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Mum guilt: the expectation of perfection in motherhood

Mum guilt: the expectation of perfection in motherhood

Mum guilt is a feeling that arises when a mother believes she is not good enough. Learn how to navigate this feeling and overcome it
mother hugging child
Representational Image | Shutterstock

Motherhood is a feeling, not merely a relational or a physical one. The nurturing and protective attributes of a mother are represented when nature is referred to as ‘mother nature’.  

There are several different metaphors that portray the sense of loyalty and affection one feels towards one’s mother; examples include ‘mother company’, which refers to a parent organisation, and ‘motherland’ meaning one’s nation. Mothers are revered and expected to put their children’s needs ahead of their own because of their intrinsic nurturing and caring abilities. 

What is mum guilt? 

Asma Khan, 43, a homemaker from Bengaluru, says, “I have always loved fashion and make-up since my college days, but once my daughter was born, everybody’s perception of me changed.” Since the birth of her first daughter in 2005, she has been guilt-tripped every time she dressed up and took time for herself. 

“I had two more kids after that, and with each kid, my personal life was taken away from me bit by bit,” says Khan. Despite trying to have her own identity, societal perceptions and expectations about motherhood often overshadowed her own desires and interests.  

Mum guilt is the feeling that arises when a mother believes she has not fulfilled her maternal duties to the best of her ability or made a mistake that could negatively affect her child. “The term refers to the feeling of falling short of being a responsible and caring mother,” says Dr Muhammad Rizwan Mushtaq, consultant psychiatrist at Akhtar Saeed Medical College, Lahore, Pakistan. 

The reason

Rachel Tribble, a perinatal therapist in the United States, says, “The persistence of mum guilt depends on the person, their personality, ability to adapt to change, and response to stress.” It can last a woman’s entire life, but it usually occurs at different times. 

The emotional regulations of children are different from adults. People frequently question a mother’s upbringing when children throw tantrums or behave in a certain way. Tribble says, “Children go through a developmental stage where they detach from their parents and try to develop an identity and it is perfectly normal.” And during this stage, emotional outbursts are natural; a mother need not be put to the test.  

Other reasons as stated by Dr Mushtaq include: 

  • “Fussy mums,” or those who aspire to be perfect mothers, are notoriously hard on themselves when they make a mistake. 
  • Unrealistic expectations that may come from other members of the family or the mother herself. 
  • Mothers feel stressed and guilty when expected to shoulder the majority of the childcare load alone.

Experts give coping mechanisms to overcome mum guilt:

  1. The most important thing that a mother can do to combat the guilt, is to regain a sense of identity as a person outside of motherhood. “Who was I before I had children? What did I like about that person?” 
  2. Work with a therapist or a trusted friend/spouse to gain insight into your emotions, and core beliefs about yourself. Addressing and challenging negative core beliefs is a great start.
  3. Practice mindfulness techniques or distress tolerance skills like breathing exercises for when things become overwhelming.
  4. Identify a supportive network either through social media, mum meet-up groups, or friends with children; this makes one feel one is not alone.
  5. Practice self-care and self-compassion. A 2020 study published in the Women & Health journal found that mothers who practised self-compassion, which involves being kind and understanding towards themselves, were more likely to engage in positive health behaviours despite experiencing guilt.
  6. Take time out to do things that bring you joy.
  7. Identify the source of guilt by recognising irrational thoughts and restructuring them positively. For instance, when one has thoughts like, “I am not a good mother because I did not feed the child on time.” Rephrase it with, “I could not feed my child because I was feeling tired, it is okay I am a human being.”
  8. Ask for help whenever it gets overwhelming. Similarly, take breaks when required.
  9. Ten minutes of positive affirmations every day are helpful.
  10. Let go of the image of a perfect mother and the expectations others have of you.
  11. Focus on the present and things that you can control.

Read more: Self-care rulebook for all age groups

Logging your emotions to uncover the power of journaling

The many spinoffs of family time

Your child is an individual 

Always remember that while you as a parent are helping to mould and educate them, your children will ultimately form their own opinions and coping skills, says Tribble. A mother’s job is to try to be calm as her children do so and forgive herself when they do not behave or respond in a particular way. “I encourage parents to apologise to children when they lose their own temper due to frustration or overstimulation,” concludes Tribble.

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