The five ages of GUILT every mother suffers, and which will strike a chord with every daughter, too
- Bel Mooney says mothers feel guilty when wondering if they’re good enough
- She claims mums have guilt about resenting their child during pre-school years
- She says mums feel guilt in junior school years over the child being with a nanny
- She believes mums blame themselves for their child’s behaviour in their teens
- Bel revealed mothers often continue to feel guilty after their child has left home
A mother’s guilt is a terrible and indiscriminate thing. It gets us all. Earlier this month, the talented, hard-working TV presenter Fiona Bruce confessed she often feels she falls shorts on the mothering stakes when comparing herself to her own mother, who stopped work as soon as she had children.
Now 54, and with her children aged 20 and 16, she revealed she still employs the same nanny she had when the children were babies. While many women would envy the incredible freedom the luxury of paid help has given her to further her career, others might say she can’t possibly have been as involved in all the stages of her kids’ development as more ‘ordinary’, stressed-out, hands-on mums.
No doubt there’s a big part of Fiona that thinks that, too. All working mothers, whether driven by career or necessity (or both) know the stress of juggling childcare and work and balancing your child’s needs against your own. And, sooner or later, most of us wake in the small hours, consumed by anxiety . . . that we’ve missed out.
Bel Mooney (pictured with her child) shared the guilt she has experienced throughout her children’s lives. She claims guilt follows you beyond your child’s adulthood
Many years ago, a magazine editor I worked for told me how horribly guilty and jealous she felt when she arrived home from work (at 7pm at the earliest, after a stressful day) and stood in the hall, listening to her only child giggling with the nanny.
Only 24 at the time, with no children of my own yet, I ventured to suggest she would surely feel worse if her daughter was crying because she missed her mother. Tearfully, my editor nodded.
Self-reproachful mums will find excuses and consolation where they can.
Now, 46 years, two children and a long career later, I recall that woman’s angst with sympathy – because I’ve felt it, too.
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If it wasn’t guilt about something I wasn’t doing, it was remorse because of something I had done, or anxiety that, along the way, I’d done a lot wrong, or not done enough that was ‘right’ . . .
This is a mother’s lot, I’m afraid, However, in truth, stay-at-home mothers do feel it, too, for different reasons. Through all the stages of your children’s growth, you look in the mirror and wonder whether you are good enough.
Guilt follows you like a shadow, from your baby’s first kick in the womb (shouldn’t have had that coffee), to way beyond adulthood (shouldn’t have voiced that opinion). So, here are the five stages of Mother’s Guilt . . .
1 WHY AM I BORED AND LONELY?
After the delight (usually, anyway) of producing the sweetest baby in the universe, reality sets in. I’ve met so many young mothers driven mad through lack of sleep and boredom — feeling puzzled and short-changed because the euphoria of new motherhood didn’t last.
Bel (pictured) revealed she was consumed by guilt after a moment of resenting her son Daniel who cried as a baby
Those days when you’re driven up the wall with the tedium of nappies and feeds, yet daren’t tell a soul.
The guilt if you really don’t want to breastfeed (or couldn’t, in my case) and feel bullied by nurses and Earth-mother mums alike.
The moments when you realise you are on a moving staircase and there’s no way you can leap off.
You’ve been hijacked by this strange little creature who is now in your life for ever (I should stress here that none of these comments have anything to do with post-natal depression, which is a separate, very serious issue.)
A low day for me came in 1975 when I’d arranged to take a phone call from the editor of The Sunday Times, the famous Harry Evans.
This was such a big deal for a young freelancer: to know that the great man rated me and wanted to discuss a potentially important feature. I’d put my baby, Daniel, then 13 months, in the next room with a mountain of toys, as well as a soothing cassette tape — and began the conversation.
Within minutes, Daniel yelled and crawled to get my attention, then screamed while I desperately, fruitlessly, tried to pretend that he wasn’t there. Soon, the kindly editor cut our call with a brisk: ‘I think you’d better go, love.’
Frustrated — because, at that moment, I desperately wanted to be a hot-shot journalist, not a mother at home — I really resented my poor little child.
Then, just as quickly, I felt consumed by guilt at that nasty thought and smothered him in kisses. Then I cried. This was a lose-lose situation.
So I bought The Lady and hired our first mother’s help.
2 I FEEL SO JEALOUS OF THE NANNY
JUNIOR SCHOOL YEARS
Bel admits she couldn’t enjoy socializing with others without feeling guilty for leaving her children with a nanny
Working women will tear themselves into pieces trying to be perfect mothers who make good packed lunches and costumes for school plays, keep up with numeracy and literacy key stages, arrange play dates — and remain good at their jobs. The strain can be terrible.
Frazzled women, once determined to keep food healthy, find themselves guiltily shoving chicken nuggets into their seven-year-olds because it makes life easier.
Then you find yourself longing for bedtime. Believe me, the phrase ‘wine o’clock’ is understood by mothers for very good reason. You feel guilty for hurrying the bedtime story (just a little) because you long for that restoring glass, then equally guilty when the glass becomes two or three.
You worry that you’re not playful enough with the children, then feel guilty because you find the game of Snakes And Ladders (or whatever) tedious.
I loved making models and drawing with both my children, but still experienced that nagging guilt when I longed to slope off somewhere and read by myself.
And it gets worse. Like that editor who told me her troubles, I found myself caught between the desire to leave the house and go to a merry office and guilt at what I was missing at home.
Over boozy lunches with fellow journalists, I’d become maudlin because of guilt at being in a smoky pub or restaurant while the nanny picked Dan up from school. ‘You should be with him, not her,’ whispered the voice of conscience. Now, looking back, I agree with that. More regrets. More guilt.
3 THEIR BAD BEHAVIOUR IS ALL MY FAULT
If you worry when they’re young that you haven’t got down and played enough, your child’s teenage years can impel poor mum to become too playful — embarrassingly so.
Bel (pictured with her daughter Kitty) says mothers of teenagers often cry from the guilt of how their own failings may impact their child
Most parents know the pain of realising that children don’t need you any more (not in the same way) and want their own space.
They think there’s nothing worse than a parent getting down with the kids — but you can’t resist.
With a six-year gap between my children, I yo-yoed between coping with Kitty’s serious health issues (she had intestinal and bone problems requiring numerous operations), when I’d be ‘Good Mother’, and being a right-on, achingly ‘cool’ parent to teenage Dan, complete with leather trousers, cigarettes, knowledge of ‘his’ music and a very laissez-faire attitude to behaviour — the ‘Bad Mother’.
Looking back, I wish I hadn’t tried too hard and wonder if maybe he’d have been better off with a more old-fashioned Ma. How can I know?
How can any of us know whether we are getting it right?
One thing you can be sure of: the mother of teenagers will be reduced to tears by them more times than you’ll ever care to remember, and the guilt sets in when you wonder if maybe . . . just maybe . . . the beloved little wretches are paying you back for your past failings. Whatever they may be. Another thing you can be sure of: if your teenagers turn out to be lovely people who do as well as they can, that’s because they are naturally wonderful.
But if they have problems (and what teenagers don’t?), it will definitely be your fault.
A stay-at-home mum I knew very well once told me she worried that her kids found her boring because she had nothing to talk about —and that’s why they were difficult. See? You can’t win.
4 DID I NOT LOVE THEM ENOUGH?
YOUNG ADULT YEARS
Someone I know — a working mother — admitted ruefully that, by the time her children reached the stage of leaving home, she’d be following them around, almost begging for their company.
She said: ‘In those early years, motherhood feels interminable and you feel guilty for not spending more time in the garden looking for wildlife and teaching them important things — but then, suddenly, they’re in their late-teens and they don’t want to know and it all seems to be slipping through your fingers.’
Bel (pictured with Kitty) claims it’s difficult to know how strict to be as a mother and her conscience made her question every decision
For me, the problem wasn’t my children actually leaving home because I never wanted to hang on and was relaxed about ‘empty-nest syndrome.’ But I did want them to come back — to still see home as central to their lives. Once, I was reduced to sending my son a postcard, bleating: ‘Remember your mother loves you’ (or similar pathetic words), because he was having a great time working in London and with a gorgeous girlfriend and, for weeks, didn’t actually feel the need to come home.
In other words, he didn’t feel the need for me! How hurtful that was. Aha, jeered my conscience, that’ll serve you right for chasing jobs and socialising too much, for drinking and smoking, instead of being the perfect stay-at-home mother.
Meanwhile, my errant teenage daughter wanted to go clubbing and even joked that she had learned misbehaviour at her mother’s knee.
Oh, how can a woman know what’s the right thing? Too strict and they will rebel. Not strict enough and they will have carte blanche to go off the rails.
Whatever the outcome, lady, it will be your fault.
Do I hear you asking where the fathers are within all this angst?
The answer is ‘around’ — if you are lucky. I’m pleased to say I have known utterly brilliant dads, yet have never heard one express the ongoing guilt and stress that seems to accompany motherhood. No, not one.
5 WHY CAN’T I KEEP MY MOUTH SHUT?
At time, I want to warn young women it never ends, this see-saw of love and responsibility, the ups and downs of parenthood, the guilt and joy, delight and exhausted misery of being a mother.
Bel (pictured left with her daughter Kitty and her mother Gladys) revealed she feels responsible for solving issues between her adult children
Oh, you think, it will, as you experience all the different stages and feel you have learned lessons from the ones that went before. You believe it will become easy; that all the stress will magically disperse, like night before the rising sun. But it doesn’t. You worry about their relationships and how your own mistakes may have affected them.
You feel anguish if they get things wrong (whether it’s dropping out of college, indulging in cannabis or alcohol, or ditching the partner you loved for one who obviously isn’t right) and realise that you mustn’t give advice until asked. Otherwise, you’re in trouble.
And if your adult children row with you and say things that hurt your feelings, you know that, in the end, you have to be the one to make things right. Because it’s you who is still the grown-up in this relationship. Whatever happens.
As a grandmother now, I feel this as powerfully as ever. You have to learn to keep your mouth closed and if, by accident, you let an opinion slip (‘Darling, isn’t it time he had a haircut?’), you must be ready to cope with the irritation (to put it mildly) you have known since that dear little child first scowled: ‘No, Mummy, go away!’ — and pierced your heart.
Just the other day, in charge of Max, two, I gave him the wrong thing for supper and was frowned at by Kitty. How was I to know?
In the end, this is the price we all pay for loving. As soon as you become a mother, you are placed for ever on the interface between sacrifice and self. Of course, you’re still a human being with personal wants, yearnings and faults. Why wouldn’t you be? But, at the same time, you know having a child is so important that you must put that needy offspring first, giving up your most selfish impulses.
Otherwise, you’ll feel (rightly) guilty for letting down a dear soul who didn’t ask to be born. If you cannot bear the idea of duty, you shouldn’t be a parent. And there are, unfortunately, a lot of people who fall into that category.
The rest of us muddle through. Yes, we make mistakes and worry about them. Yes, we get frustrated, feel regrets and know we might do things differently the second time around. But what matters is that we were always as good a parent as we could possibly be — at that time, in those circumstances — and always motivated by the best kind of love there is.
Remember, even if you get things wrong, there will be many more times when you get parenthood gloriously right — and that will be what your children remember, when (at all stages) they give you a hug and say: ‘Thanks, Mum.’
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