I am an ex-superwoman. I learned my special powers from my mother, who was an actual superwoman – she worked full-time as a doctor, raised four children, cooked like a chef, gardened like a pro, kept a lovely home, was incredibly smart, wise, literate and erudite, a lovely person and all-around amazing. She had no reason to suffer from ‘mother guilt’ at all.
Of course all this doing this did not leave much time or space for just being, for appreciating herself just as she was, without the need to do anything, and the only time I saw her stop was at the end of the day, after dinner was cooked, eaten and cleaned up, when she would sit down with a drink …
I learnt by observation and became very ‘good’ at ‘doing’ things too … not as good as my mother of course … who ever thinks they are? I did not think I could compete with her, so I did not try to become ‘good’ at the things she excelled in, and my cooking and gardening skills were rudimentary. But I did become a good doctor and I was pretty good at some other things too.
When the time came for me to have my own children, I suffered terribly with ‘mother guilt’. I compared myself, unfavourably, with my own mother and thought that nothing I did was ever ‘good enough’.
I did not cook well, clean well, or garden at all; my children were often unruly and unkempt, and I was forever exhausted and anxious and chaotic on the inside. I did try though, and the only way I could stop was to have a drink at the end of the day, when all the doing was done, so I learned that much …
I am very good at keeping up appearances, so not many people realised how fragile I was, but the whole child-bearing and child-rearing phase of my life was enormously challenging for me.
I was not ‘good’ at relationships either and ended up leaving the father of my children when they were very young. Working as a single mother, running my own business, and having to leave my small children in long day care and holiday care because I had to keep working to pay the bills, was not a recipe for relaxed and happy parenting.
I felt guilty about the situation and would try to make up for it by pandering to and pampering them on the days when I was able to spend time with them. But I was not much good at just ‘being’ and this would often involve more ‘doing’ that would leave us all feeling exhausted and frazzled, rather than just allowing time and space to rest and play and recover from what were long and intense workdays for them too.
I did not really know what to do with children, and would end up taking them along to things I liked to do, like going shopping, going to the movies, and eating cake. They loved it too, but it made them even more wild and unruly!
When I met my husband, who had already raised three children, there was a real clash of wills. He tried to introduce some sensible discipline and responsibility into our lives and the three of us arced up and ganged up on him and dug in our stubborn heels and kept doing what we felt like doing, irrespective of the consequences.
Ironically, it was not until our children left home and found themselves sharing houses with people who were even more wild and unruly than they were, that they realised the value of what he had been trying to impart.
Since then, we have all grown up together, and it has been interesting to reflect on how I may have done things differently if I had understood the things I have learned that I am going to share with you now. So here are my top twelve tips for dealing with ‘mother guilt’.
Twelve top tips for dealing with ‘mother guilt’
You can only care for others as much as you care for yourself.
This is not a concept that many of us are familiar with. We have been raised to think that we are selfish if we look after ourselves first, but this is not true. There is a practical reality to having children, especially when they are very little, in that they have to be fed and cared for physically, but this is for a very short time, and they don’t have to be waited on hand and foot forever! We are worth caring for, just as much as anyone else, and we are our first responsibility, for if we don’t care for ourselves, who will?
You are a woman first and a mother second.
Never forget who you are. And why you had children in the first place. Honour yourself deeply as a woman, and make time for yourself and for your partner. You had children together because you love each other deeply and want to spend your lives together … never forget that … nurture yourself and your relationship as well as your children.
The way you are with yourself models how to be a person in life for your children: if you are living in a way that is loving and caring, you are giving permission to your children to be loving and caring too. And if you are hard on yourself and don’t take care of yourself, what is that teaching your children? You cannot expect them to honour you or themselves, if you do not first honour yourself deeply.
And the way you are in your relationship models how they are to be with other people too.
What you do and the way you do it matters far more than what you say.
There is no point telling kids what to do if you are not doing it yourself. Don’t sit on the couch having a drink and checking your social media feed while yelling at them to get off their phones. If they are fighting, don’t shout at them from another room to stop. It makes no sense and does not work! If you want them to stop doing it, you stop doing it! And if you want to communicate with them, stop whatever you are doing and connect with them first.
This can be hard for us to learn, because we want what we want, when we want it, but having kids is an awesome opportunity for us all to be more responsible and aware of how our actions affect other people, which they do, all the time.
Children are adults in little bodies.
Never underestimate your children. They know exactly what is going on. They read everything and are aware of everything, sometimes far more than we are. Treat them as adults in little bodies … there are some things they physically cannot do yet, which we need to support them with, but they understand everything they need to know. Speak to them in plain English, and give them responsibilities according to their age and abilities. They love it.
Saying no can be a loving thing to do.
We want our children to like us, but that is not our job. We are not their friends; we are their parents. Our job is to raise them to be the loving, caring responsible adults the world so desperately needs. And we can only do that by being loving, caring and responsible adults ourselves.
Sometimes the most loving thing we can do is to say no: no to what is not loving for them, whether it be certain foods, drinks, activities or hanging out with certain people. We need to help them discern what is true for them and what is not.
It is much easier to say no to a two-year-old and to deal with their tantrums than to keep allowing them to have their own way and watch the tantrums and behaviours get bigger and more serious and more out of control as they grow older … you will have to say no eventually, so why not start now?
Your children are special, but they are no more special than anyone else.
We think our children are special and they are, but treating them as more special than other people is a recipe for disaster. Treat your children as you would any other person, and that will help you to not raise spoilt entitled brats!
Do not let them demand things from you, or abuse you in any way, be it speaking disrespectfully or being physically abusive, or take you for granted and expect things from you.
If you are not sure whether to give them something, or allow them to do something, ask yourself whether you would let anyone else do that, and there is your answer.
Learn from your children.
Having children is a two-way street: we learn as much from them as they do from us. Teach your children to be open, honest and expressive and let them call you out and pull you back when you are off track, just as you do to them. My kids are quick to tell me when I am off track now, and I love the pull-up they offer me.
Look in the mirror.
Our children are a perfect reflection. They show us exactly where we are at, which is why we sometimes struggle with them so much. If their behaviour is off, chances are that ours is too. I know I used to take my kids out for cake, because I wanted a treat, and then go off at them when they went off from the sugar (because I was off too) … ridiculous, looking back, but that is how we roll …
Children are amazing. They are so much fun. Enjoy them! If you had a great childhood, you will know how to do that, and if you did not, this is your chance to raise your kids the way you would have loved to be raised; not in reaction to how your parents did it, or did not do it, but in a way that is truly loving and caring, for you and for them.
It is a great chance to re-imprint your own childhood, celebrating it if it was joyful, and making life joyful now if it was not then. One of the greatest things about having children is that you have permission to do fun kid stuff as an adult.
Heal your childhood hurts.
The more you can heal what hurt you as a child, the more free you will be to raise your children, free of reaction. Many of us raise our kids the opposite to the way we were raised… if we were spoilt, and know how this played out, maybe we are too strict with our own kids … or if our parents were strict, maybe we are over-indulgent … either way is not true.
Deal with your own stuff, so you don’t end up hurting your children in the same way that you were hurt, or doing the opposite, which may hurt them in a different way.
They are only mistakes if you don’t learn from them.
We all get it wrong at times, but they are only mistakes if you don’t learn from them. Find your own way with your own children … you know them better than anyone and remember, they chose you … not your mum, sister, friend or next-door neighbour, but you. They love and adore you and think you are the best person ever … be that person … the one that they adore.
If you stuff up, say sorry, not in a poor-me or poor-them guilty way, but just as a matter of fact, so that they learn it is ok to make mistakes too, that no human being can be perfect, and that is not expected of them.
All you have to be is yourself … that is more than enough. Let out all the love you have for them and let in all the love they have for you and let that love sustain you through the tough times and light your way …
Being all of you is much more than we think. We are more than merely physical and have been around this block called life on earth more than once. Remember, that your child is only your child in this life, and may once have been your parent, or your partner, or your sibling, and that we are wise beyond imagining, in whatever body we are in …
Enjoy this life together, knowing that we have been here before and we will be here again … and make the most of all the opportunities to learn and grown and deepen in love that come your way…