What Is ‘Mum Guilt’, Exactly – And Why Do We Suffer From It?

As part of our #BREAKFREE campaign, we've dedicated this week to moving away from 'mum guilt' - but what exactly is it, asks Emma Sheppard...

Guilt is something that all mums experience. It comes with the job. Guilt about feeding them the right things, at the right time. Guilt about letting them watch too much TV. Guilt about leaving them with a babysitter if you really, really need a night out.

But with 70% of women with dependent children at work in the UK (according to the Office for National Statistics), guilt about juggling motherhood and a career (or choosing to put a career on hold and stay at home) is one of the hardest to contend with.

For Sarah Turner, author of the acclaimed blog, The Unmumsy Mum, there is no right or wrong decision to make.

‘Everybody feels guilty regardless of what their decision is,’ she says. ‘If a mum works full time, they feel guilty because they’re neglecting their children or they’re not being the kind of mum they’ve seen in mother/baby magazines.’

‘If they don’t work at all, they feel guilty because they feel they’ll be perceived to be lazy, or they’re letting themselves down by not pursuing their career.’

‘And if they work part time – like me – people think you have the best of both worlds, only sometimes it’s the worst of both worlds because you’re not doing either job at full capacity’

Sarah is one of the few mums who have turned motherhood into a new career altogether – with a book due to be published in February (named after the blog). ‘It has been totally unexpected’, she says. ‘“I was devastated to leave my job in finance when I had my first son, but I was really worried about the pressure to be as good as I was before. So I kind of cut and ran.’

Sarah’s 500,000-strong following across Facebook and Twitter have found solace in her hilarious stories of the trials and tribulations of bringing up two boys. The network has built up into an online community of women who are ‘all in this together,’ she says.

‘Guilt is a key theme and probably why the blog has resonated with so many mums. I get a lot of messages from people saying ‘oh thank god, it’s not just me, I’m not on my own. So many of the messages when somebody says “I’m not good enough, I wish I could be more like this”, stem from a decision about work.’

Emily Stevens had planned on taking a full year off after having her daughter, and was looking forward to the time at home – ‘it sounded like a dream!’ But after eight months off, she asked her manager if she could come back early.

‘I was mentally exhausted and drained from all of the daytime TV, NCT coffee mornings, lunches, play groups, baby bounce…” she says. “I was longing for adult conversation about something else (though I soon realised that even I didn’t have much to say). I was getting frustrated and irritable.’

‘I was heavily criticised by baby friends, my mother and my nan. Everyone said ‘but you’ll never get that time back, how can you leave her’, ‘how can you want work over time with your child’. Whatever direction I looked, guilt was there and bashing me over the head.’

‘But I knew going back early would be best for my family. Back at work I felt useful, I felt appreciated. [And] it meant every second I spent with my little girl I wanted to make the most of.’

Whichever way you go, it’s a difficult decision to make. Like Emily, some mums need the intellectual stimulation they get from work. For many, it’s the financial benefits that drive them back to the office.

Policies differ from company to company, but typically in the UK, mums can expect the first six weeks of maternity leave to be at 90% of their usual pay, and the following 33 weeks at the statutory £139.58 per week. The last 13 weeks are unpaid.

Theoretically, after the year is up, you are entitled to return to the same job, with the same rights and conditions as before you went on maternity leave. Despite this, some mums remain concerned about being ‘pushed out’ or excluded if they take the full year off, and rush back early.

Charlotte Boutleux’s former employer was going through a round of redundancies after she had her son. She was worried she would be first on the list, particularly as a male colleague had temporarily taken on some of her responsibilities.

‘I’m sure it would have been easier to keep him rather than wait for me to come back,’ she says. ‘So I went back to work before the end of my maternity leave. My son Noah was seven months old.’

‘We interviewed a lot of child minders to look after him before I was happy. But when we found the one, I cried because I knew that meant I could go back to work. And I didn’t feel like I wanted to go back anymore.’

‘Now, I don’t regret it. I don’t feel that Noah misses out because I work full time. But when I took him to school on his first day, one of the other mums asked if I was his aunt. She’d thought the child minder was his mum. That made me think, oh my God, I have to be here more.’

‘I spend 90 minutes commuting into central London each way, every day. That means seeing less of Noah and some may see that as selfish. But I don’t feel guilty anymore. If I want to be a good mum, a happy mum, I have to be a happy person.’

It’s when guilt gets to unmanageable levels that mums should consider speaking to a doctor – particularly if they also feel heightened anxiety, lethargy or are feeling teary all the time. Postnatal depression (PND) affects an estimated one in 10 women and can set in up to seven months after a baby is born.

It’s also a condition that sadly often goes undiagnosed, says Harley Street psychologist Paula Bendon. ‘A little bit of guilt is normal, but it gets too far if it starts to take over your life.’

‘Guilt is a protective thing, it’s primitive and natural. Our bodies are built to nurture babies. But if you decide to go back to work, it’s ok. It’s a good thing; your children will be fulfilled to see Mum enjoying her job.’

Paula often sees mums struggling with guilt after making tough decisions about work. Her advice? Take a step back.

‘Recognise that you’re beating yourself up, that you’ve giving yourself a hard time. How would you react if your best friend was talking like this, what kind of things would you say to them?’

‘You’re in a fragile state once you’ve had a baby. It’s can be hard to seek help. But PND can be short lived if someone does that at the right time.’

Helen Daniel had a particularly difficult birth and was diagnosed with PND and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), after son Ben was born in 2013. She had planned to be off with him for a little while before going back to work as a teacher. But for the first six months, she was desperate to escape.

‘I just didn’t think I’d be able to do it. My brain was addled,’ she says. ‘I could never have imagined the strength of a mother’s guilt until I experienced it. It can literally overwhelm you… and for me all of those feelings were hugely heightened because of the PTSD.’

‘Before I had Ben, I remember thinking anyone who lets someone else look after their child, shouldn’t have a child. Which is a very judgemental thing to have said… I really didn’t have a clue.’

Initially, Helen had been too ill to look after Ben through the night and had needed support from her mum, friends and a night nanny – another thing she’d felt guilty about. It was 18 months before she felt back to normal and able to really appreciate being with her son.

‘It was just not an enjoyable time for my husband or me. So when it started to be the best fun ever – when I started to enjoy being a mummy and doing all the things I’d dreamed of doing with my child – I thought right, ok I don’t want to go back to work now actually. I want to enjoy the time I’ve got with him.’

‘I’ll need to go back one day, but I think I’ll work to live instead of living to work. And I don’t feel guilty in the slightest.’

For Emily too, the guilt of working full time has eased as she and her daughter have gotten used to their daily routine.

‘Everything I do, I do for her to see and know anything is possible. You can be a mum, you can work, you can run marathons, you can travel. You can do it all. If by working five days a week I have been able to provide for her and pave the way for her to march in and take over and lead the life she wants, then my work as a mother is done.’

Find out more about our campaign to #BREAKFREE from ‘mum guilt’ here.

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