conception! Then guilt about decisions you made or circumstances surrounding your birth. Guilt about how you choose to feed them. Guilt about them spending too much time in the pram/car and not enough floor time. Guilt about whether their food is organic or made from scratch. Guilt about how much you talk to them or engage with them. Guilt about leaving them in the care of others.

Guilt for going into the paid workforce. Guilt for not going into the paid workforce. Guilt that you’re neglecting your partner/friendships/whatever other significant relationship you have in your life. Guilt over too much screentime or not enough books or that you yelled.

The guilt of when you go from one to two to three to more children. Mothering more than one child at a time is basically just guilt central. You are already split off in a thousand different directions and it is actually impossible to meet all of their needs, all at the same time, all by yourself.

Maternal Guilt and being ‘Not Enough’

Motherhood is supposedly just one. Big. Guilt fest. And a love fest – obviously. Because we say that what outweighs the guilt is the love. And that even part of the love IS the guilt. Are you doing it ‘right’ if you DON’T feel guilty? What kind of mother would it make you if you enjoyed leaving your child at daycare and didn’t feel one shred of guilt for going off to work?

The common thread that ties feelings and experiences of guilt together is usually the (inner/outer) judgement of ‘not being good enough’.

Not being enough. Lacking. Comparing yourself to a standard – a measure of achievement. Whether that be through comparison with an external person or standard or guideline. Or whether it be because of your own inner barometer of what you expect from yourself.

Difference between Guilt and Shame

Here I think it is actually really useful to mention the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is about negative self-evaluation. So there is some specific act, behaviour, or decision, and then guilt stems from that for you to reflect negatively over yourself. Whereas shame is more a negative reflection of the self that is a reaction to public disapproval specifically.

An example of guilt: “I feel really awful about feeding the kids McDonalds for dinner” versus shame of “I feel really awful because Janet asked me if I was giving the kids McDonalds for dinner”. So there’s that subtle difference in guilt as self-regulation, and shame as awareness of regulation from others

So in some ways we could think of the negative feelings of self is the same with shame and guilt, but shame is from others’ disapproval, and guilt is from self-judgement. I think a core issue of this whole conversation is that the self-judgement is actually based on social constructions, and is therefore something we can work to let go of and redefine.  

What Research says about Maternal Guilt

Sutherland (2010) argues that mothers experiencing guilt and shame in relation to their roles as mothers is the most prevalent finding in mothering research. The experience and feelings of guilt was also a predominant and consistent theme among participants in my own research on mothering children with disabilities.

Hays in the Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood spoke of the ‘guilt trap’ where mothers experience vastly more guilt than fathers – even when care is equally shared. I mean – how often do we hear about and see memes about ‘Dad Guilt’? Other key maternal scholars Douglas and Michaels (2004) talk about guilt as occurring in mothers alongside feelings of inferiority, exhaustion, confusion, fearfulness, and anger.

Adrienne Rich said of mothers in Of Woman Born:

“the guilt, the powerless responsibility for human lives, the judgements and condemnations, the fear of her own power, the guilt, the guilt, the guilt.” (217)

So you could pull many things out of the literature but hear this:

If you feel Mum guilt, you are not alone.

There’s a great quote by Douglas and Michaels:

“…motherhood is a collective experience. We want to erase the amnesia about motherhood – we DO have a common history, it does tie us together and it has made us simultaneously guilt-ridden and ready for an uprising.” (25)

Historical Influences

There are also significant ways that historical attitudes have shaped the way we feel internally in 2019 – almost 2020 – about our mothering guilt. There has been (and still is) the perception that a child is a reflection of their mother. If there is something ‘wrong’ with the child, then the mother must have done something ‘wrong’.

In the 1950s there was a phrase called the ‘refrigerator mothers’ – this is truly awful! It was posited that children with autism had their autism caused or induced because their mothers were lacking empathy or supposedly ‘cold’ towards them.

Of course this has been discredited. But echos of such mother-blame continue, and it’s what contributes to experiences of maternal guilt. I remember one of my research participants said to me something to the effect of: my biggest fear is my children sitting in a therapist’s chair one day saying, ‘well it all started with my mother’.

Maternal Guilt is based on Mothering Myths

Embedded in this discussion is the realization that we are comparing ourselves to an idealized image we have formed of ourselves – or maybe it isn’t even ourselves, maybe it’s a fantasy woman or even another mother who we know.

Researchers Liss et al from their 2012 publication explain ‘self-discrepancy theory’ as a way of understanding guilt and shame. Basically, they say that these emotions all come back to being scared about the judgement of mothers, and comparing yourself to an idealized version of yourself (or others) that only exists in your head.

Because there is no ideal mother.

There is no perfect mother.

The Liss et al study results are literally framed and discussed in reference to the “detrimental effects of internalizing idealized standards of perfect motherhood.” (1112)

Maternal guilt is about the institution of patriarchal motherhood. It keeps it sustained.

Maternal guilt is about the ‘good mother’ myth.

Maternal guilt is something that we can actively and reflexively examine and reframe as mothers.

To hear more about this tune in to my podcast episode, ‘Mum Guilt’ where I talk about 3 strategies to minimize and reframe guilt.  

Practices, Uncategorized

Mundane Mothering Tasks and Numbing Practices

There have been some fantastic moves over the last 5 years in particular to unveil and even use humour to speak about some of the mundane parts of motherhood that pose huge challenges for those raising children, particularly Mums who mother fulltime outside of the paid workforce. But could this humour be just another numbing practice?

I am sure many of us have made or heard jokes pointing to the potential monotony of some mothering tasks such as changing nappies, preparing food, and cleaning. I say ‘potential’ because these tasks are not always mundane for everyone.

Some women who have multiple children may take advantage of nappy changes with her baby to foster connection and eye contact in an otherwise frenzied morning, and get enjoyment from this time.

Some absolutely love cooking and preparing meals and take enjoyment from this aspect of mothering. Some use the act of cleaning as a way of regulating themselves emotionally and working out anxiety or tension.

That is to say – let’s always be mindful of assumptions we may make about processes of daily life that we may find meaningless, but may be imbued with meaning for another.

Certainly though for the majority of us, there are parts of our daily life as mothers that involve completing tasks or performing routines that we do not necessarily enjoy but they are necessary to perform for the care, hygiene and safety of our children.

As a way to speak about parts of motherhood that we may find challenging, monotonous, or dull, we connect with other mothers to build a sense of friendship and community in our shared sense of frustration, boredom, or apathy – and this is often done through humour. I would ask us to look critically at the aspects of motherhood that we complain about or do not find enjoyment or satisfaction from, and ask:

  1. Is this something I really HAVE to be doing? Where has this expectation come from?
  2. What would happen if I let go of, loosened expectations around, or outsourced (shifted responsibility) for this aspect of motherhood? Can I do that?
  3. How can I reframe or reshape my understandings of this task so I find value in it?

An example… I don’t enjoy cooking but have a value on nutritious food and know that I have to do this activity for my daughter as part of her health and development, so I reframe my understanding of making meals to be contributing to something I actually do value. I outsource this task when I can by saying ‘yes and thank you’ whenever someone else offers to cook or provide food for my daughter, and I release expectations on myself from having everything cooked from scratch or organically (this isn’t something embedded within me, but I am aware that the ‘good mother myth’ expects mothers to be cooking goddesses of fresh, nutricious organic produce that of course our children will EAT…:) ) What are some things that you can let go of to make your life easier, reframe, or ask for help with?

Performing aspects of mothering that we may not enjoy is something that is dealt with through connection with other mothers, humour, but also through practices that can have darker sides. I’ll take an example from popular culture and media: the TV series on Netflix – Workin’ Moms, where the main character Kate takes time out of her position in marketing to stay at home with her baby after he suffered a bout of the measles. Part of the depiction of her day at home shows her moving from task to task with her toddler trying to keep him entertained as he draws on walls and throws and smashes an iPad while she – in futile – attempts to have a shower. She counts down, repeatedly clock-watching, until midday strikes, where she then pours herself a glass of wine, before being surprised by her husband coming home and throwing the glass and wine into the sink in her attempts to conceal her drinking.

There is so much that can be pulled out of scenes and series such as these, but what a description of these short snippets illustrates is the complexities of the way we view and experience full time motherhood at home raising young children. The viewer gets an insight into the often relentless nature of the supervision required, the creativity in facilitating and supporting play, and the struggle in getting anything done for ourselves – such as taking a shower. The countdown to when it may be deemed socially acceptable to pour a glass of wine is telling not only of the way mothers may seek to funnel their behaviour into constructed norms of what is considered socially acceptable, the tension/stress/anxiety that is felt and is sought to be managed, and the popular yet potentially dangerous trope of mothers using wine to manage this stress and workload.

It also points to the hidden aspects of motherhood where we may conceal certain behaviours because of fear, embarrassment, or shame.

This is why Kate hides her drinking from her husband when he walks through the door – there is a sense of shame in admitting this job is hard and we may not be coping. But interestingly, in this episode there is no discussion of what aspects of life at home Kate is struggling with – and this conversation is absent from interactions with her husband, who seems to have little understanding of what the realities of looking after a baby all day entails, and mounts more requests and expectations on Kate while he continues his work and social life, seemingly unaffected by responsibilities of fatherhood. The often misguided cultural assumptions of stay-at-home mothers are also perpetuated later in the episode when Kate’s colleague asks her if she talks to herself at home to break up the boredom.  

I want to take issue with this assumption of boredom and further in my next blog post. But a really important theme that I will talk a little more about has to do with Kate’s wine-o’clock-countdown.

I am sure many of us have heard of or shared in this phrase of ‘wine o’clock’ or indulging in ‘mummy juice’, or needing a glass of wine once the kids are in bed.

Wine and caffeine are almost considered prerequisites for westernized, modern day motherhood.

Much of this is shared in jest and the majority of mothers who drink wine do not have a problem with alcohol. Of course though, for those with a genetic predisposition for alcoholism in particular, an alcohol-centric culture within motherhood can be dangerous.

I’m not going to engage in discourse trying to regulate women’s behaviour in framing ‘dangerous’ or ‘unfit’ motherhood with the consumption of alcohol. We have enough resources telling us what we ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t be doing. If you think you may have a problem with alcohol or would like to explore this further you can look to the resources I’ve linked at the end of this page.

What I want to draw attention to are the ways we are using substances – combined with humour and social bonding over the consumption of such substances – to deal with what are social problems.

Motherhood and the circulation of the ‘good mother myth’ expects women to be self-sacrificing, devoted, all-encompassing, primary-caregiving mothers to their children, keeping track of and responding to all of their developmental, health, physical, and emotional needs. Many mothers reading this won’t be surprised that research looking at mothers of children aged between 5-12 years old work on average 14 hour days – a 98 hour working week. That is equivalent to 2.5 full time jobs. If we think about the intensity of this for mothers who are breastfeeding or those looking after children with additional needs – we can see the relentlessness and absolute intensity of the workload of motherhood is overwhelming.

Motherhood has been challenging – probably since the beginning of time. But the intensification of expectations of modern-day motherhood is only making mothers’ lives harder. This is linked with the not only expectations but often need and desire for women to engage in paid work as well as mothering work. Have you seen the meme about being expected to work like you’re not a mother and mother like you don’t have paid work?

Interesting, working mothers today are spending more time with their children than stay at home mothers did in the past. This is not to say motherhood previously was not unbelievably challenging, and mothers today are privileged enough to have access to many resources and developments in technology that have made our lives ‘easier’. But the rapidly changing world we live in and changes in our community and culture mean we must be under no illusion that we can and should be able to ‘do it all’ – alone.

So is it any wonder that the trope of ‘mummy juice’ exists? It is seen as an avenue for numbing, escapism, and dulling of the intensification of the pressures we face in our daily lives. I think the way we treat alcohol and motherhood today can be compared with the way stay at home mothers were associated with ‘bex’ in the 1950s. Bex was a strong analgesic in powder or tablet form that became known as Mothers Little Helper, with the slogan of ‘a cup of tea, a bex, and a good lie down’ becoming an Australian mothering cultural tradition. This was until mothers started going into kidney failure and Bex was pulled from shelves in 1977. Bex was a way for mothers to suppress their feelings of discontent, exhaustion, alienation, and oppression. Alcohol today is used in a similar way.

Instead of talking about our need for ‘wine’ at the end of the day, could we vent and voice our frustrations and grievances?

Could we build a sense of solidarity through shared experience of mothering challenges rather than shared endeavors of numbing?

Could we start to make visible the broader structures and expectations that contribute to these challenges existing in the first place?

Could we look outside of ourselves to see who is not carrying their load in the work of raising these children, and where we can turn to for ‘help’?

Could we brainstorm strategies for making our everyday lives less challenging, more rewarding – or at least tolerable without wanting to numb ourselves?

Could we reframe and reshape our understandings of our challenges to see the value and importance of them in and of themselves?  

If you feel that you may have a problem with alcohol or substance use, please click here to be linked with support services.

good enough mother lovingly looking at her new baby
Blog Post, Good Mother Concept

What is the Good Enough Mother?

A good enough mother. When you think of that phrase – what does it mean to you? How would YOU use it? As a way to explain why you think you’re not perfect? Do you equate ‘good enough’ with NOT enough? Being a good enough mother is realizing that the perfect mother does not exist, and failing actually helps our children.

In a culture with a plague of often self-diagnosed ‘perfectionists’, it is tempting to think that ‘good enough’ is a platitude, used as a subtle way of apologising for why we are not or cannot be the perfect Mother: the perfect woman.

But what does being a ‘good enough mother’ actually mean? It is predominately about two things.

The Perfect Mother Does Not Exist: She is Good Enough

There is no such thing as a perfect – ideal – GOOD – mum. It is a myth! I will talk a lot more about this, but if you are comparing yourself to an idealized version of what and who a ‘good mum’ is, then I want this blog to help you shatter that illusion.

The ideal of the ‘perfect mum’ is a product of our patriarchal culture that has tried to keep women quiet, in their place, self-deprecating or loathing, anxious, and feeling as though they are ‘failing’.

Failure is inevitable if you’re trying to be the perfect Mum.

We do not have the option of being a perfect Mum. We are human and the perfect Mum ideal is constructed to be human-proof!

‘Failing’ Helps Our Children

Being ‘good enough’ means we are doing our best, most of the time, we are attentive, attuned, responsive, engaged, empathetic, conscious, and loving. We mostly get it right. But there are times – inevitably (everyday for most of us) – where we disengage, distract, ignore, express irritation, frustration, annoyance, anger, apathy… We feel like we let our children down and then there is inevitable guilt because of that.

But the thing is, being ‘good enough’ is not settling. It is actually serving your children.

The concept of the ‘good enough mother’ was actually termed by paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott in 1953, who observed mothers adapt to their baby’s needs. He connects the process of mothering to the process of a child’s cognitive development. During the newborn and early babyhood stage, we are highly attuned as mothers and do our best to respond to and meet their every need. We are teaching our children that they are safe and will be responded to and cared for.

Winnicott noted that – obviously this level of attunement is not sustainable and as the baby grows into toddlerhood and beyond, the child needs to see and experience their mother or primary carer ‘fail’ them in tolerable ways regularly in order to support their development and resilience. There is lots of discussion and theorising relating to Winnicott’s work, but here is how I’m interpreting it on this platform.

Showing our children that we are not perfect mothers supports them in becoming resilient, strong, curious, empathetic, knowledgeable human beings.

Letting our children see that there are more parts to us than our mothering-selves shows them that we are HUMAN. Human beings who have cultivated strategies for resilience and growth in an inherently imperfect world, and who realize that their parents and caregivers are multi-dimensional, flawed, real people who are doing their best.

That the person caring for them knows how to recognise their mistakes, apologise, and model on how to do better.

This person knows how to regulate their bodies and emotions when they feel overwhelmed and angry.

They know how to express frustration, irritation and impatience authentically but healthily.

They model all the ways we as humans feel, fail, love, fall, rise, try again, and generally try and do the best we can with what we have.

The child has a person in their life who loves them more than anything in the world.

So many of us put so much into our mothering and want the “best” for our children. Acknowledging this, if we accept our own imperfections, we are showing our children they do not have to be these (impossibly) perfect beings. We are showing them that we will love and accept them for all of who THEY are – including their so-called imperfections.

We release our children from the pressure of trying to live up to ideals when we show them that those ideals are false.

Let’s show ourselves compassion and forgiveness the same way we show others compassion and offer forgiveness, and the way we want our children to experience compassion and receive forgiveness.