Guilt: The shocking realisation that I might not be a terrible mother
I can’t remember the exact words I used. I was talking to a friend about my kids last week and made mention of the nagging feeling that I’m not all that good at parenting.
Her reaction was the same as my husband’s a few weeks earlier when I had made a similar confession. With disbelief and admonishment, they both asked, was I being serious? I was.
Both times as the words fell from my mouth I recognised how ridiculous they sounded. On almost every objective measure I am a competent and loving parent. In neither conversation did I make the comment in search of external validation. I said it because while in the unfiltered light of day I know it isn’t technically true, the sentiment wasn’t – and isn’t – imagined.
I do genuinely and routinely doubt my parenting chops. Part of this is, undoubtedly, due to my psychological makeup: I have a tendency to seek out and zero in on my own personal flaws. (I sound fun, right?)
My husband and I have long marvelled at the difference in our default positions for internal reviews. When it comes to self-belief I’m more worrier, he’s more warrior. This is particularly apparent when it comes to our family life.
I constantly question whether I do enough, am enough, love enough, read enough, talk enough, give enough.
I am almost always running a tally in my head – of the time I’ve spent with each child, the hours I’ve worked, the time I’ve had “off” to exercise or do the groceries, my recent successes, my recent fails: it is ridiculous, exhausting and habitual.
And the worst bit? It is the inner workings of a woman’s mind who actively seeks to avoid maternal guilt. I tell myself and other women often: don’t feel guilty about working. I am resolute about the fact I have nothing to be guilty about. And yet? Beneath the surface I am as guilty as anyone.
When I share with my husband my running guilt tally at any point in time, his response is almost always the same. His eyes widen as he tells me I don’t need to put myself through this. Our family is lucky to have me. I couldn’t give more to the girls if I tried. His reassurance is always welcome, but more so is his understanding about why I harbour guilt that he escapes. And unlike in other realms it isn’t as simple as me being a tough personal critic.
As an engaged Dad, he is showered with praise just for turning up. He does so much more than merely showing up and is genuinely deserving of every bit of praise that comes his way, but even if that wasn’t the case he would be rewarded for doing far less than he does. The benchmark for fathers is relatively low: take the kids to the park early on a Sunday morning so mum can sleep in? Hero. Do the childcare drop off or pick up once a week? Legend.
Like a lot of other brilliant dads I know, my husband regularly receives feedback about what a wonderful dad he is. From strangers, from friends, from colleagues. It is explicit feedback that the wonderful mums I know very rarely receive. Like many other men, my husband has never once felt guilty for going to work and having kids. He has never questioned his commitment to his career and our family. If he works a big week, he doesn’t waste energy beating himself up for it and trying to make it up to the kids over the weekend.
For mums, it’s not so simple. The bar is set a lot higher. We are still bombarded with messages about what mums ought to do and be. From well-meaning family and friends, from colleagues, from other parents, from schools, from the media – we are fed attitudes and images about motherhood that simply don’t translate to modern life.
Work is still viewed by many as something of a personal indulgence for women. Something mums wouldn’t need to resort to if their kids were enough for them, or they were better parents. Childcare is still considered an unnecessary extravagance that no parent would use if they really loved their children. These attitudes are pervasive and are hard to escape, even with some vigilance about pushing back.
And that is why when it comes to parenting I’m not ready to accept total responsibility for the weight of guilt I feel. The maternal guilt I feel is part of a paradigm that exists that punishes and challenges women who don’t fit the mother stereotype. So while I am going to keep fighting off my own guilt, I am going to resist the temptation to feel guilty for experiencing guilt.
Georgina is a journalist, an editor, and a passionate advocate for gender equality. The former lawyer is a regular media commentator, public speaker, MC and is the contributing editor of Women's Agenda.