Any mother knows that parenthood brings countless blessings but also a seemingly unending list of reasons to feel like you’re not measuring up. The guilt often begins pre-conception if you are actively trying to conceive (“Did having that glass of wine reduce my fertility this month?”) and continues throughout pregnancy (“Is my stress affecting the baby’s development?”)
The minute your baby arrives in the world, the full power of mother guilt is unleashed as you second-guess every decision you make: Breast or bottle; cot or co-sleeping; cloth nappies or disposable? Tummy time, screen time, play time, music time, when to start solids, should fruit or veges be first, jar food or home-made, and is it organic? Every stage of development creates new opportunities to question yourself and your choices, and I’m not sure when, or if it ever ends.
(I’d like to throw in a disclaimer here that parent guilt is not exclusively the domain of mothers, with one online survey finding that 1 in 5 fathers experience some kind of dad guilt, but this blog is for the women who frequently ask me to help them overcome their mother guilt.)
It’s mothers who are most commonly the primary caregiver in the early months and years, and therefore we are the ones most attuned to our children’s needs and their strongest attachment figure. Handing over their care to another person – be it family, friends or your local daycare centre – can be a momentous and angst-ridden decision. (Cue that mother guilt!) When you return to work or study, every moment with your child becomes more precious, and many mothers find themselves forgoing any kind of leisure time, in order to be available to them. Most of us are more than willing to do what it takes to be there for our kids, but there comes a point when your angst about your parenting choices and your willingness to sacrifice your own needs becomes counterproductive to both yourself and your child.
Today I want to give you three reasons why prioritising your own self-care is one of the best things you can do for your kids and why you need to ditch the guilt for good:
1. More is not better
Research has found that the amount of time mothers spend with young children has no correlation to those children’s academic achievement, behaviour or emotional wellbeing. Quality time, on the other hand, i.e., time spent reading, teaching or engaging in activities or sports is correlated with positive outcomes. Child-care providers, family and/or friends, however, can perform those structured activities, so it’s ok for mums to be let off the hook occasionally! Note that the more time mums (and parents generally) spend with kids during adolescence actually does have positive benefits, but for kids up to the age of 11, you can drop the guilt if you’re not with your kids 24/7.
2. You can’t pour from an empty cup
What we do know for sure is that high levels of maternal distress are linked with negative outcomes for children. If the sacrifices you are making for your kids are leaving you depleted, depressed or resentful, this can impact your ability to parent well. It’s essential that you take time to attend to your own physical, social and emotional needs and do the things that fulfil you in order to be the best parent for your children.
I would add as an aside, that you teach your children by what you model to them so it can pay to ask yourself if you would like your children (especially daughters) to heed the message that their own self care should go out the window when they grow up and become parents themselves.
3. Good Enough Parenting
Donald Winnicott was a paediatrician and psychoanalyst in the 1940s and ‘50s who famously coined the term ‘good enough mother’ to describe an approach to parenting that allows children to develop independence and resilience. Good enough parenting, according to Winnicott, requires being available and attuned to your child’s needs 30% of the time. You read that right – 30%. So the next time you feel guilty for your lack of perfect parenting – remember that ‘good enough’ is all your children need to grow up healthy, safe and happy.
Now, how about calling the babysitter and taking yourself out to a movie?