Thursday, October 16, 2014

Guilt around parenting - what the experts say

Mother of two, Kelli, feels guilty that she works such long hours. Belinda feels guilty that she’s a single parent to her two daughters. And Rosie, a mother of three, feels bad that she doesn’t feel the guilt her parenting peers do.

Mother guilt — It seems to affect most mothers in varying degrees and yet it is something rarely identified in pre-natal preparations. For many it’s the tiny regrets we feel throughout the day: I wish I’d spent more time playing with my kids, I wish I’d had time to prepare a better meal for the family, I wish I didn’t have to leave little tommy at daycare.

But at its extreme, experts claim it can lead to anxiety and depression.

Reality check needed

Clinical psychologist Jennifer Ericksen says mother guilt is a modern day phenomenon brought on by women who feel the need to be a ‘super mum’ or strive for perfection in every facet of their busy lives.

“Think about the modern day women who goes from just looking after herself and working at her job, to all of a sudden having the responsibility of another human being and still often expected to return to the workforce, motherhood is a major transition,” says Ms Ericksen of the Parent Infant Research Institute (PIRI) at Austin Health in Victoria. “The feelings of guilt come from wanting to be perfect and that’s one of the greatest myths of motherhood, that we can be perfect at everything.

'There is a leak of psychological preparation for parenthood.'

“Mothers need to take a step back and really think about their priorities and the kind of mothers they want to be and deal with realistic expectations.”

Ms Ericksen adds mother guilt may seem like a harmless emotion, but can lead to depression if left unchecked. At PIRI, they are working towards making the emotional transition to parenthood easier and reduce the risk of guilt and anxiety.

“There is a lack of psychological preparation for parenthood,” she says. “Motherhood can be an overwhelming responsibility and we try to help parents before they hit rock bottom.”

"The feelings of guilt come from wanting to be perfect and that's one of the greatest myths of motherhood"

Shared guilt syndrome

While we commonly refer to it as ‘mother guilt,’ it is not a feeling reserved solely for women. Dr Richard Fletcher, a senior lecturer at Newcastle University’s Faculty of Health, says he constantly hears from dads who feel guilty they are not there enough for their children, are missing out on their children growing up and reaching milestones and fear their children are building meaningful relationships with their mothers but not them.

“The simple fact we see so many men coming along to prenatal classes shows they want a connection with their child that dads in previous generations didn’t commonly seek or admit to,” says Dr Fletcher. “Fathers have always loved their children, but now they’re prepared to admit it and this leaves them open to guilt in the same way mothers are.

One of the biggest guilt trips mums feel is when they return to work.

“As a society we are really being unfair to dads. We tell them two things: firstly that they ought to be right in there, connected and responsible for the rearing of their children. Then we tell them mums will get 18 weeks maternity leave and dads will only get two weeks paternity leave. In the area of depression too, mothers have access to a national program that means they are screened pre and post the arrival of the baby, but fathers get nothing.

“At a policy and service level, we could certainly be doing more for dads transitioning into parenthood. They have the same emotions and suffer the same guilt trips mothers do.”

Returning to work

One of the biggest guilt trips both mums and dads feel is when they return to work. A 2013 annual child care survey conducted by claimed 32 per cent of mums felt guilt was the hardest emotion to deal with when returning to the workforce. The report, which surveyed around 2500 Australian mums, also found 22 per cent of working mothers felt they were being judged by non-working mums for leaving their children to work. And 20 per cent of stay-at-home mums also admitted to feeling stigmatised by other mothers for not working.

Margie Warrell, author, internationally-renowned women’s leadership coach and mother-of-four, says there are ways to lessen the guilt factor.
  • Know your ‘why’ — why is it that you do what you do, eg work or stay at home?
  • Ensure your kids understand they are your priority but that you have other commitments too.
  • Accept that trade-offs are inevitable and allow flexibility in your life.
  • Accept that children are allowed to miss things and instead, work out what works for your family.
  • It’s OK to lower the bar and acknowledge that good enough is sometimes OK.
  • It’s OK to invest in yourself in order to be a better person and a better role model.
  • Make sure the time you spend with your family is quality time.

If you need to speak with someone about the pressures of parenthood, call the Post and Antenatal Depression Association national helpline on 1300 726 306.

Case in point: Paige is searching for a better way

SYDNEY mother of two Paige Smith has experienced both sides of the working mother debate. And as far as she’s concerned, mother guilt exists not matter what. Now, the former salesperson is hoping to establish a home-based career in order to spend more time with her daughters, Savannah, nine and Piper, three and husband, Paul.

“The sales industry is a full time, full on career with little allowance for part time or flexible work,” she says. “I constantly felt guilty working these long hours as my time with the family was shortened. So, my plan is to search for a better way, something that can bring in the money but still allow me to spend time with my family.”

Paige knows staying home with her children doesn’t lessen the guilt. When her youngest daughter was born three years ago, Paige took time out to be a stay-at-home mum.

“When I was a stay-at-home mum the guilt was huge as I felt I was not pulling my weight and bringing home money for the family,” she says. “I really feel that you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. It’s a real Catch-22 situation, and not a good one. But it’s one that so many modern families face, sadly we are not unique.”

These days Paige is re-educating herself in social media to see if an online business works better for her and is dabbling in lifestyle coaching, a passion she was forced to give up when her full-time job became too hectic.

“We have less money these days, but we are the happiest we’ve been in years, so that’s a plus,” she says. “I still feel guilty about leaving my job behind but I make up for it by spending more time with my girls and contributing more to our home. Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom to acknowledge you were on the wrong path.

“I’m determined to keep searching for a better way.”

By: Mercedes Maguire
First published: 10th October 2014

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