Mum Guilt – What to Do When You Feel Like a Bad Mum

mum guilt common unhelpful thinking styles in parents

‘Mum guilt’, the name given to the feelings of guilt women experience in relation to their children, is a phrase I think most of us are familiar with. For those of us who are mothers, it’s probably something we’ve experienced ourselves.

Maybe we’ve felt bad for going out with friends or spending a night away from our children. Perhaps we’ve berated ourselves for leaving the baby with a childminder so we can go to work. Maybe we’ve felt guilty about letting the kids play on the iPad or convinced ourselves they’re watching too much TV. Or perhaps we’ve been too tired to cook a meal from scratch one evening but felt awful about serving the kids fish fingers and chips… again.

Mum guilt usually shows up when we treat our children in ways we feel we shouldn’t. We can experience mum guilt about things we do with and for our children and things we don’t. Sometimes, no matter what we do, it can feel like mum guilt is everywhere.

Who Does Mum Guilt Affect?

If we’re honest, we’ve probably all experienced mum guilt to some degree. However, I suspect mothers who struggle with their sense of self or low self-esteem are more likely to experience mum guilt. This won’t be true for everyone, but if you generally lack confidence in yourself, it follows that you may not be particularly confident in your role as a mother.

Why Do We Experience Mum Guilt?

Mum guilt can be linked to our own internal standards of what motherhood should or shouldn’t look like. It can also be linked to external and societal standards of what we should or shouldn’t be doing.

With the rise of social media, mum guilt is probably higher than it’s ever been before. Nowadays, we are constantly exposed to images and videos of mothers doing lots of different things with their children and families. Things some of us may not have the capacity or ability to do.

I also believe we experience mum guilt because we are good mums. We want the best for our children. We love them, we care for them, and we want them to be happy. We want them to have good experiences that will help them thrive and grow into healthy, secure adults.

How Mum Guilt Affects Me

When I had my first child 10 years ago, I often felt like a bad mum who didn’t know what she was doing. There was so much information out there, and so much pressure to get it right. No matter what I did, I just felt bad about myself.

I now have three children and a decade of parenting experience. These days, one of the main things I feel guilty about is not spending enough time with my children because of needing to work. Life is busy, so when I’m not working, I tend to feel very tired. This makes me feel guilty for not doing more things with the kids, even though logically I know I do plenty! I try to keep them occupied and take them to interesting places, but I also don’t want them to get used to being busy all the time. A bit of boredom is healthy! In other words, no matter what I do, I often feel bad about myself.

As you can see, 10 years down the line, I’m still susceptible to mum guilt. I hope this illustrates how common and normal it is to experience these sorts of feelings.

What to Do When You Feel Like a Bad Mum

So, how do we combat mum guilt and build more confidence as parents? Here’s what to do when you feel like a bad mum…

1. Avoid the ‘Compare and Despair’ Trap

Comparison is the thief of joy, but banning it completely isn’t easy. Instead, I’d encourage you to pay attention and start noticing when you compare yourself to others. How do you feel when you do this? What are you thinking about yourself? What beliefs, particularly negative self-beliefs, come up when you compare yourself to another?

It’s these thoughts and negative beliefs that feed into feelings of guilt. When you start noticing this comparison and the impact it’s having on you, you can work on breaking the habit.

2. Focus On Your Own Journey

Making the decision to stop comparing yourself means focusing on your own journey instead. It’s important to remember your journey is allowed to look different to others.

When we compare ourselves to other people, quite often we’re comparing our weaknesses to someone else’s strengths. This is neither accurate nor fair. Try writing out some statements that you can read to yourself if you notice comparison pop up. Things like:

  • I can trust in my own decisions about my motherhood journey.
  • I am doing the best for me and my family. What works for us might not work for others, and that’s OK.
  • Comparing my parenthood journey to others might make me feel bad or guilty about myself. I choose to focus on my own journey and trust that I’m doing what’s right for me.

3. Take The Thought to Court

In CBT we talk about ‘taking the thought to court’ and attempting to prove it’s true using concrete, factual evidence.

If you had to stand up in court and prove your thought was true, what evidence would you give? What does a bad mum really look like? I think a ‘bad mum’ is someone who purposely neglects children. She purposely doesn’t feed them, wash them, or meet any of their needs at all. She consistently prioritises herself over her children and she is repeatedly cruel and abusive.

What about a ‘good enough mum’? What attributes do they have? I think it’s someone who plays with their children when they can. Someone who does their best to read them stories every night before they go to sleep. Someone who cooks them food, makes sure their clothes are washed and their bed sheets are clean. They look after their child if they get sick and care about the kind of day they’ve had at school.

Chances are, when you look at the attributes of a bad mum versus a good enough mum, you fall firmly into the latter category. This reminds us feelings and facts are not the same thing. We can feel something strongly, but that doesn’t mean it’s true.

4. Collect Evidence & Make a List

Start collecting evidence that you’re a good mum. Even if it’s just little things like changing your child’s bed sheets, walking them to school or making them their favourite meal for lunch. It’s important to focus on all the evidence that proves you’re doing a good job.

Write things down. Maybe get a journal or a notepad and start collecting evidence you can visually see. This can really help shift your perspective from feeling bad to recognising how much you do for your children on a day-to-day basis.

Watch out for the voice in your head that tries to make you doubt or minimise your efforts. It’s common for mothers to say, ‘I don’t deserve credit for that, every mum does it’ or ‘that’s just part of being a mum’. My response to this is always, ‘well, you could have not done it, so the fact you did deserves credit’.

When you’re feeling guilty or bad, look at your list and really focus on the evidence that proves you’re a good enough mum. This is the truth. When we focus on the evidence and the truth, we are more likely to feel better about ourselves and less guilty about our choices.

5. Curate Your Social Media Feed

If you’re on social media, another tip is to remove any accounts that reinforce your negative feelings about yourself. If the account motivates you and helps you work towards your life goals and values keep following them. But if the opposite is true and they make you feel bad or guilty, get rid!

6. Practice Self-Compassion

If you’re feeling like a bad mum, ask yourself what you’d say to a friend in the same position? Would you encourage them to feel guilty and bad? Or would you help them see all the ways in which they’re good enough? What advice would you give them? Try to show yourself the same compassion and understanding. Download my free Learning to Love Yourself guide for more on this subject.

7. Seek Help

If you’re finding it hard to be kind to yourself, and often feel guilty and bad about yourself as a mother, please get in touch. Not only am I passionate about helping others learn to love themselves, I’m also on my own journey of learning to love myself. I know it takes work, reflection, therapy, support and practice, but it’s entirely possible to get there!

Useful Links

Hold The Mother Podcast Episode 7: Improving Self-Esteem In Motherhood

Understanding Mum Rage

How Self-Compassion Can Help You Parent

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