“Mammy Guilt” – Why we should rethink it.

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Mums are experts at worrying, beating themselves up and wishing they did. My work as a volunteer and with bumptobeyond evokes a lot of emotions in parents. Very often I hear “I regret now that I didn’t do this with my older one” during sessions when we talk about normal development, needs, secure attachement. Every time I say to myself “I must write that blog about mummy guilt” … and then life happens. And then I beat myself up over still not having written it …

It’s Mother’s Day weekend, so now I AM writing it! While eating chocolate, Easter chocolate – not feeling one bit guilty about that one.

Regret and guilt are such strong words, they have negative connotations. As if we’ve done something purposefully harmful or despite our better judgement and knowledge. How about instead of saying “I feel so guilty now” we go with “I wish I had”? How about we replace “I regret not doing this”, with “I feel sad I didn’t do this”? Because most of us do what we can, as best as possible, with whatever resources we have at the time: be that information, practical and emotional support, finances. We are human, not robots. When you are tired, it’s much harder to take a step back and look at a situation from different angles. When you read 3 books and 10 well meaning comments from others in a facebook group, you will filter that information based on your circumstances at the time, subconsciously. I still remember reading a book when I was expecting my second that I had read when pregnant for the first time. There was bits in there that had me go “Was that in here 2 years ago? How come I didn’t take that on board, that would’ve been so helpful!”

The amount of firsts is overwhelming, especially when you’ve had no friends or family close by who’ve done all this before. But you grow with your baby. You learn more, you meet different people. You change the course of action slightly or take entirely different turns because you acquire more knowledge, you get to know yourself better and your little person, you learn to filter through lots of baggage to get to your instincts. You learn to read them and you figure out what works for you as a family. Gaining experience is nothing to regret. Learning from it is admirable. Being a mum (or Dad!) is ever changing, it never stays the same, it’s an endless learning curve. I quite like the idea of “kindsight”:


And your older children, they will benefit from all that learning and adapting too. They watch you do with their younger sibling(s) what you wish you had done with them. They observe, are involved, take it in. And they experience it as normal. They will copy you. They will respond to their teddy’s cries and cuddle them better. They will hand you their dolls when they are looking for a feed. They will ask for a scarf to put their stuffed dog into so they can have two free hands to help you hoover. They will tell their friends and classmates how cuddles help babies feel better. They will share their discovery that babies are just like them, when they are hungry or thirsty they need a drink or food.

He wasn't worn as responsively as his younger siblings. When he watched me parent them, it became normal to him. (And I'm pleased to see I had messy counters back then too!)

He wasn’t worn as responsively as his younger siblings. When he watched me parent them, it became normal to him. (And I’m pleased to see I had messy counters back then too!)

When my youngest was born, I felt a lot of sadness around how I parented my oldest. I grieved for the slow, confident, snuggly, getting to know each other, breathing him in start that we didn’t have. I was sad for both of us. And to this day, I wonder regularly how things would be different, how maybe he’d cope with challenges differently, had I been more responsive, more confident, more instinctive from earlier on. I don’t feel guilt or regret though, just sadness and wonder.

What about the “I took time out for myself” guilt then? There’s some analogies I really like (and should print and hang up all around the house, so I actually remember them myself!!):

One is that of the oxygen mask in airplanes. If you don’t put it onto yourself first, you may not be any good to helping anyone around you put on their’s. Only when you are supported yourself, are you able to support others.

And then there’s the woodchopper and his axe. It’s from a story a dear friend gave me when I was struggling to juggle commitments big time. The gist is that no matter how hard the woodchopper works, if he doesn’t make time to sharpen his tool, the yield will be less every day. It was a bit of an eye opener for me, seeing myself as the main tool in a whole tool box required to “build” my little people. And if that main tool isn’t in working order the building process can’t be as efficient.

I am also thinking of a car service. We take our car to get checked over on a regular basis to ensure it runs smoothly and to the best of its ability. Because we know that if we don’t, it’s just not gonna run as smoothly, and the longer we leave it, the worse it’ll get

Dr Libby Weaver goes a little deeper in a powerful TEDx talk, looking at it from a biochemistry angle.


In a nut shell: Beating yourself up over what wasn’t will only stall you on your journey. Istead, use your feelings of sadness and regret to guide you, to allow you to take stock. Celebrate them as an opportunity! Take a deep breath. Consider what you can do, for yourself and your little person, to get back onto the path. Way up options of support, help and guidance to get there and keep you on the path. And enjoy every tiny step that gets you closer and moves you along on your journey.

I rest my case (and will have another bit of chocolate before taking my own advice and going in for an early night!)

******added on 6th March 2016 (Mother’s Day again, incidently!)*****

In her book “Mama: Love, Motherhood and Revolution’ Antonella Gambotto-Burke discussed this guilt with Gabor Maté, author of “Hold on to your kids”. He compares it with getting a flat tyre because you drove over a nail. You’d feel no guilt, because you did it inadvertently. “You caused some damage – you created a problem – but you didn’t do it deliberately. ” Instead, you get out, allow your frustration to be expressed and then deal with the problem, you fix it, you make it right, so that you can continue on your journey.

You can do the same with yourself and your child(ren): You can heal wounds by responding NOW to whatever needs have not been met back then. Because needs don’t ever go away. They are being expressed until they are met. “Your child is not broken. There is neural plasticity, so the brain can change.”

2 Comments on ““Mammy Guilt” – Why we should rethink it.”

  1. jane

    Lovely article Ina, very supportive and encouraging. Lovely insight and analogy’s and really well written.

    It was a feel good read on this dull Saturday morning fitting the spirit of the weekend.

    Thanks Ina

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