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Mummy guilt - it's a waste of time

12 September 2016

“Mummy guilt” knows no boundaries. It strikes the young and the old; mothers who are CEOs of their home or an ASX Top 200 company.

Mummy guilt is a womb to tomb condition: Remember the looks you got in public when you snuck a hot chip or dared to indulge in a small glass of wine in your final trimester, and don’t get me started on the comments complete strangers feel entitled to make within earshot about everything from what you are wearing to your choice in strollers.

I was at a fast food outlet with a friend, recently. My friend, in her early 40s and having her first child, was talking excitedly about her coming birth plan when we both overheard a younger woman next to us say to her mother, ‘oh, that poor child. There are so many old mothers, now…’ It stopped us dead in our tracks.

The moral outrage of others about our abilities to be mothers doesn’t stop there. Think about how you felt around breast feeding or not, returning to work and childcare, school events and being at work, etc., etc., etc. Whatever your actions - like missing Book Week parade because I was in the middle of an amazing project at work and remembered a little too late to get there - as a mother your actions are a never-ending source for society to use as examples of how bad you are.

I know two women, one in the C-suite and another the head of her own internationally successful business, who have come to the conclusion that “mummy guilt” is a waste of time. Their children are now well-adjusted functional young adults - who are the first to acknowledge how proud they are of their mothers and their mothers’ achievements.

For these women, what society has to say and think is not the issue. What matters is: knowing your kids know you love them, and that you’re there for them when they need you.

Guilt is a complex emotion and sits below every primary emotional response we feel.

Of course, there is such a thing as “healthy guilt”. Feeling guilt for an action deserving of remorse is normal. (You would be forgiven for thinking that not feeling guilty might actually be a sign of psychopathy.)

The problem with guilt occurs when you ruminate over the guilt. Learning to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy – ruminative, obsessive, unproductive - guilt is important, especially when it comes to “mummy guilt”.

Guilt is most often a response to a perceived decrease in a social standing. Many a dad works late, does less of the “caring” and is not expected, as women are, to run the home and children and work. Because the social standing of men is not tied to their caring abilities in the same way, the term, “daddy guilt”, has no context.

It is why, unsurprisingly, “daddy guilt” hasn’t caught on among men to the same extent, and no one seems to be suffering any adverse effects.

For me, it’s just another reason why “mummy guilt” is a waste of time. “Mummy guilt” exists because of social stereotypes, and to enforce behaviours which maintain the status quo; it’s another unconscious bias degrading diversity.

So, what about the guilt we feel when we don’t live up to our own standards? Many of us would have to admit when it comes to “mummy guilt” it’s probably been modelled on the behaviours of our own mothers.

Remodelling what are some very old standards and behaviours around our own children doesn’t make sense. Apart from the unrealistic and, let’s face it, old-fashioned expectations, around what is “good and bad parenting” set by society, there is also our natural tendency toward “egocentrism”. We assume that others place far more importance on our thoughts and actions than they actually do. I know tormenting myself with guilt, such as not being around for my children 24/7, often goes completely unnoticed by them.

I’ve turned up to many a school event - having missed a few things because of work - only to be greeted with a “hi” and a hug as they run off to the more important needs of their friends.

I once even overheard my daughter telling someone how Cool I was, which I am taking as resounding confirmation of my parenting abilities.

Mummy guilt’s a waste of time because it builds unrealistic expectations around what care giving is and sends the wrong messages about the ‘work of care’ – no other job asks you to remain at the top of your game without a break.