It’s true. Nothing in the world prepares you for becoming mum for the first time. I’d worked with children for years, knew how to comfort them, knew how to care for them, knew how to educate even the most unruly of them; but nothing could have prepared me for motherhood. In the beginning, it was all a bit – well, poo – to be honest. Thankfully, over time, many of the bad bits have been surpassed by tickles, giggles and the miracle of an occasional good night’s sleep! Despite the joy, the worst bit about being mum still exists…
Holding Little O in the hospital immediately after birth and there it was already: Mum guilt. Why wasn’t I feeling elated? Okay, Tracy, pull yourself together. Smile for the camera – this is Little O’s first photograph – be happy.
Arriving home – it just got real. It’ll be alright, I thought. This is my new life now. We’ll just sit on the sofa together, enjoying back-to-back episodes of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’, casually breastfeeding… Wait – that didn’t happen either. Little O wouldn’t breastfeed and I spent more time hugging my breast pump than my baby. And there it was again – the mum guilt.
And so it continued. Mum guilt witnessed him falling off the dresser and getting his first nose-bleed, his first day of nursery, the discomfort of vaccinations, leaving him to cry when I just couldn’t cope and more recently, the realisation that I have been feeding my potentially dairy intolerant son cows’ milk and regular formula for over two years!
It’s in Our Make-Up
According to a survey by Stylist Magazine in 2010, 96% of women feel guilty or ashamed at least once a day. For almost half of those, the feeling arose up to four times a day and three quarters admitted that their guilty feelings had intensified since giving birth. If you’re wondering if the same is true of men then you’d be mistaken. Experts believe that men typically feel less guilt-ridden because they ‘externalise faults’. Dr Cynthia McVey, head of psychology at Glasgow Caledonian University, explained that men ‘fail an exam because ‘the room was too hot’ while women are more likely to internalise faults and would be more likely to admit to feeling guilty because ‘I am stupid’.
This results with women feeling bad about what they eat, not exercising enough, being a working mum, not being a working mum, spending too much on Christmas presents, not spending enough on Christmas presents, watching TV when you should be working and letting your child watch ‘just one more episode’ of ‘Octonauts’, so that you can apply some mascara to create the illusion of being wide awake.
Tears Before Bedtime
My mum guilt has reduced me to tears on countless occasions. Just last week I flipped out at my son because of his refusal to go to sleep at bedtime. Of course, me losing it only made matters ten times worse and poor Little O had gone from being dozy but happy to awake and miserable. Naturally, who should squeeze their ugly way into the gap in my frustration: mum guilt, pointing her cursed finger at me in shame and leaving both of us in floods of tears.
It’s too easy to hate mum guilt. No one wants to feel it, though inevitably we all do, so I have decided to try a different approach to her frequent visits. Instead of hating her for being there, I am going to welcome her presence.
A Helping Hand
If motherhood has changed me at all, then it has made me far more caring and unselfish. Don’t get me wrong, I still insist on having ‘me’ time and things in my life aside from family that will make me happy (okay, so maybe I’m still a bit selfish), but I know that the slightest sense of a threat against Little O’s well-being and I will be there for him. That mama-bear instinct that everyone talks about is unparalleled to any other emotion, even mum guilt.
When he falls over or bumps his head, I will be there. When he has nightmares and wakes up screaming, I will be there. When he gets his heart broken, I will be there. And mum guilt will probably be there with us too. Maybe I shouldn’t have let him climb so high, or watch that film, or start dating… The truth is, that he has to experience getting hurt and feeling frightened during childhood and adolescence to help him develop into a functioning adult. As much as mum guilt helps me cope with those experiences, she also helps him cope too.
Every time that I have felt guilty regarding Little O, I’ve always hugged him. I hug him because I care. As mums, we never want to see our children upset and the thought of them being upset as a result of something we did or didn’t do can be almost unbearable. So we cuddle our children. Great, big, squeezy hugs that absorb their tears and tell them that we love them. Within those moments, there is a closeness between us that wouldn’t exist if mum guilt hadn’t encouraged me to reach out and hug him.
So, is mum guilt the worst thing about being a parent? Well, if it teaches Little O that I care and that I always will, then I’m not so sure that it is anymore. Maybe ask me again the next time he climbs up and falls off the dresser.