Ever since I became a parent I’ve felt a relentless undercurrent of guilt about everything and anything, from sleep training to screen time, from dealing with behaviour to needing a break. The pandemic hasn’t helped; now I’m feeling guilty about things I have absolutely no control over, and I know I’m not the only one.
The pandemic-enforced homeschooling is fertile ground for feeling bad about your parenting skills. Not only do I worry that I’m not a patient or competent teacher, but other mum duties inevitably get left behind. My youngest, Bill, has been babysat by CBeebies and Youtube Kids while I try to give my four year old the time and attention he needs to complete school work. When we stop for a break, I know should play or read with Bill, but I just want a cup of tea and some silence. And the familiar wave of guilt washes over me.
I feel guilty about how much screen time they have, whether I’m doing enough writing or reading with them, the state of the house, what they eat, for leaving them to go to work or the fact they haven’t hit a milestone yet. I feel guilty for wanting time away from my kids and not enjoying every moment. I feel guilty that sometimes I find being a mum mind-numbingly boring and I wish I was in the pub instead. I feel guilty when I shout most of all; it never helps and I just feel like I’ve failed them by letting myself get angry. I feel guilty about the things they are missing out on at the moment; time with family, classes, activities, social interaction and even the dreaded soft play. If I get a break to look at my phone I inevitably end up on social media, which is perfect for fostering guilt as there’s always an opportunity to compare your parenting with someone else’s polished social media posts and find yourself to be inferior.
And its not new. Its been there since day one. I had quite a difficult birth with Frank, and being exhausted and in shock from an emergency c-section meant that I didn’t bond with him immediately. I loved him, but I didn’t feel that intense rush of love that you’re always told about. I just felt tired and scared. I’m not sure we’ve normalised the fact that not every mother (or father) bonds instantly with their child, for a variety of reasons, and of course that made me feel intensely guilty and ashamed. It was a year or so before I felt brave enough to say to friends; I didn’t bond so well at first because I wasn’t in the best state to. Once I’d recovered from the shock, and slept a bit, that overwhelming sense of love and attachment was there. It just wasn’t instant for me. With William I had an elective c-section and it was a completely different experience. I was well rested and excited to meet him. I instantly fell in love and held him all day and night even though the midwives begged me to put him down and rest. I didn’t feel like I needed to, I was just enjoying the cuddles and staring at him like a madwoman. Of course, that didn’t mean that the guilt wasn’t there. I felt guilty about two year old Frank, at my mum’s and later at home with Dada. As soon as we were home the juggling act between a toddler and a newborn began, and I never didn’t feel like one of them was missing out. I felt guilty that I couldn’t pick up Frank after the c section, and so I tried to, and pulled my out my stitches.
I don’t have any answers to how we can fend off this parental guilt but I do feel deeply sorry for new parents right now. Covid has brought extra difficulties for parents and they won’t be able to access the support networks they would normally have on offer. I’ve heard new parents sounding deeply guilty about what their baby has missed out on, and I want to say to them – this isn’t your fault. Don’t let guilt be the predominant feeling of your first year of parenthood when it could be joy. Accept that you will be tired and anxious, and mourn for the baby clubs and coffees and family time you’ve missed. But don’t let the guilt overwhelm you, as it often does to me, when you can’t change our current restrictions.
One thing I’m trying is to talk to myself how I might a friend. If a friend came to me and said; I feel so guilty that my toddler is watching cartoons while I’m busy with homeschool, I’d probably say – don’t worry. This isn’t forever. We are living through a global pandemic for Christ’s sake, give yourself a break. You can spend quality time with him once schools re-open and you can have one on one time again. I’m not sure why I can’t be that kind to myself, but maybe I should try.