A mother’s place is in the wrong
Nobody’s perfect, but that doesn’t stop us striving for an A* in motherhood – especially at backto-school time. No wonder almost 90 per cent of us suffer from maternal guilt. The good news? There is a way to conquer it, says Lola Borg
MY SON STILL TALKS about the time when, in a fit of temper, I threw his Action Man across the room and broke both its legs. That was 16 years ago. Hindsight means
I can smile – just – but I remember feeling riddled with remorse at this and all the other far more serious ‘crimes’ I’ve committed as a mother. Working. Being a lousy cook. Having a life – and a short fuse. This time of year, after summer holidays spent together, is peak guilt season: the pull-back to a ‘normal’ working life and the jitters of the school return, meaning less time together.
And I’m not alone. Studies have suggested there is a gender bias towards the ‘long iceberg of guilt’, as the novelist Edna O’Brien called it, and women – particularly mothers – get the fuzzy end of the lollipop. It seems that mothers today feel it more than ever. My mum, for example, felt that once she had clothed and fed her children her task was more or less done. By comparison, my generation has greater external and internal pressures: social-media judgements, as well as wildly high expectations from teachers, other mothers, and above all, ourselves. I asked one working mother what she felt guilty about and she wearily replied, like Marlon Brando in The Wild One, ‘ What have you got?’
Most feelings of maternal guilt can be grouped under the heading ‘Simply Not Being Good Enough’. According to a survey by babycare product company NUK, 87 per cent of mothers feel guilty at some point, with 21 per cent feeling this way most or all of the time. It can be anything from thinking that we have too little time for our children or showing scant patience (which essentially boils down to the heinous crime of ‘ being human’). Mothers I spoke to for this piece felt wretched about many things: what they fed their children; how much screen time they allowed; how often they yelled at them.
It’s other mothers, says research, who are perceived as the most judgemental ( just visit Mumsnet if in any doubt). Our most recent crime is our ‘smartphone fixation’; some 72 per cent of mothers are supposedly ‘stunting’ their children’s behaviour and making them ‘lonely’ by staring at screens.
Laura Vanderkam, author of I Know How
She Does It, suggests women have always felt guilt. ‘In previous generations, that might have centred on different things, like how clean your house was, or how many community organisations you were involved in, along with whether the kids were doing all right,’ she says. ‘Now the guilt has moved more to child rearing and whether you’ve lumbered other people with extra work at the office. But there’s always been guilt.’
Ah yes. Guilt, we know, is about the mismatch between our expectations and reality. ‘Maternal guilt’ has many complex strands, not least the undeniable biological and hormonal basis that renders a woman wholly invested in her child. Then there is work, long the source of anxiety. ‘Mothers can still see the idea of going to work and earning their own money as a “choice”,’ says Suzie Hayman, relationship counsellor and trustee of the charity Family Lives. ‘And therefore they worry that they are “robbing” their family of their time and commitment. Men simply do not feel this way.’
But let’s not be duped here. This idea that work is a choice and that women have for millennia been tied to the hearth is a relatively recent construct, says writer Rebecca Solnit, who attempts to upend this myth in her new book, The Mother of All Questions. ‘There was a brief era in the Western world when industrialisation made running a home easier and many middleclass women weren’t part of the wageearning economy,’ she writes. ‘This period lasted several decades, but it didn’t start five million years ago.’ There is ample evidence from anthropologists, she says, that contradicts the ‘Man the Hunter’ story – the idea that the natural order of things is for women to stay at home while men bring back the bacon. We all know that this is no longer the norm in the industrialised world: women in the US make up 47 per cent of wage earners, while 70 per cent of women work in the UK. But in the wider world, says Solnit, ‘ Women are growing food, carrying water and firewood, herding livestock, pounding cassava root.’ She adds: ‘ We need to stop telling the story about the woman who stayed home, waiting for her man. She wasn’t sitting around. She was busy. She still is.’
It’s important to stress that ‘maternal guilt’ is not just a subjective, woolly concept. It’s mothers, not fathers, who are overwhelmingly prosecuted for their children’s school truancy, to give just one example (making up threefifths of those convicted), and are three times more likely than fathers to be jailed for it.
We also grew up with a backdrop of psychoanalytic thought that held mothers to account for their child’s development, with probably the most cruel being the ‘refrigerator mothers’ of the 1950s, whose supposed coldness ‘caused’ autism in their children. It’s a theory now discredited, but the general idea lingers. Little Jack grows up to be a psychopath? Blame the mother.
As children grow into stroppy teenagers, guilt doesn’t lessen but rather mutates. Mothers often believe that they are entirely responsible for their child’s happiness (therapists see this frequently); they are at ‘fault’ and also the ones who must ‘fix it’, especially with children who take drugs, drink or have social or mental pressures. Then it becomes about what you might have done differently or where you have ‘failed’.
‘My daughter hit her teenage years at 100 miles an hour,’ says Fiona Russell-Wells*, 52, a lawyer. ‘She started partying, bunking off school. A few weeks ago, she had a party while we were away, trashed the house and has shown no remorse. I saw the house and thought, “I hate you!” Then I felt so guilty – thinking that feels like such a betrayal as a mother. But rather than putting her bad behaviour down to her being a teenager, I feel guilty that I’ve done something wrong: I’ve not been there enough, or I’ve been there too much; I didn’t encourage her to be independent or I was too controlling. Who knows what I did wrong?’
‘ Unlike my husband, I still try to analyse problems with my teenage children,’ says Jane Kellock, 54, a fashion forecaster. ‘My daughter is not particularly sporty, for example, and I feel guilty about that. He doesn’t. Should I have taken to her more sporting events? When I did, she hated it, but I feel it’s a lack of something on my part.’
Layer on top the pernicious demands, both on children and parents, of what we might call the current ‘cult of perfection’, fuelled by social media. ‘There is a demand not just to be the best you can be, but The Best. Full stop,’ says Hayman. ‘And many women regard anything short of this as failure.’
But there is the odd shaft of sunlight. ‘Guilt is a very useful emotion because if you’ve hurt someone, you feel bad until you make amends,’ says Vanderkam. ‘Guilt is misplaced when that’s not the case, and frequently, it isn’t. No one is hurt when you get your work done and leave the office at 5.30pm (even if your colleagues are still there). No one is hurt if your kid watches TV, or has a boring sandwich for lunch. If you can be rational about whether someone has been truly hurt, then a lot of the guilt disappears.’
Guilt can be also positive, a catalyst to stop a damaging pattern of behaviour. Therapists often see women who wouldn’t instigate change for themselves, but will for their children, out of a desire to be a better mother than their own. On that front, says Kellock, ‘I’d rather be this way. I can’t say I haven’t loved my children enough – that’s one thing I don’t feel guilty about.’
Mothers often believe they are entirely responsible for their children’s happiness; that they must ‘fix’ it