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  • Dr Monique Steen

How to overcome "Mum Guilt"


Feelings of guilt relating to one’s child(ren) and one’s role as parent are common in parenthood, especially in mothers ²,³,⁴. So much so, that the phrase “mum guilt” has become commonplace in just about every parenting circle. But that doesn’t mean that parents have no option but to live with it. Parenting is hard enough, without the addition of excessive guilt. There absolutely are things parents can do to manage and overcome these experiences.


Maternal guilt very often stems from “the motherhood myth”, an unattainable ideal of motherhood one has formed in their mind, from which they compare themselves and their actions to¹.


We can overcome this by shifting to a “good enough” mindset. The good enough position stands in contrast to the ‘perfect’ parent and recognises that it’s simply not possible to be empathic, available and immediately responsive at all times. The concept of good enough parenting also recognises that there is no one ‘right’ way to parent; rather, parenting can take many forms and still be good enough by providing sensitive and responsive care.


Not only is taking this approach beneficial for your mental health, research tells us it’s what’s best for our children too⁵. Studies have shown that children benefit from a “good enough” parent, rather than a perfect parent. In the 1950’s Donald Winnicott, a paediatrician and psychoanalyst, coined the term “the good enough mother” after observing thousands of babies and their mothers, and concluding that babies and children actually benefit when their mothers fail them in manageable ways⁵. His research demonstrated that children whose mothers failed them at times, were happy, well-attached children who demonstrated greater resilience than children whose mothers avoided ever failing them⁵.


So next time you’re feeling guilty within the parenting space, ask yourself: what am I expecting of myself in this moment, and are these expectations realistic? Are they helpful? If your answer is no, try reframing your expectations to be more reasonable. Some people find that it can help thinking about what you might expect of someone else in the same position, because we’re often more compassionate toward others than ourselves.


It’s also important to take note of the inferences you’re making if you weren’t to meet your expectations, and reframe these too. For instance, are you telling yourself that you’re a bad mum if you don’t enjoy playing with your children, or if you work full time, or if you offer them processed foods, etc? Often when people make inferences like this, they are making overgeneralised, black-and-white, all-or-nothing statements that fail to take into account all of the available evidence and typically disqualify the positives.


Take for example, the inference “I’m a bad mum if I don’t enjoy playing with my children”. The expectation here of course, is that you should enjoy playing with your children, and the inference is that if you don’t, you’re a bad mum. Firstly, it’s unrealistic to expect yourself to enjoy anything all of the time – perhaps you enjoy it some of the time, and other times not so much? Or maybe you don’t enjoy it at all. That’s ok too. Just like you wouldn’t expect to like all tasks in a job outside of parenting, you can’t reasonably expect to enjoy all parenting tasks either. Moreover, not enjoying one task within a job containing a vast number of tasks, is unlikely to mean you are bad at the job, and the same goes for parenting. What’s more likely, is that you do a great deal for your children that suggests you are, in fact, a “good enough” mother. Sometimes you will enjoy it, sometimes not so much. Sometimes you will excel at tasks, other tasks not so much. That’s ok. We are, after all, only human. And what a great lesson we can gift our children; that this is ok. Because they are only human too.


Written by Dr Monique Steen, Clinical Psychologist and fallible mum


*While most parents feel guilt relating to their child(ren) sometimes, frequent disproportionate guilt that impacts functioning can be a symptom of postnatal depression. If you are concerned about your mental health, you may want to consider talking to a mental health professional for support.


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References

¹ Constantinou, G., Varela, S., & Buckby, B. 2021. Reviewing the experiences of maternal

guilt - the "Motherhood Myth" influence. Health Care Women Int. 2021;42(4-6):852-876.

doi: 10.1080/07399332.2020.1835917.

² LeBeau, C. 2013. Maternal Guilt: An Existential Phenomenological Study of the Early

Experiences of First-Time Mothers (Doctoral dissertation, Duquesne University).

³ Rotkirch, A., & Janhunen, K. (2010). Maternal Guilt. Evolutionary

Psychology, 8(1). doi.org/10.1177/147470491000800108

⁴ Silfver, M. & Helkama K. 2007. Empathy, guilt, and gender: A comparison of two

measures of guilt. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 48, 239–246.

⁵ Winnicott, D. 1953. Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena—A Study of the First

Not-Me Possession. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 34, pp.88-97.

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