Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Returning From Maternity - The Ebb & Flow of Mother's Guilt

When I had my first child, the comment that stood out from all the helpful and not-so-helpful advice proffered by friends and family was this:

"You are and will always be an amazing mother and you will always do the best you can with what you've got.  And whatever you do, you will always feel guilty."

I was reminded about this nugget as I read the article "Managing the guilt of returning to work" by Louisa Symington-Mills in The Guardian this week.

Reading it back now, the comment sounds quite dark but, at the time, it gave me so much relief. I was allowed to feel guilty. It was normal.

What it didn't say was what I was going to feel guilty about.  Louisa expresses the guilt of leaving her "tiny, dependent son".  For me, it was the guilt of wanting to go back to work.  I imagine that for others the guilt is something else again.

So what is guilt?

Guilt is an emotion.  And emotions, according to cognitive theory, are driven by our thoughts.  The emotion of guilt is typically driven by the thought that we are responsible for someone else's misfortune.
It feels important here to note that our thoughts are not facts.  It is enough just to think we're responsible in order to feel the guilt associated with it.

What can I do about it?

That this emotion is linked to how we think is useful because it gives us something to work with.  If we can change our thoughts, we can change our emotions.

This doesn't mean ignoring or pretending.  And it doesn't really mean looking at what you feel guilty about (e.g. leaving your child/wanting to work).

It means looking objectively at our thoughts and testing them out; essentially challenging our version of "the truth".


If you are noticing feelings of guilt related to being a mother, try these two questions:

  1. What evidence do I have that this is a fact?
  2. What is another view point I have not considered? 

In my case, the un-packing of my guilt went something like this:

I feel guilty because I want to go to work. 
My thoughts about my children: I think my children will be unhappy and emotionally harmed if I leave them with someone else.
What I'm really thinking: I'm a bad mother 
I feel guilty because I want a break.
My thoughts about my children: I am unable to give my child all the energy and enthusiasm he needs.
What I'm really thinking: I'm a bad mother
I feel guilty because I don't enjoy being at home.
My thoughts about my children: I can't provide the perfect environment for my children.
What I'm really thinking: I'm failing as a woman.

So, I am a bad mother and failure as a woman!  It sounds almost preposterous now and yet, thinking back, I can still feel the powerful emotion of that time when it felt very very real.

By working through my thoughts objectively, I was able to see that the evidence I had in front of me did not support my thoughts.  For every negative thought, there were other, different perspectives.  It didn't rid me of my guilt completely but I was able to turn it down and balance it with the positives that I started to recognise.

So what happens next?

I still feel guilty sometimes. I do think it goes with the territory.  But when it does rear its head, I remember the most important part of the shared wisdom from the past and I remind myself that I'm doing the best I can and that is always good enough.

If you would like to work with me to conquer mother's guilt then do get in touch.

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