For most of my years as a mum, I’ve hidden a terrible secret.
Convinced I was the only one with this ugly skeleton lurking in my cupboard, I avoided getting too friendly with other mothers incase they stumbled across it one day and realised I wasn’t the fun-loving, care-free mum they seemed to think I was. But before your imagination gets carried away, let me explain: I was riddled with mum guilt.
I don’t just mean I suffered the odd pang of parental regret over something trivial like skipping a page or two during bedtime stories. (We all do that, right? Right?)
No, I had the sort of mum guilt that lurks beneath the surface of almost every waking thought. It plagued nearly every day, making difficult days seem greyer still and blighting even happy family moments.
Looking back I can see that my mum guilt stemmed from a complete misunderstanding of my role as a mother, and a bit of an identity crisis to boot. I was holding myself up to an idealised version of motherhood and constantly condemning myself for falling short of a frankly impossible standard that not even the average celebmum, with her army of nannies, stylists, cleaners and assistants, could ever live up to.
I know it sounds stupid. I know I wasted a lot of time on that black hole of negative, self-pitying thinking when I could have been enjoying every moment of my kids’ childhoods. I also know I’m not the only mum to have done that, and I know that haranguing myself for having got sucked into feeling guilty all the time only made me feel - you guessed it - guiltier still.
I also know that the memes and e-cards that we love to share on social networks actually made me feel even worse. Especially those ones written from a child’s perspective about how busy mums are, and how little time they seem to have for playing and relaxing. That poem by R.Night - Slow Down, Mummy - was the last straw for me; the nail in the coffin of my mum-guilt. You know the one:
Slow down mummy, there is no need to rush,
slow down mummy, what is all the fuss?
Slow down mummy, make yourself a cup tea.
Slow down mummy, come and spend some time with me.
Slow down mummy, let's put our boots on and go out for a walk,
let's kick at piles of leaves, and smile and laugh and talk.
Slow down mummy, you look ever so tired,
come sit and snuggle under the duvet and rest with me a while.
Slow down mummy, those dirty dishes can wait,
slow down mummy, let's have some fun, let's bake a cake!
Slow down mummy I know you work a lot,
but sometimes mummy, its nice when you just stop.
Sit with us a minute,
and listen to our day,
spend a cherished moment,
because our childhood is not here to stay!
I get it, it’s beautifully poignant and it reminds us of the need to regularly re-examine our priorities as parents. But it’s also one hell of a guilt-trip, the likes of which my kids would never actually put me through. Your kids aren't judging you like this. And that little epiphany is what finally helped me ditch the mum guilt and lighten up about life in general.
I had to remind myself that my kids are happy, contented, (mostly) well-mannered little sun-beams. They’re well fed, they get plenty of exercise, they want for more or less nothing (mainly thanks to the excellent bargain-hunters at Playpennies, I hasten to add…) and they spend pretty much most of every day laughing at nonsense. It’s an idyllic existence, and they certainly don’t look hard done by.
Newsflash: our kids are not appraising our parenting skills with a stern look of disapproval as we sometimes imagine they are.
Yes, I’m sure my kids would love me to spend a little more time with them than the average busy day allows, but that would ALWAYS be the case, no matter how much quality time they got. As a health visitor once gently pointed out to me, if you gave the average child 24 hours of undivided attention they’d likely want 25; that’s just the nature of being a child and it’s as wonderful as it is exhausting if you’re the parent.
Another mum I know thinks modern mums have got guilt-tripped into believing that we should be our child’s constant companion and the source of all their entertainment. “I’m a mother, not my children’s best friend. I don’t remember our parents’ generation ever playing with us, and the only cakes I made were mud pies in the back garden. I turned out just fine. We all need to ease up on the pressure we heap on ourselves to be Superwoman and Mary Poppins all rolled into one,” she says.
My point is simply this: we don’t need to beat ourselves up because we’re not spending every waking minute making play-dough from scratch, baking creme egg cheesecakes with the children or patiently sitting outside with them watching the grass grow.
Ultimately, I can’t just ‘stop’ working when my child fancies a snuggle, and I’d be doing my kids a dis-service if I gave them the impression that I could. I ‘stop’ at weekends and when we’re on holiday together as a family - but it’s all those hours of being busy at the laptop instead of baking with the kids that helps us afford those nice breaks away and lunches out.
And if I left the dirty dishes to play Annabel Karmel in the kitchen with the kids we’d pretty soon have no clean bowls to bake with, not to mention a life-threatening case of salmonella growing in the sink.
And yes, I’m tired, but snuggling under the duvet and ‘resting’ with a Pokemon-obsessed tween or a toddler in the grip of an exhausting phase of wilful independence, lovely as my children are, isn’t going to do a whole lot to rejuvenate me. I’m just saying.
So you can keep your guilt-trippy poems as far as I’m concerned; I’m not falling for them anymore.
Once I realised that my kids don’t resent the fact that I work, or that I’m tired, and have a heap of domestic drudgery to stay on top of so that they can actually wear clean pants to school, well let’s just say that all of life started to feel a lot more enjoyable and a lot less tainted by mum guilt.
In the end, I learned to see that the worst mistake I could make as a mum isn’t spending too much time on work and domesticity and not enough time baking and snuggling with my kids. No, the worst mistake I can make as a mum is to waste my little ones’ childhoods feeling guilty for a bunch of inadequacies forced on me by other people’s picture of the perfect parent. Inadequacies which, I now realise, never even existed in my kids’ eyes anyway.
And in the final analysis, that’s all that really matters.