'I am a terrible mother': Mum guilt is eating at Singapore women – here’s how to manage it
Whether it’s carving out time for yourself or getting takeouts rather than cooking for the family, mothers are all too familiar with the guilt and self-blame they live with daily. CNA Women finds out why these feelings don’t have to overtake your life, and what you can do to cope with mum guilt.
It doesn’t take much for a mum to feel guilty, especially when it comes to your children.
Think about all the times you’ve felt you’ve fallen short as a mother – when your kids act up, when they fall behind in school, when you’re unable to be physically present at home, or even if you’re working from home, having to ignore a crying child to attend to a Zoom call. That’s mum guilt.
You’ve also probably lost count of the instances you’ve felt pangs of guilt when you see how well your friends’ kids are doing in school and life – when you barely have time to see to everyday issues yourself.
It seems like mums just can’t get a break. So what is mum guilt, and why do so many women feel this way, so much of the time?
THE DIFFERENT FORMS OF MUM GUILT
According to Silvia Wetherell, a certified perinatal mental health counsellor at Alliance Counselling, mum guilt is “more prevalent with the first child and in the early formative years”. But even so, there’s no “expiry date” to when such feelings will stop.
Guilt can in fact start from as early as conception, she said, such as forgetting to take your folic acid supplements, which prevent brain and spinal birth defects in the unborn baby.
We are so critical of ourselves and try to… give our kids the perfect childhood that we forget we are enough for the people that matter.
“(Your) mind can always come up with reasons as to why (you are) failing in some way – not to mention the children, who can ‘press the guilt button’ with their words as they grow up,” she said.
For many women, mum guilt often takes the form of feeling like they’re “failing their duty” as a mother or wife – especially in an Asian context where mothers are expected to be responsible for child-minding.
“When my boys were very young, all it took was for someone to ask me why I didn’t cook but bought lunch instead,” said Yasmin Begum, a mum of four. “It might have been a passing comment, but for me, it confirmed that I was a useless mum.”
Begum founded Away From Mum Guilt in 2018, a support group to help mothers cope better with such negative feelings.
“The whole cooking chore hung over my head like a rock every day,” she said. “Because it was difficult for me to care for my toddler and my active preschooler – and cook regularly – it made me feel useless that I could not cope.”
And that’s the nature of mum guilt: While it can lead to “very positive actions” as it can guide ethical and moral behaviour, it can also lead to “unrealistic expectations”, said Wetherell.
“When a mum perceives herself as having failed in some way, often the guilty pangs show up, as well as the self-critical thoughts such as ‘I am a terrible mother’ or ‘I’m not cut out for this’, she explained.
For Dixie Sng, a mother of two and head of operations at a ride-hailing company, the “greatest guilt” she feels is when her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter tears up during bedtime. “She would ask for more bedtime stories, or ask to use the loo repeatedly, or say that she is hungry or thirsty right before she falls asleep.”
It made me feel useless that I could not cope.
Jolin Nguyen, a mother of one and managing director of a HR technology solutions company, said she typically experiences mum guilt when she’s “not performing up to my own expectations or the expectations of others”.
This includes leaving her two-year-old daughter to go to work when she’s sick. “The guilt came because I can’t be the one who calms her down,” she said.
For Fannie Soubiele, the worst pangs of guilt came when she was facing breastfeeding issues with her first son. “I did everything I could: Ate supplements, saw consultants and doctors, did acupuncture, and even sent my son for a tongue-tie release surgery (a procedure to lift the tongue) when he was only two months old,” said the mum of two who’s in charge of startup success at a tech company.
“I wanted to give him the best, but it just didn’t work,” she added. Soubiele stopped breastfeeding just as she needed to return to work – when her son was four months old.
STAY-AT-HOME MUMS FEEL THE GUILT TOO
While working mums are “more likely to express this uncomfortable emotion”, Wetherell pointed out that stay-at-home mums can experience such guilt just as often.
Stay-at-home mums tend to feel guilty for “wanting to have time away from their children” and will talk about “not having legitimate reasons to take a break”, she explained.
Sadly, stay-at-home mums can hear derogatory comments like ‘what do you do all day?’
Begum agreed, citing her observations from running her Away From Mum Guilt support group. This could be anything from making a coffee run to taking time off for an evening jog, she said.
Wetherell added that the circumstances that could trigger mum guilt in stay-at-home mums is “truly endless”.
“They may feel like they are not as patient as they should be (due to caring for the child around the clock), not helping the child’s development enough (such as not having started piano lessons yet), not being present enough (for example, having a child-free lunch with a friend),” she added.
“Sadly, stay-at-home mums can hear derogatory comments like ‘what do you do all day?’, which reinforces the idea that she is never doing enough, or being good enough,” said Wetherell.
“WE ARE OUR WORST CRITICS”: SOCIAL MEDIA IS A CONTRIBUTING FACTOR
Comparison kills, but it’s more detrimental when we “compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel”, Sng pointed out.
Begum agreed that social media has been a big factor in this tendency to compare. “A mother’s guilt can be deepened by non-verbal cues or comments from family members, friends or the social media community,” she said. This then results in women being “hypersensitive” to every comment that comes along.
For an overwhelmed mum, said Begum, seemingly harmless comments and advice such as “they are only young once” or “you will regret it later when they grow up” can snowball into something deeper.
“What we see on social media are just fragments – literally seconds – of someone else’s life. So many of the toughest moments in parenting are not shared on social media, but that does not mean that they don’t happen,” said Sng.
(Your) mind can always come up with reasons as to why (you are) failing in some way.
“But most of the time, it stems from within. We are our worst critics, and we add on to our fears,” Begum said. “We are so critical of ourselves and try to… give our kids the perfect childhood that we forget we are enough for the people that matter.”
ADDED CHALLENGES FROM THE PANDEMIC
While working from home has granted more flexibility to caregivers, working mothers often find themselves struggling to juggle more tasks at hand – the topic of mum guilt continues to come up at “almost every counselling session”, Wetherell told CNA Women.
For instance, Sng said working from home was in fact harder and sometimes created more mum guilt. “I cannot be fully present with my daughter even though I am physically next to her. When she tries to “invade” a video call, I have to ignore her,” she said.
Begum added that she too, went through “a depressive state” when her husband started working from home and her children, were on home-based learning during Singapore’s circuit breaker. “It was just noisy, and I felt trapped in my own home,” she said.
Meanwhile, Soubiele’s younger son, who was born during the pandemic, has “never had a social life”, she said. “I’m worried about the impact on him and what I, as a mum, can do about it.”
HOW WOMEN CAN COPE WITH MUM GUILT
When the “spiral of guilt” builds up, said Wetherell, it can deplete a mother physically and emotionally, and take a toll on their mood. “It can even lead to negative behaviours to try and get rid of the guilt, such as turning guilt into anger, blaming others or self-punishment.”
What can mums do to ensure that mum guilt doesn’t spill over to their relationships or other aspects of their lives? The mothers share their personal tips:
- Don’t keep a scoreboard when it comes to what’s good or best for your children, said Nguyen.
- “Remember that the things that feel important to you might not be the things that are truly important for our kids,” Soubiele said.
- Begin with self-work to reconnect with yourself, Begum recommends. This could mean surrounding yourself with positive narratives, such as listening to podcasts that empower mums and downloading mindfulness apps that will help you focus on your needs.
- Focus on your family values, not anyone else’s, said Soubiele. “Having this foundation guides us to be who we want to be, and not who we are compared to someone else.”
- Take a break from social media, said Begum. “If we find ourselves feeling anxious and comparing ourselves to someone on social media, taking regular digital breaks helps to bring ourselves back to the present.”
It’s important to “recalibrate expectations'' and recognise that you are only human after all, said Wetherell. “It’s okay to not be perfect and make mistakes.”
Is there something helpful about this guilt? Do I need to recalibrate my actions in some way?
She also advised mums not to use their guilt as a “motivational stick” to beat them into becoming a better person. “Acknowledge when you haven’t been at your best, forgive yourself, learn from it and implement those positive lessons in the future,” she said.
To help you manage and recognise feelings of guilt, Wetherell suggests asking yourself questions such as “Is there something helpful about this guilt?”, “Do I need to recalibrate my actions in some way?” or “Is this a learning opportunity?”.
Then you can take what is helpful about it, she said, make some adjustments and take positive action.
And don’t underestimate the power of a supportive community – surround yourself with compassionate, honest, and non-judgemental friends who understand what it’s like to be in your shoes, said Wetherell.
“Even if a woman quits her job to stay at home, there is no guarantee she will feel less guilty in the long run. In fact, she may become resentful for making sacrifices that are not respectful of her needs and wants as an individual,” she warned.
Think of the big picture. “It’s healthier to make choices based on what matters to you and the kind of life you truly want to build,” said Wetherell.
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