Coping with parent guilt

One emotion parents often experience is that of ‘mother’s guilt’, ‘mummy guilt’ or ‘parents’ guilt’. 

Where does parent guilt come from?

Becoming a parent makes you realise just how dependent children are on their caregivers. As a parent, you feel utterly responsible for not only their safety, but also their happiness and wellbeing.  Your love for your child and desire to ensure they are content can lead to worry or fear that at times you are not good enough or doing enough for them.

Before I had children, I would feel guilty about something every once and a while, but since having children I haven’t stopped feeling guilty. 

The expectations you place on yourself to put the needs of your child first and give them the perfect start to life can make it feel as though any decision that you make, that is for yourself,  is coming at the expense of your child’s needs.

You feel guilty for everything… guilty that you left your child with someone, guilty because you should have breastfed for longer, guilty because you went back to work. These were all times that I struggled with feelings of guilt in the first year.  

At other times, guilt rises from any situation where there is a sub-optimal outcome. In these instances, what often escapes us is the fact that when it comes to parenting there’s not many win/win scenarios. Often there is no  “perfect” outcome or path forward.

I realised how crazy this all was when in the same day that I felt guilty for not cleaning the house whilst I spent time with my baby, I then felt guilty because I cleaned the house and did not spend time with my baby.  I couldn’t win – the guilt was there either way.

While guilt is natural – as we are constantly wanting to do the best for our children – it is not so helpful when it leads you to feel inadequate or harshly judge yourself.

How to cope with parents’ guilt

1. Keep things in perspective

It is important to understand what it is that you are feeling guilty about and why you feel this way. Try to make sure you are keeping the expectations you place on yourself in perspective and realistic.  

2. Remember there is no one “right” way to do things

Too often parents place too much emphasis on doing everything, doing it all the “right” way, and/or doing it all perfectly. In reality though, there is usually not one right way to do something – and nobody’s perfect. Having perfection as your standard is setting yourself up to fail – and then feel guilty.

3. Set your own personal standards

To take the pressure off, think hard about the standards you have for yourself, where they come from and if they are simply too high to be achievable.

To be realistic, your standards should come from within you and be personalised to you. Think about your strengths and your weaknesses, the parameters of your life and the nature of your child and then set your expectations for yourself accordingly.

3. Stop comparing yourself to others – especially on social media

One of the hardest aspects of being a parent today is that points of comparison are everywhere, especially with the rise of social media. Try to avoid looking at and comparing yourself to what others are doing. People carefully curate what they want you to see and hear about their life – especially on social media and especially when it comes to parenthood.

When you look at what some other parent says they are doing and compare it to what you are actually doing, you are literally comparing their fiction to your reality. It’s not a fair or accurate comparison and it’s not how you measure yourself as a mother or what is best for your child.

4. Remember life isn’t perfect

Just as it is important for you to accept that you are not perfect, so too is it important for your child to know and understand that their parent, and life more generally, is not perfect either. This will make it easier for them to realise and accept their own imperfections one day. Plus, the adjustments your child will have to make to adapt to your imperfections and our imperfect world can be important for their own physical and emotional development as well as their resilience.

5. Practice self-compassion

Finally, try to remember that the reason you feel guilty is because you care – which is the most important thing. Striking the balance of caring while also being realistic and keeping perspective is a fine art. It may take some time and discipline, but it is a key to managing parent guilt.