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With Dr Alicia Carter

The age-old phenomenon of mother’s guilt is a difficult one to debunk with the feeling differing from one Mum to the next. For some it starts as early as pregnancy when the mother begins to feel the pressure of societal expectations and question her ability to care for the child she is growing. Even the birth of the child comes with contention about what is best for the child, caesarean versus vaginal birth, drugs versus no-drugs, medical intervention versus completely unaided. Even terms such as ‘natural’, which insinuates that there is an ‘unnatural’ option to one of the most natural things in the world. There’s an opinion and a judgement on it all! Even the conversation about conception is not off the table! Then the baby is born, without the delivery of the promised manual, the child is delivered alongside an additional plethora of external advice from well-intended others. Our wishes and desires of never tearing, not pooping in front of others or having everything over and done with in 30 minutes with the pain and satisfaction of an intensive spin class, is out the door. However, guilt continues as the mother questions her ability to parent as society expects her to.  Now, we cannot change societies expectations, and whilst some are able to change our response to those expectations or even societies, some of us turn those expectations inwards. Instead of considering the reality of living in a filtered society, we are faced with realism that no-one shares. The realism of a new mother not showering for weeks, one where she is functioning on no sleep and is wearing a diaper that matches her baby’s. Instead of questioning society, she may blame herself and think; ‘Why is this so hard for me?’, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ ‘I must be a bad mum’. The emotional bashing continues as the new mother makes her own life decision, if she goes back to work she is too career focused, if she doesn’t, she has given up her life for marriage and children. There is no pleasing society and no quick fix for the judgement received no matter what decisions are made. Unfortunately, this doesn’t end when the baby graduates from nappies and for some women it may continue for the entire life of the child and even into adulthood. Exhausting right?

So why do mothers feel this way- where does it stem from and how do we keep it under wraps as to avoid parental stress, burn out and other mental health concerns?

Psychologist Dr Alicia Carter explains that it is not actually mother’s guilt that leads to anxiety and depression but rather the underlying feeling of shame that some mothers experience; thoughts like ‘I am a bad mother’ and ‘I am not good enough’. According to British Clinical Psychologist Prof. Paul Gilbert PhD. the brain has three emotional regulating systems: drive, threat and sooth. The feelings of guilt and shame are fundamentally different stemming from two different emotional regulation systems. “Shame is born from the threat system where anxiety, anger, fear and disgust live, whereas guilt actually stems from the soothing system where we learn to connect, collaborate, care for and comfort ourselves and others,” Dr Carter explains. The famous Texan researcher Brene Brown explains the difference between shame and guilt at length in this You Tube video. Guilt is a normal feeling and has evolved as an adaptive function of our brain to drive us to achieve goals and do better. To repair perhaps a broken connection through kindness, support and forgiveness. However, the impact of shame can be detrimental to our emotional wellbeing, hence why our brains identify the feeling when it happens and tries to hide and avoid. The opposite to guilt, which motivates us to connect. Have you ever reached out to another Mum after school drop for shouting at your kids that morning? Or discussed how exhausted, run off your feet and over your child changing his favourite food like his underpants? Here, we can alleviate the negative thoughts and feelings we can have by sharing it with others who don’t wave a magic wand, but simply help us realise we are not alone. Dr Carter explains. “The key here for mothers is to reach out to likeminded parents who will support and sooth rather than berate and judge.” We all know a perfect Polly and a Karen who will shame and condemn. Actively choose your circle. This is essential to self-care. #MumHackno1.

Leading on to a pertinent point regarding the dreaded platform that is social media. It gets a pretty bad wrap for framing lives in unrealistic ways, spreading misinformation and making us feel inadequate and insecure. Afterall most of our social feeds are a highlights reel, a snapshot of our happy and most memorable moments with only a brave minority sharing their epic fails and wrong doings. However, for all of the negatives brought about by this platform and the feelings of inadequacy it may evoke in some mothers (or parents), it also provides access to information and the ability to connect, network and collaborate with others around the clock. And let’s face it, the whole parenting thing is a 24/7 gig. The Mum hack here, as Alicia suggests is to moderate the content and people we connect with as to feed our minds with positive and supporting messages that do not make us feel like you aren’t good enough. Follow people with similarities not those who project differences you wish you had. #MumHackno2.

So, how does society define a ‘good mother’? “Children don’t come with a manual and their wants and needs are individual. It is important to think about our values. We can often be caught up with the hustle and bustle of life and the ‘rules’ associated with raising children. Children are to be raised, uplifted, encouraged to grow and explore their world with safety and confidence,” says Dr Carter.

“Choose values that you want to foster in your child rather than rules and standards. Raising a child who is compassionate, kind and caring will become a positive member of society no matter their life path and goals. Sometimes these can help reduce blow ups when we redirect our attention towards what we are ‘growing.’” #MumHackno3.

Dr Carter explains that parents often experience burn out and this is ultimately because the flow of giving and receiving is broken. When we are giving our everything, supporting others and not stopping because we are constantly meeting the needs of our little people, we forget about the things that fill us up. We cannot pour from an empty cup. “Our own self-care is vital to our own health and in turn the ability to give to others. It is essential for us to build up our energy bank. Noticing things that energise us versus exhausts us is a great step to doing this. Outsourcing, collaborating with others to help share the mental and physical load of raising a child might help lift some of the load so that you can breathe. One example of this is getting together with other parents and sharing drop-offs and pick-ups. This can result is less stress and pressure placed on one person, when a team of people can help each other.” #MumHackno4. Outsource and show yourself some love!

Implementing self-compassion need not be a monumental shift in your daily life. It can be as simple as taking some time to prepare for the week ahead, booking a night off or arranging a get together with friends. It can be giving yourself time to care for your body with nourishment and exercise or pampering. It can be mindfully stimulating your senses through things you enjoy doing, whether that is cooking, walking or listening to music. As the Buddhist teaching goes; “Do not look for a sanctuary in anyone except yourself”. #theultimatehack