“You moms have it way tougher today than I did in my generation…” said a maternity nurse in a recent conversation with me.
I was intrigued by what she said and asked her, “what do you mean, exactly?” As a mental health provider, I am pretty sure I understood what she meant, but as a mother, I found this statement so comforting that I wanted to hear it again. How is it possible that in this age of convenience, access to knowledge, increased rights, and social awareness could motherhood possibly be tougher today than it was, say 40 years ago? Don’t get me wrong; there is still much more to be done for women’s advancement. However, I would still venture to say that it is better to be a woman today than ever before in the history of the world.
And so, it piqued my interest to hear her statement. What it basically boiled down to was that in this era and in a place like the UAE, mothers are weighed down by insecurity and mom-guilt. While this unfettered access to information and social media has armed us with knowledge and ideas, it has also bombarded us with images and ideas that have translated into unrealistic and, at times, oppressing standards and expectations. Yes, we know it is “not realistic”—no one would really disagree about that. At the same time, we find ourselves falling under the spell of these unrealistic thoughts and images and having it deeply affect our sense of competence, our ability to feel good about what we are doing. “Don’t let your children watch screens… don’t let your kids eat sugar… you must breastfeed… don’t punish your children… don’t spoil your children… spend all your time with your children… make your children independent… your children should be walking/talking/doing physics by a certain age…” Whatever it is possible, you should be doing it, and preferably in make-up and heels while drinking a green smoothie.
Now, this article is not to advocate letting children run wild with iPads and eating sugar, nor is it designed to bash green drinks (I rather enjoy them, myself), but rather to find space for that middle road wherein we trust ourselves and our ability to raise our children well and keep that mom-guilt in check.
So, what is mom-guilt?
Mom-guilt is that feeling of unease (it could be agitation, restlessness, disquiet, anxiety) that we should be doing more, that we are falling short in some way and thus, doing a huge disservice to our children. Guilt (mom-guilt included), in and of itself, is not entirely wrong. Like any guilt, it can be healthy and useful in the right amounts. Healthy guilt is designed to bring us closer and feel more connected; for example, let’s say you’ve been working crazy hours this week? Well, perhaps your mom-guilt may motivate you to stay at home this weekend spending it in jammies playing a board game with your child or cosied up watching a movie with him or her. Alternatively, in a general sense, let’s say you cancelled on your friend last minute and now you feel guilty—perhaps your healthy guilt might prompt you to reschedule or find another way to make it up to your friend. However, much of the mom-guilt we encounter is the unhealthy kind; it’s an over-abundance of guilt mixed with a generous helping of “you’re not doing anything right.” In many ways, our unhealthy mom-guilt signals that we are losing contact with our ability to trust that we are doing the best we can with what we have. I am talking about self-trust. Self-trust is the antidote to unhealthy mom-guilt, and it guides in doing what is good and helpful for our family given our own personal environment and circumstances. Our life as parents can’t be driven simply by a list of do’s and don’ts or “musts” and “oughts,” but rather driven by our own personal values and ability to trust that we can do right by our families.
So, how do we help regulate our mom-guilt?
The first step is acknowledging it. Ultimately, what makes mom-guilt problematic is that it may be driving our behaviour insignificant, unhealthy ways. Often, mothers are caught up in the should and the musts and missing out on the real goal. For example, perhaps you are running yourself ragged volunteering at school, ferrying children to and from school and about a million afterschool activities, not to mention organizing playdates and making vegan recipes.
Despite these efforts, you may be feeling that you are missing something or yearning for more connection with your child. Your mom-guilt is driving you to do all you can for your child, as opposed to doing things with your child. Or perhaps, your mom guilt is prompting you to neglect your self-care. For example, do you run yourself ragged so that you have nothing left for yourself, and consequently, your family? So, it is essential to ask yourself, “is what I am about to do going to bring me closer or further away from what is truly important to me? What do I value?
For many with families, one of the key values is a sense of connection or relationship (but this varies, it can be love, or happiness, or respect). So, ask yourself, am I doing things because they are driven by my mom-guilt or is it driven by my sense to feel connected to my child? Is this the only way I can foster a connection with my child or are there better ways? These first steps—stopping and reflecting—are all aimed at promoting self-awareness and self-connection. The more connected we are to what is truly going on within us, the better able are we to ride the mom-guilt wave and allow it to pass. And once it passes, then can we engage in actions that help us feel more connected to our children and give our family life the meaningful relationships that we are yearning for.