It’s 10pm and I am going through my customary bedtime routine. Not skincare or meditation or any of the other prescriptive methods of self-care we’re supposed to be doing to stave off the nihilism threatening to engulf us at all times. No, I am doing my nightly google, researching all the ways that I may or may not be f**king up my children for life.
I type in the little box “feel bad for…” and the ever intuitive Google fills in the rest with unnervingly accurate suggestions. “Feel bad for shouting at my five-year-old”; “feel bad for crying in front of my toddler”; “feel bad for not reading to my baby”. Feel bad, feel bad, feel bad. Yes, bedtime for me is hectic. I have a theory that the Google search bar is the mood ring of our 30s. A casual browse of my search history throws up a depressing insight into my prevailing frame of mind.
“Mom Guilt: Why It Plagues Us and How to Fight It” or “A Surprising Root Of Mom Guilt, And 4 Ways To Overcome It.”
And some of the articles themselves are frankly terrifying. One piece from Psychology Today opens on a positive note: “I rarely meet a parent who denies having guilt about how they have raised their children. For most of us, a moderate amount of guilt is actually a sign of love.” Great! However, from there it nosedives into dire predictions about how our guilt can also be contributing to the ruination of our children.
“For some, guilt becomes chronic… guilty parents may be unwittingly creating more serious problems for themselves and even their children.”
Cue me lying awake for half the night debating whether I should be setting up a savings account for my children’s future therapy. It’s really the least I can do. I imagine them coming down to breakfast on their 18th birthdays and letting them know they each have a tidy sum towards their healing from my particular brand of shite parenting.
Feverish Google searches give way to feverish calculations. By my estimation, five years of counselling every two weeks adds up to €7,200, plus 20pc inflation equals €8,640, times three kids, comes to a total of €25,920. I have about eight years to save this amount. I’m sweating when I realise this means I need to put away €270.83 every month. No more takeaways or frivolities of any kind.
Mother guilt is not helped by the fact that there’s a whole world out there ready to tell you how badly you’re doing at parenting.
“That child is cold,” announced a random woman in the park as I walked past, pushing the baby in the pram.
“Look, I’m not Rosemary f**king West, so calm down,” I scream, sounding potentially even more psychotic than Rosemary West ever did. Great, now I felt guilty about being a crap mother and about shouting at a stranger.
The thing I find about mother guilt is that from the outside it can seem like we are stressing about smallish things. My kids only eat beige food. They don’t like sports. They hate having baths. They’re refusing to give up breastfeeding. These are all things that are more or less no longer an issue by the time humans reach adulthood. 100 percent of adults don’t breastfeed, I tell myself. It’ll be OK, he’ll relinquish the boob eventually.
The thing that outsiders can’t see about our guilt is that when we feel like we are failing our children in even the slightest way, it immediately becomes about way more than the issue at hand. The most innocuous, low-grade ball-drop can feel enormous. Our brains immediately run to our own individual Mother Bruises. They are bruises completely unique to each of us and they are hard to explain to others who haven’t walked our path. The bruises can be as a result of the traumatic childhood you suffered — each minor mothering mishap can feel like evidence that you will never be able to break this cycle, no matter how hard you try. You can, you will. For me, my Mother Bruise is my alcoholism and my mental illness — it feels inevitable that these “failings” will harm my children.
From my eight years of guilty motherhood, the only thing I have come up with to soothe the bruises is to tell myself a different story about them. Our bruises will, one day, be what helps our children. They mean that I will have deeper empathy when things go awry for them, as they inevitably will. Plus maybe there’s an unexpected boon to my crap parenting. At least they’ll actually have something to tell the therapist who otherwise might’ve been bored. Future therapists, thank us later!