Mother’s Guilt – it’s a bitch.
And quite honestly, I don’t think there’s anything like it. It starts from before they’re even born – from the minute you find out you’ve conceived. The awful moment, that hits you shortly after the (sometime) excitement and happiness at finding out you’re pregnant, when your brain flicks back over the past 4-6 weeks and every drink, cigarette, bender and recreational drug flickers before your eyes, projected in multi-colour, cinema-sized, infomercial glory. What have you done? You're such a bad mother, already – your baby will surely be too small, or too big, or without an essential limb, or stupid. ALL BECAUSE OF YOU AND THOSE 30 VODKA AND TONICS.
And that’s just the start. Pregnancy is a long, hard, guilt-ridden journey – am I eating well enough? Is it okay that I’ve had 3 sips of wine my entire pregnancy? Have I had my five-a-day? Am I having enough calcium for its bones to grow? Am I too stressed? Should I be doing pre-natal yoga? Should I be playing classical music to my bump? If I don’t, will my baby grow up needing therapy? God help you if you stumble across an article raving about the mystical benefits of some new super-gross, superfood – wheatgrass anyone? I wallowed in the guilt, making sure I always had a packet or five of nuts/seeds/dried fruit with me. Packets that remained in the bottom of my bag, unopened and usually smudged in the remnants of a chocolate bar. I craved salty, savoury, greasy food and got round the guilt by telling myself that, if my body was craving it, it meant that my body needed it – for whatever reason. I read that in one of the 100s of annoying, patronising, contradictory pregnancy books I had rushed out to buy at the first sighting of the blue line. So, that was my story and I was sticking to it. I envied pregnant people around me who craved fresh fruit and veg – really?! I had to force feed myself a sugar snap pea every other day to make myself feel slightly better about the daily portions of chips.
And then the baby years – triple the guilt. With No. 1, I was the full-on, wannabe-earth mother – taking him to baby swimming lessons, baby-sensory classes (which can easily be achieved at home by shining some torches in their face and giving them some tinfoil to play with), baby-music classes and baby-massage (where he inevitably either slept through the class or did a massive, up-the-back shit that meant I spent the whole session changing him). I breastfed until he was about eight months, and felt enormously guilty even stopping then. I did the whole organic, Annabel Whats-Her-Face mushed up ice cube food – after pretty unsuccessfully trying Baby-Led Weaning which, the books assured me, makes your babies grow up to be better eaters and, by extension, better, fully-adjusted, responsible human beings.
Of course we do all that – at that stage, those little bundles of ‘joy’ are the centre of our world. We want only the best for them and we have the time, willingness and dregs of energy left to try and give it them. By No. 2, it was an entirely different story. I was back at work, with a toddler at home, so in terms of what I put into my body while I was pregnant and exercising and playing Mozart to the damn bump – that was all out of the picture. Before, and after, he was born, I did whatever I needed to get through the day in one piece. I stopped breastfeeding much earlier – and felt great for it. I’m not sure I took him to one single baby class other than ones he was dragged along to that were necessary to keep his big brother occupied. And weaning? Annabel Schnannabel – packet food all the way (although, to be fair, I felt I still had to stick to the ridiculously over-priced organic stuff that has done very well indeed from all the guilt floating round).
I felt guilty for going back to work, so eventually I gave it up and stayed at home. At home, I felt guilty for not doing the all-singing, all-dancing stay-at-home-Mum routine. Every now and then, I would enthusiastically get the paints or craft out but, after the half an hour of setting up, the boys normally lasted a grand total of about 7 minutes at any one activity and then I was left with an almighty mess to clear up. I would get to the end of the day and realise Cbeebies had been on so long we had ended up watching the afternoon repeats of the morning shows. I shouldn’t let them watch so much TV – but then how would I ever get any housework done? I should take them out more, do some trips. Does going to Sainsburys count as an outing? I should arrange play dates with their friends. Does going to see my friend, who happens to have a child, count as a play date?
When we first moved down to the Island, I was introduced to some of the local mums who all happened to have little ones the same age as my littlest. Upon asking if their child was at the pre-school, their response was uniformly horrified – no way, they said, they wanted to get as much time at home with them as possible. REALLY?! The guilt hit me then – am I a bad mother for sending my child to pre-school? Am I an even worse mother because I cherish those times? Because those times are the only times I can get things done, relax, breathe…
Recently, someone was telling of how, when they went back to work teaching, they would see other mothers at the school gates with their little ones, and it would rip her heart out to think of her 18 month old that she had to put in nursery. Again, I felt the guilt – I remember the same situation, but I would look at those mothers and feel sorry for them having to spend the day battling toddler issues as I walked into the staff room, managed a whole cup of tea without having to microwave it and then went about my day using my mind, being creative and interacting with adults without being interrupted every 30 seconds.
I have been having to get used to the new waves of guilt that come with the starting of school. There’s the obvious stuff like ‘am I spending enough time on their homework/reading?’ but there’s also ones I hadn’t expected – like when it’s a mufti day for cakes and you pass other mothers on the school run carrying wonderful, well-decorated, fully-fluffy homemade creations as I shuffle past with a pack of shop-bought plain cupcakes that I’ve only just remembered to get. I feel guilty for not going in to read with the class like other mothers. I feel guilty if they’re not doing enough after school activities – surely they should be going to cubs? Or Beavers or Badgers or whatever it is? Surely you can’t have a proper childhood without being a Badger? I feel guilty every time I miss taking them to a swimming lesson – a swimming lesson that involves me driving half an hour, getting them changed in over-crowded, sauna-like changing rooms and then repeating in reverse after half an hour. But sometimes I just can’t face it.
Not too long ago, after being at home for a few years, I was driving over to my mother-in-laws with my two boys. It was an inset day, I think. I explained that their cousin, let’s call her Ella, would be there.
“Oh, and will Auntie Jane be there too?” my eldest asked.
“No, not today, she’s working,” I said.
“What?!” he replied, shocked, “I did not know that ladies worked too.”
Great! So now I had guilt for not working, in place of my guilt for working and in addition to my guilt for being a less-than-perfect stay-at-home mum.
I’ve been told that this guilt – this endless, all-encompassing, multi-faceted guilt - never goes away. In one form or another, you will always feel guilty about something to do with your children, even when they’re all grown up – I guess that’s when you can look back and wonder if the therapy they’re now having really is because you never played them classical music when they were in utero. I’m going back to work again soon, and despite my eldest’s concern about who will look after him, I feel pretty good about the decision. If I don’t go back to work, although they’d have a mother who is at home, she may well end up an alcoholic, depressive one and I’m pretty sure that would be a worse experience than having to go to after-school club for an hour two days a week.
I know I’ve got a lot worse to come – I can’t even imagine when exams and grades and actual important decisions, other than to go to Beavers or not, come into play. I’m trying to prepare. I’m learning to take things as they come, to fight the natural inclination to compare myself to other mothers and to congratulate myself, every now and then, on having come this far with all of us in one piece. Turns out not going to every faddy baby-class going and not being fed organic, home-mashed mush doesn’t have a life-altering impact on your children after all. At least it hasn’t yet…