Ah, mother guilt

I sat near two young mothers at a coffee shop this week. One had a new baby in arms and a toddler. The other had two toddlers. We were next to the carpark and the three toddlers were building a car out of milk crates and stools, occasionally wandering close to the real cars, retrieved each time by one of the mothers. It was early morning and the light was winter-soft. The mother of the baby was telling a story. She’d gone out during the week, she said, while her husband stayed with the toddler. For her, it had been the highlight of each week since the new baby arrived. She’d go for a walk, wander round the shops while the baby napped and then walk home. But this time she’d been left feeling guilty and awful.

The mother was browsing a store, she said, the baby in the pram becoming a bit grizzly, needing to sleep, she thought. But then the middle-aged woman running the store came over and peered into the pram and said, “He’s crying. You’d better pick him up.” The mother said he was fine, just settling off to sleep. But the woman insisted something was the matter. So the mother picked him up and he became more unsettled. Eventually, after more suggestions from the woman about what to do, the mother left the shop. Within a minute, the baby was asleep.

The mother knew she’d been right, she said to her friend now, but even so, she felt awful all the way home, as if she’d been wrong.  What I noticed was that while she’d told her story, her baby had cried and fed and burped and fed and cried and then slept, all of which she managed seemingly effortlessly. She was clearly the child’s best and only mother. He continued sleeping, his little head on her shoulder, his face perfect in repose. Her friend tried to reassure the poor mother, but I could see that nothing would reassure. She had found mother guilt and was holding on for dear life.

It’s a feeling well known to many of us, mother guilt, and it doesn’t achieve anything useful. In my experience fathers appear to be inoculated against guilt related to parenting, to their credit, and mothers seem to get a double dose which I don’t think does us or our children much good. Even when you make a mistake, guilt doesn’t actually help. I remember agreeing to leave my son in a care centre for an hour on the spur of the moment when he was very small, on advice from a child care worker I thought more qualified than me. But my son became afraid, and by the time I returned he was inconsolable. Friends told me I hadn’t done him any harm, even though I knew I had – he wouldn’t let me out of his sight for months after. Others said it wasn’t my fault, even though I knew it was. One friend said I had to be careful because my son was manipulating me. He couldn’t actually talk yet, so I did think this was a bit farfetched. I felt terrible, wracked with mother guilt which didn’t help anything. My son moved on, much faster than I did. Now, at ten, he mostly can’t wait to get away from me, particularly if clean-up-your-room-and-wash-the-dog is mentioned. 

But back then, I lost confidence in my mothering. Finally, in tears, I confessed to an older friend, whose children were grown, what I’d done. She laughed. “I hated feeling guilty,” she said, “so I worked out how to fix it.” Every time she made what she thought was a poor parenting decision, my friend said, she put a dollar in a jar. She had one for each child. “When they turn twenty-one, I give them their jars. That’s for therapy, I say. Now, don’t come back and blame me.”

As for the young mother in the carpark, she looked so darling with her tiny baby in his striped jumpsuit, sound asleep, his little mouth all bent around her shoulder. As I was leaving, I said to her, “Wow, you managed to get him to sleep with all this noise going on around him. You rock.”


Based on the column published in The Courier-Mail Qweekend  on 27 July 2013. I write mainly about writing, education, birth, health and the thrill of parenting. You can Get in touch,  tick the box to receive emails, Like Writer Mary-Rose MacColl on Facebook or follow MaryRoseMacColl on Twitter. Have a great day!