When I went onto maternity leave, still with bubs nested inside me, I suddenly had this innate need to ensure that the house was clean, well-organised with dinner ready for when my husband got home from work. In one coffee meet up with my, then, mummy-to-be friends, I discovered that they similarly looked at the clock an hour or so before their husbands were due back from the office, and would rush about tidying and preparing food to prove that we had achieved something during the day. We joked about it, but it was true – in some way, we all felt that as we were no longer at work, we had to still prove we were being productive rather than just napping and binge-watching Netflix. Even though by this point most of us were the size of a small European country, with countless aches and pains from the weight of carrying another human being and all of their luggage inside us, and faced with the endless struggle that was any sort of movement needing at least ten minutes of serious preparation, warm up, and real conviction before you could get up from any seat. All credit to my husband, he never expected this of me or asked for it, but I still felt this all-consuming guilt that if he had to come home after a day at work to then tidy/make dinner as well, it just wasn’t fair. I would see myself as being lazy and not contributing, as I just swanned about (as much as one can swan about whilst being nine months pregnant) the house as he got on with the chores. Like some sort of Roman emperor. Even though being a human incubator is really bloody hard work, it did not require commuting and I did get to have naps, so in my mind I was having an easier time of it. Here the early seeds of ‘mum guilt’ had been sowed, and it was only going to intensify once madam arrived.
For me, and other mummies I have talked to including my best friend whose little cherub is six weeks younger than my own, mum guilt seems to be broken down into two main categories: mum guilt towards your child and mum guilt towards your husband.
The Guilt of Trying to be The Perfect Mummy
I have lost count how many times I have Whatsapped either my best friend or our shared mummy group about the concerns that I am not doing enough for my three month old daughter. Am I engaging with her enough? Are the activities we are doing developing her brain and co-ordination enough? Will she be emotionally scarred because for a split second I muttered under my breath ‘shut up Alice’ after she had been screaming in my ear for the past twenty minutes because I dared to try and put her in her car seat? Since the moment she was both inside me and then out, I have felt an insatiable pressure that I am never quite doing enough for my little girl and I could always be doing more to be the best mother that I could be.
On one occasion I became panicked after reading a BBC article about the harmfulness of letting your baby watch television. Before this, Alice had only recently discovered the television, and it was nice for both of us to sit there together and watch Moana (the charm began to wear off when I was watching it multiple times day, every day, for a good week or so) or when she giggled for the first time during Gaston’s song in Beauty and the Beast (thanks Josh Gad for that adorable moment!). I liked that we were bonding over Disney movies so early on, and it gave me a little bit of respite from constantly bouncing about the room that was further damaging my already pretty crucified back. But once I read this article, my Mum Guilt went into overdrive. I immediately began googling everywhere to see if there were any positives to your baby watching a bit of TV, to be met with pages and pages of judgmental advice that was basically one step away from saying ‘shame on you for not being able to entertain your child every minute of the day, bad mother, bad.’ I turned to my mummy friends for validation – was I a bad mother for introducing my child to the devil that seemed to be television? Should I solely just be reading to her and playing with the bouncy chair that only has two nursery rhyme tunes to it and has now been permanently etched into my brain so that I can hear those two, damn tunes on repeat in my dreams? In response, my friends all agreed that we can let them watch television and that it has to be good for them on some level of development as they engage with the colours, sounds and images that they watch.
But still the Mum Guilt didn’t go away, gnawing away at me like a mouse with a piece of cheese. I kept questioning how long we should watch a movie for before I needed to turn it off and move onto reading a book or playing with her sensory bottles (something we do throughout the day anyway). I felt as if I was being lazy and looking for an easy way out of looking after my daughter – as if I needed to give her every part of me to be a successful mother. This is just one example of that feeling – I cannot name a day that has gone by in the past 14 weeks that I have not felt some level of guilt that I am not doing enough for her. I was even like this when she was in the womb – was I singing to her enough, giving her enough rubs, playing her music, taking my vitamins. It is exhausting but I cannot seem to switch it off. With the damage to my back, it seems to have worsened. There have been so many times where I have burst out in tears or struggled with this feeling of self-loathing from the idea that I am letting Alice down. In the moments when I have to hand her over to her nana because I am in too much pain to be able to do the squat-bounces she loves so much, or when she has to endure the bottle of expressed milk because the contractions were so severe during breastfeeding I physically could not do it. I find myself apologising to her for the tiniest things because I am not living up to the all-singing, all-dancing mother that I feel I am expected to be.
But where does this image come from? Certainly not my mummy friends, we are all extremely honest with each other and I feel no need to pretend I live the perfect mummy life as my baby screams in the middle of M&S with no intention of stopping until I pick her up and carry her about on my shoulder, like a parrot. It isn’t from the people around me either, who tell me that I am doing well for a new mother, especially with some of the obstacles we have faced. But the reassurance makes no difference to me, there is this innate feeling inside of me, a voice well rooted in my self-conscious reminding me that I could always be doing more. I need to be better and that being injured is not an excuse to not be completely bending over backwards to give my entire self to my child.
After I was discharged from hospital from my re-admission due to the herniated disc, over-sensitised nerves and all the various other muscle ailments that came from giving birth to my daughter, I had no choice but to accept that I needed more help looking after Alice than I would have liked. I did so grudgingly, and have continued to push myself much, much more than I should be in regards to improving my pain levels. In my head, I was failing as a mother because I was not doing everything myself, I wasn’t being self-sufficient in looking after this child, and it only got worse each time I needed to call someone to help me. I remained plagued with the feeling that my body had failed me, that it is just not up to scratch and cannot live up to the tasks that it needs to as a mother. Again, there was a feeling that I was being lazy and I just wasn’t trying hard enough, that I was passing off my responsibilities of being a mother to others. That nothing was ever enough, even if I was giving everything I had.
2. The Guilt of Trying to Be The Perfect Mummy and Wife
On the other side of Mum Guilt, is that towards our partners. The other parent. The parent who works. Just like on maternity leave, I have continued to feel that I need to ensure my husband gets a break when he comes home from work because he has been at work all day and I have been at home. This includes the weekend – I want to ensure that one day of the weekend he gets a lie in, because he is up early for work during the week, as well as getting some time for him to do what he wants. As if, in my warped thinking, I am on some sort of holiday all during the week, and not looking after a newborn. The mentality that he needs to get a lie in because he doesn’t get it during the week is a ridiculous one. Where is my lie in?! I’m normally up at 2am feeding whilst he rolls over and sleeps through it, then I am up all subsequent times following that, and then starting the day fully when he leaves for work. Again, it isn’t something my husband has explicitly asked for and he is always helping with our daughter, but that’s the thing – helping with our daughter. In my mind, as I am on maternity leave, looking after our daughter is my sole responsibility – that is why I am on maternity leave, that’s my job so when he pitches in, it is helping me out.
But why is him looking after his own daughter seen as helping me? Playing his part as a parent is doing a favour to me, but not something that I should just expect, as it is expected from me. This shouldn’t even be a thought that crosses my mind, it should just be natural that she was a joint decision and therefore he’s just doing his part, to raise our daughter together. But Mum Guilt doesn’t work that way, I am on maternity leave and I am the mother, so I need to pull my weight which is taking responsibility for our child 99.9% of the time. My husband has a full-time job, he shouldn’t have to look after our daughter as well in his free time, he needs a break. Looking on the outside, what kind of messed up rationale is this?! When my husband is at work, he can have lunch whenever he wants, he can go to the bathroom whenever he wants, he gets to listen to music on his headphones and he interacts with other human beings that isn’t generally a one-sided conversation or being covered in milk. In my day, I am lucky if I can go to the bathroom more than twice a day by myself before my husband gets home and eating has become an art of how quickly can I assemble something in the kitchen and throw it in the general direction of my face before she wakes up from her five minute nap, fully refreshed and ready to play for another two – three hours. Yet when he comes home, and I hand Alice over and sit on instagram for ten minutes, I feel this immense guilt that he has been busy at work all day and look at me, I’m just lounging on the sofa flicking through instagram whilst he deals with a crying baby. I feel disgusted with myself that I am taking a break and I’m making him do extra work when he’s exhausted and that’s where he has been all day.
Is it the thought that because he actually leaves the house to go to an office to then return, that I put so much extra emphasis on this being work and because I don’t go to a specified work environment but rather have ones that are in the forms of homely environments, that my role is not really work at all. In one text to my best friend, I used the analogy that it was if I had bought a dog without telling him and therefore it was completely my responsibility to take care of this dog all the time and not him, because I had bought the dog and as I was at home I should ensure that it created minimal interference in my husband’s home life. But here’s the thing: our daughter was a joint decision – we both wanted to have her, and we both love having her in our lives. So why does it feel, for me, that it is solely my responsibility to look after her, and he should only really get her when she’s happy and playful? I honestly can’t answer that question – and I know it is one that seems to be a feeling so many other mummies have – that as the mother on mat leave it is our job to make sure our husbands have some relaxation and downtime, even though our job is 24/7, being both physically as well as emotionally taxing. It’s not enough that we grew this child in us for 9-9.5 months, with our bodies dramatically changed in the process, and then went through the joyous experience which is labour, but now we have to take the lion share of responsibility for raising that child because we are at home.
There have been so many occasions where I have been falling over myself with gratitude towards my husband because he once got up in the night to look after Alice. In those moments, when I had become so tired or in pain, that I had no recollection of her even crying in the night, I would wake up panicked in the morning wondering how she managed without me for 6 hours. My husband has never once had one of these moments of fear from not waking up when she stirs in the night. It’s just a built-in mum function – well done, Mother Nature. Now the guilt was two-fold: how could I be an even somewhat decent mother if I slept through my daughter crying, and on top of that my husband now has to go do a full day’s work on a disturbed night of sleep. Like I do everyday. But it’s ok, because I don’t have to commute so I really don’t need more than 3-4 hours sleep. Or the occasions where I came home from my parents house and he had tidied the house and got dinner ready, then took Alice off my hands. I would say thank you over and over again, spilling over with appreciation for how lucky I was to have a husband so understanding as this. But thinking back, this is what I do every day. My husband is just doing his equal share of being a parent. Why does that deserve such praise and admiration? It’s because of the Mum Guilt. The guilt that on top of working to pay our mortgage and bills, he is having to take on some of my job too. Why should his life change because we have this small person in it? There’s this need to try and keep it as normalised as I could, he needs that time out. And there it is again – this idea that the past life when we weren’t parents is what is normal, and that’s what needs to be maintained for him. Even though my life as it was has been completely and utterly replaced with this new life as a mother.
Again, all credit to my husband, he doesn’t put this pressure on me and he is always more than willingly to take our daughter and entertain her, change her, etc. But then is it credit? Surely he is just sharing the responsibility of looking after our incredible daughter rather than doing me a favour in giving me some much needed moments to myself. We both chose to become parents and therefore we should both shoulder the highs and lows that comes with it, without one of us feeling that the other is a martyr.
So what do we need to do to change this mentality?
In a way, I think there really needs to be more openness with not trying to be the perfect mothers all the time. And it’s happening with blogs such as The Unmumsy Mum and Peter and Jane, women who I look to and can see myself in – knowing that they are brilliant mothers who aren’t something that have just stepped out of Stepford. It’s ok that we wait by the front door at home time, with a screaming baby in our arms, literally counting down the seconds for our partners’ key to turn in the lock so you can thrust the baby into their arms and run away to the bathroom to enjoy five minutes of peace all to yourself. To accept that this child is a shared responsibility and that being on maternity leave is not a holiday just because you are at home but that it is a bloody difficult job and you deserve just as much as a break as your partner does, if not more, because they don’t have to deal with trying to feed a baby, multiple poo explosions, singing, baby classes and whatever else we try to squeeze into our already time-stretched days. Our maternal instincts need to accept that it isn’t the 1950s anymore, and we do not need to feel that because we have decided to adjust how we live our lives and remain in the home, that means we become sole child-rearers and housekeepers. But most importantly of all, we need to fully accept and embrace that we are a band of incredibly loving, strong, resilient, resourceful women who are winning at a the hardest job there is, with no training and no guidebook, and we’ve got the baby scratch marks across our faces to prove it.