Will motherhood and guilt always be interlinked?
“They wish they weren’t so afraid to go with their gut feelings.”
- May 10, 2017
- Neer Korn
When I started researching the lives & attitudes of Australian mums I was sure that two decades later their sense of guilt and a constant prevailing judgement would have diminished. Back then they recognised the impossible task of combining home and work life and were showing signs of rebellion. Their new mantras were “letting go is liberating” and “coping is achieving.”
Yet here we are and in our most recent study into their lives & attitudes, Mums of Young Ones Study, guilt was raised in each and every group as something the overwhelming majority of mothers experienced. They simply couldn’t let it go.
They report feeling constantly judged by society, by other mums, by their mums and by their partners. Their best efforts and many compromises are deemed not good enough. Intellectually they know this guilt serves them no useful purpose, and really wish they could shed it, but they can’t. “I think it’s like a vestigial emotion,” explained a Melbourne mum. “It’s obsolete, we don’t need it. But it’s ingrained. It’s a doctrine almost. This is something that’s passed down, it really is.”
This feeling is felt most sharply by first time mums. They are determined to do everything for their child in a perfect manner. But what is the perfect manner? On the one hand day care is good for kids and mum needs to work and contribute to household finances, and on the other its best to stay home with them for longer. Mums are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. “I think part of what made my time with the girls so difficult,” one mum relays her experience, “was that I was listening to too much stuff and I got so overwhelmed that I felt like I could never do any of it right. … I think you can overdo the advice giving. I think there’s so much information out there right now for mums that it is overwhelming.”
And while instant access to information is so very empowering and it offers countless practical solutions to real life problems at the tip of their fingers, at any time day or night, it is also disempowering. They can look up and discuss the minutiae of raising kids with like-minded mums through forums, social media groups and mummy bloggers. “Yesterday one person was asking for some tips to save time, you know,” one mum spoke of her local Facebook mums group. “So people will just write in so I’m always scrolling, ‘Okay, I’ll use that, that’s a good idea.’ So yeah, I find them really helpful you know.”
These spaces are surprisingly intimate and provide a safe outlet. “I stayed on there and learned so much from these people and you just – you build up a level of trust in there as well so I think that was my – yeah, they’re my go-to.”
But there’s also plenty of criticism and negativity in the anonymity of on-line relationships and here words to mums feeling somewhat vulnerable in any case, can cut deep. “I think sometimes social media has a lot to answer for because you think you’re doing – you know, the guilt trip as a mum, you’re always guilty that you’re not doing enough.”
For two decades dads have been redefining their role in the household, as diminished provider (something many still struggle with) and involved and active father. They have prioritised family over work and recognise that the modern household is a democracy with no set roles. Modern dads mean well. In reality the household is still women’s work. Men will play a role, especially when asked, but mum is the one who knows what’s going on. She carries a permanent spreadsheet in her head which is constantly being added to and amended in a fast paced household where everyone seems to have impossibly busy lives, kids included. Logically mums know they just can’t do it all perfectly. Cooking from scratch every night, for example, and not relying on meal short-cuts, is a big ask. But they still feel bad for not doing so. They can’t seem to give themselves a break, at least not often. “Some days I’m like, ‘Man whatever, I’m doing the best I can and whatever,’” said a Central Coast mother of three, “and other days I’m like, ‘I’m the worst mother in the world, I don’t read enough to her, I’m stupid.’ it’s stupid.” They cannot help but compare their own experiences to those of other mums. “Because I see other kids online doing stuff, I’m like, ‘oh my god, my kid is abnormal” and I find it really difficult.” They wish they could simply ignore. “Stop comparing and criticising everything. I’m sick of the comparisons and everything having to appear perfect.”
Most of their guilt is reserved for not spending sufficient quality time with their kids. They feel like they are always on the go, stressed and rushing them. Seldom do they have time to just be with them. In one exercise we asked our study participants what would make their lives easier right now. The most common answer was some help around the home, be it mechanical (such as a robotic vacuum cleaner, or machine that washes, irons & folds their clothes) or human (someone to help with the cleaning & cooking). The reason they gave had nothing to do with laziness. They simply wanted to make themselves available to focus and enjoy their children while someone else cooks and cleans. “I just feel too busy, like I think I’ve always got to do something, I’ve got to sit down with the girls, I’ve got to play with them, I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do that, and yeah, you just feel guilty that you haven’t spent enough time with them.”
The message mums really want to hear is a celebration of imperfection. After all, that is what their lives are actually made of. Here’s how one mum explained it “You know we’re not perfect, we go to each other’s house and it might not be tidy and that and we’ll always apologise to each other but we all know what we’re all like so we don’t really care. We know we’ve got kids, our houses are lived in, like I’d love to have a showroom home but it isn’t going to happen so I don’t know, I just relate to that.”
The movie Bad Moms really struck a strong chord with Australian mums across the country because it offered an exaggeration of the truth. “It’s just all about the pressures of having to be a perfect mum and that it’s okay to be a bad mum, like, not do everything 100 percent all the time. So I quite enjoyed that. It’s okay to not be perfect.”
The aspiration, as so many mums in our groups reflected, was not to care what anyone else thinks. To take a page out Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote that “you wouldn’t worry what anyone thought of you if you knew how seldom they did.” To have sufficient faith in their mothering abilities to do what feels right not caring whether anyone is peering over their shoulder. But that doesn’t seem to be happening anytime soon.
In the meantime society should recognise the impossible position mums feel they are in and the guilt they are consumed by. Looking ahead twenty years will anything have changed? Will mothers’ guilt finally be shed? To answer that we have to examine how family friendly workplaces are and how likely they are to change their cultures and practices. That may be best addressed in a follow-up post.May
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