What do you feel parental guilt about? I bet there are at least three things. Us mums are famous for it. Here are just a few of my guilt-triggers:
- I feel guilty that my daughter had several fillings and two tooth extractions before she even turned seven (she’s having another filling tomorrow, and OH, THE GUILT).
- I felt guilty for months every time I walked past her big girl’s bike and remembered that she was too scared to ride it and that we didn’t take her out on it enough, to conquer her fears.
- I feel guiltiest of all about the times I lose my temper with my two children. That particular guilt is my kryptonite. It brings me to tears. I’m not a shouty person. So why do I shout at these children who are my very soul?
The list goes on. Believe me, it goes on.
In the throes of the day it’s so easy to let things slip. To not get the bikes out and brave the freezing outdoors. To aim to be Super Mum and to end up being Mumm-ra from the Thundercats.
But at night I hold them in their beds before they go to sleep, burying my nose in their hair and pouring out silent apologies that I hope they’ll absorb somehow:
I’m sorry I dumped you in front of the telly so that I could could get stuff done, instead of taking you out – even though it was sunny outside.
I’m sorry I ignored you when you tried to get my attention, because I was pissing about on Facebook.
I’m sorry (I’m so sorry) I shouted at you. I’m sorry I made you cry.
I’ve never met a mum immune from guilt. One friend feels terrible that she has never taken her toddler swimming. Another worries that her kid’s diet of beige oven food means she is a bad mother. And as for the look on the face of the mum who forgot that it was dress-up day at school: the guilt shone from her perspiring, stricken brow.
Recently, there has been a huge movement- and it’s one I celebrate- against the pressure to be a perfect mother, and the crushing guilt we feel when we fall short. It’s played out, with great wit and humour, on blogs great and small. People have sold thousands of books off the back of it. It’s there in the words of solidarity from friends who, when I raced through the school gates late, holding back tears because of the thoroughly crap morning we’d had, and the even crappier way I dealt with it, were quick to tell me “that happened to me the other day”. In the reassurances of friends who tell me that my daughter surely has weak enamel on her teeth; it can’t be my fault.
The message of this movement is: stop with the mummy guilt. Pour another glass of prosecco, put Netflix on, stick some chicken nuggets in the oven and repeat to yourself: I’m normal. I’m good enough.
And it’s supportive; it’s wonderful. It’s like a warm bath of acceptance and ‘thank-god-I’m-not-a-monster’ relief.
But I’ve been reflecting on myself as a parent a lot recently, and dare I say it: I think there’s a danger that we won’t hold ourselves accountable enough. I think some guilt is good. If something is niggling, if something doesn’t feel right- then there’s probably something there that needs to be addressed.
So here’s my new strategy:
Ask myself: why do I feel guilty? If the reason is connected to some form of nonsense societal pressure, forget it. Chuck it in the fuck-it bucket and move on. For example, no pious internet meme or Daily Mail article will ever make me feel guilty about being a working mother.
Ask myself: is it unavoidable? Actually, the telly does need to go on for longer than it should sometimes, so that we can try to hold back the relentless swamp of Lego, shreds of playdough and tiny beads that threatens to engulf the house.
Ask myself: is my guilt based on a decision that I own? There are many decisions we make as parents which may feel controversial, but which we know are right for us: for example, deciding not to breastfeed, opting to work full time, or separating from a partner. If we know in our core that we’ve made the right choice for our family, then we should forget the guilt.
But if none of the above apply, then maybe the guilt exists for a reason. And maybe, instead of lying staring into the dark at 4am thinking about that thing I did or didn’t do that I now feel terrible about, I could do something about it instead.
So, while I truly love to piss about on Facebook, I do not need to do it when my child’s beautiful face is right in front of me, wanting eye contact. There is plenty of time for ignoring my partner to piss about on Facebook, once the kids are in bed.
While it may well be true that my daughter has weak enamel on her teeth, I can still research how to look after her teeth as well as I can; and I can be the boring mum barking “one cupcake!” at parties. I owe her that.
And as for the shouting? That’s a challenge. I’m dealing, day in day out, with two small people who, when I crouch to tie my shoelace, climb on my back even though- in fact exactly because- they know I hate it. Who have bellowing rows in the bathroom while I am having a bath about whose imaginary superpowers are stronger in their imaginary game. Who will not, simply will not, put on their shoes. But if their Dad and I are going to bust a gut trying to teach them to be kind and reasonable people, then the least we can do is to try to model that behaviour.
And- yes I’m going there- if parents can take their children from Syria to live in a refugee camp in the dead of winter, while retaining some semblance of parental calm, the least I can do is try not to be grouchy with my kids because they’re asking for another snack while I’m trying to make a roux for the béchamel sauce. Right?
All of these things are the least I can do. Keeping on trying is the least I can do. I’m quite sure I’ll fail at times (and then feel guilty about it), but the least I can do is try.
When I feel like I’m going to die or vomit during a run, I keep plodding on. When I’m delivering a particularly heinous work task, I put in the extra hours, and I definitely don’t snap at my colleagues that I will TAKE AWAY THEIR SCREEN TIME IF THEY DON’T BEHAVE. I don’t give up on those things that matter less than my children, so why should I give up trying when it comes to them?
The whole reason we all feel so guilty is because it matters so much. It matters more than we can fathom. That’s why we get so screwed up about it all. So, when we feel the familiar lump of guilt in the pit of our stomachs, maybe we shouldn’t just ignore it and settle for good enough.
We’ve made a real effort to take our girl out on her bike more recently. At first, she still couldn’t quite set off or brake confidently on her own. Then, the other day at the park, I watched her push off as though she was taking off into the air. She flew around the edge of the field, a streak of speed and joy, leaning into the handlebars, her slightly toothless grin visible from right across the park.
I was proud. Of her, and of us. And, for those few minutes, I didn’t feel the least bit guilty.