Holding on to Self-Compassion in the Midst of 'Mummy Guilt'

By Tiegan Holtham

Mother and Baby.jpg

I fell pregnant with my first baby when I was 27, years after I had started working on taming my inner critic.  I knew there would be doubt, yet I felt prepared – what could really go wrong? Luckily I was surrounded by people willing to let me know just how much we were messing it up.

The most unexpected twist I discovered along the journey into motherhood was the sheer amount of judgement and guilt that is foisted upon new parents by virtually everyone - health providers, family, friends and an alarming number of strangers.

Some of my favourite comments:

“Oh the poor love is tiny, aren’t you feeding her?”

*wearing baby in a carrier* “Oh is that one of those new hippy things that lets mummy be lazy?”

“Holding her again? You’ll regret it when she’s older, you need to leave her to cry more”

For every developmental stage there was a new round of don’ts. It was exhausting. A brand new baby means brand new parents, who definitely don’t have all the answers. It was far too easy for my critical voice to worm its way in with doubts and fears.

 “I’m terrible at this! She deserves a better mother than me”

“I yelled again! I’m such a horrible parent”

Hormones and sleepless nights aren’t a great mix either, and often it wasn’t just my baby crying. Parenthood is hard. It is years upon years of questioning, “Am I doing the right thing?”

Honestly, having a little self-compassion was the only thing that saved my (and our) sanity.

Luckily, research suggests it’s not just me. 

Recent research out of Canada found self-compassion to be associated with lower stress and depression in parents of children with developmental disabilities, and in parents with a history of depression, those with more self-compassion were less critical and responded with less negative emotions to difficult situations. It seems that self-compassion isn’t just helpful for parents, but good for their children as well.

In a recent Australian study 262 new mothers were given access to brief online resources which outlined simple techniques to increase self-compassion. Although only half had the time to participate, those that did reported feeling more self-compassionate and less stressed, and were more satisfied with their breastfeeding experience.

Another Australian study asked 61 parents to complete either a loving-kindness meditation (LKM) or a matched control focused imagery exercise. They found that most parents enjoyed LKM, with 60% saying they would continue to do it weekly. Parents in this group were more motivated to treat themselves compassionately, and showed more positive (calm and sympathetic) and less negative (frustrated and angry) reactions to difficult child behaviours, than the parents in the control group. The researchers suggested that LKM “might help to support parents’ well-being, their capacity to be less reactive in responding to child distress, and their capacity to cultivate compassionate responses to their child.” Interestingly, parents who practiced LKM were no more motivated to treat others compassionately, so it may not help you resist telling off the next stranger who insults your parenting approach.

The evidence stacks up. Guilt and doubt may be a part of the parenting experience, but it doesn’t have to be.

For me it came down to taking a breath, and realising that feeling miserable about being a terrible parent wasn’t actually making me a better one. What helped was to step back, let go of all the expectations of what I should be doing and focus on enjoying being with her. Babies grow up so fast – it really is worth slowing down and enjoying the journey.

Other things that can help:

  • Find supportive people. It’s not important to agree on everything, but is important to be respectful of each other’s parenting choices.
  • Find time, every day, to do something soothing and enjoyable. Even a few minutes savouring a coffee counts!
  • Talk to others about the good, the bad and the ugly – parenthood can be isolating when we aren’t sharing what is really going on. It’s good to be honest and ask for help when it’s needed.
  • Think about all the fun and enjoyable aspects of parenting, and what we love about the little people in our lives. 
  • Try a loving-kindness meditation (like this one https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/loving_kindness_meditation )

  • Take a self-compassion break:

    •  First – acknowledge this is a difficult moment with a comment like “this is tough, I’m finding it really hard”
    • Second – remind yourself that you aren’t alone. Most parents struggle with the same things – and there are probably millions of others experiencing a very similar moment right now!
    • Third – offer yourself kindness. This can be a comment like, “May I be kind to myself while we get through this”. I often find it helpful to check in with a question, “what do I need right now to feel calm and soothed?”

There is no way to get self-compassion wrong, as long as it is coming from a genuine desire to improve our wellbeing and to be kind to ourselves. Who knows, we may discover we aren’t doing such a bad job after all.