Mum Guilt – the stresses of being a full-time, part-time, working mum.

I have always worked. I started working at 14, glass collecting in a pub back in my home town of Stevenage. I worked all the way through school and University, sometimes juggling 3 jobs at a time. At one point I worked for The Metro newspaper 5am- 8am, as a Psychology Intern from 9am-5pm, and just left enough room to shower and eat before returning to bar work 8pm until 2am. And repeat. Over the years, this has meant that (a) I have a very strong work ethic; (b) I have no debt; (c) I can survive on very little sleep; and (d) I have a high caffeine tolerance. However,  this strong-willed independence has also meant that I am not good at asking for help. Additionally, the fact that working has always been such a massive part of who I am, if you throw a new variable into the mix such as, oh I don’t know, a global pandemic, or children, then a huge internal conflict arises. 

This internal conflict can lead to feelings of anxiety, stress, depression and guilt, especially when you’re fed (consciously or unconsciously) messages from friends, family, acquaintances (usually childless feckers who wouldn’t understand anyway) and social media that you’re doing it wrong. The guilt I’ve experienced since becoming a mum far outweighs the guilt of eating peanutbutter and chocolate spread from the jar in front of the TV, or hiding that noisy toy and denying knowledge of where it could have gone, or Netflix cheating on your Game Of Thrones partner (I only said this to be cool… I don’t watch GOT, I watch Bake Off. That’s how cool I am). I’ve talked about Mum Guilt before in my blogs, which in itself was something that I was unaware of before becoming acquainted with the Unmumsy Mum (Sarah Turner), and subsequently many other mum-bloggers since. Mum Guilt is that pervasive feeling of not doing enough as a parent, not doing things right, or making decisions that may “mess up” your kids in the long run. It’s that feeling of dread or a weight on your shoulders (or chest, or soul), and that panicky feeling, like you need to fix the problem right now. Mum guilt is the shoulds, the supposed to’s, and the other mums are… clanking around in your head as you try to make it through the day. In 2017, a staggering 78% of mums revealed that they felt guilty, with 68% saying this occurred at least once or twice a day. 

Mum guilt can be triggered by many things, with a common reason as ‘not spending enough time with the kids’ but closely followed by ‘not being able to afford enough’. Herein lies a cognitive dissonance. It’s a lose-lose situation. You don’t earn enough, so you work more, but feel guilty for not spending enough time with the kids… so you work less and don’t earn as much, so you can’t afford to do as much / buy them as much. Rock and a hard place. This is one of the foundations for the massive internal conflict that comes with returning to work after having children – the number one trigger for Mum Guilt.

I remember when I first had Joshua. I suffered from postnatal depression (or the ‘baby blues’ as it’s often so cutely put). I struggled to bond with him, like all the “mum” magazines tell you you should, and all I could think of was getting active again, getting back to work, and getting off this bloody sofa, despite the fact that I’d birthed a human just 48 hours prior. I was consumed with a feeling of guilt. I felt guilty that I wasn’t doing anything, I felt guilty that I didn’t know what I was doing, and that I was making it up as I went along. I felt guilty for not being at work, and I felt guilty for wanting to be at work and not “treasuring every moment” like the insta-perfect MumsNet mums. I felt guilty for not instantly loving my child and overall I felt like a failure all round.

After 6 weeks, I started taking Joshua with me to the studio to train, and at 10 weeks I gave him to a (very trusted) childminder for half a day a week. This allowed me to balance life a bit more, and I was able to start treasuring the moments we had together. And thereon started my new path as a part-time working mummy. I worked evenings and weekends at the studio and spent the days at baby groups like swimming and Tiny Talk and Nappachinos (literally a group where you’d let your baby nap and you’d have a coffee…a HOT coffee…with adult humans who didn’t shit themselves or try to grab your breasts… mostly). It was pretty awesome to be fair. But the thing with owning a business, is that even if you’re only “hands-on” part time, you’re never really part time. You’re still the manger, cleaner, head of marketing, PR, webtech (this is before I found my current amazing WebTech, whom I could now never live without), accountant, customer services, and referee when there were inter-staff problems (which was my least-favourite job, as no matter what you did, you were always going to be wrong in someone’s eyes). This combined with the constant struggle against my almost innate desire to take on more hands-on hours, meant that as Joshua transitioned into nursery, I went from part-time working mummy to full-time working mummy.

Over the years, the business grew and in 2018 I expanded for a second time, unbeknownst to the fact that just over a year later we were to be shut down due to a Global Pandemic. Covid19 hit everyone hard, but especially those who were self-employed and those who were the keepers of small humans. And those who fell into both of these categories were quite frankly f*cked. Suddenly I had gone from full-time working mummy with multiple award-winning businesses and a well-adjusted nursery-bossing 3-year-old, to full-time stay-at-home (SAH) mummy, and full-time home-school teacher, with no income. Oh, and did I mention that I was pregnant?! There are so many layers to this that made me want to throw myself, the ‘Zoom’ laptop or an unsuspecting stranger out of the window. Not only was my work such a big part of me, my routine and my sense of day-to-day accomplishment, but it was also my escapism. Before, when Joshua was being a typical toddler and had face-plated the floor because, and I quote, “I wouldn’t let him eat rocks”, then I could head to work, game-face it like Mr Tumble on Crack, and escape the madness for a few hours. Then I could return with a refreshed sense of patience and sanity and face the next Peppa Pig disaster. But during Lockdown, there was no work. There was no escape. No. Escape. Instead I had to learn to teach phonics, digraphs and trigraphs….and resist exclaiming that in my day none of this mambo jumbo existed. Suddenly parents around the country were expected to now have 2 jobs – full-time teacher and full-time SAH parent – neither of which were paid or came with any kind of bonus system, healthcare or sick pay. I tried my best, but add into the mix a newborn baby and sometimes I just felt like one of those 2-in-1 Shampoos that tries to be everything, but just ends up being a bit shit at everything. Then the Mum Guilt started again. Oh FFS, I thought we’d gotten over this! For anyone who was in this situation, do any of these sound familiar…? I’m not good enough as a teacher; I don’t understand this homework; I can’t get Zoom to work; I can’t live up to Henry’s Mummy’s papier mache solar system; I can’t get my child to concentrate during the Zoom classes;  I’m not pushing my child hard enough; I’m pushing my child too hard; I’m a terrible mum; my child is going to end up on The Jeremy Kyle show; my child won’t get out of their pyjamas; I haven’t gotten out of my pyjamas; I’ve forgotten what a bra looks like; I’ve started drinking gin from a mug so it looks like coffee on Zoom meetings. Firstly, you’re not a terrible mum, we’ve all been there, and as long as everyone gets through the day without an A&E visit to have a piece of Lego surgically removed from an orifice, then you’re on to a winner. Secondly, bras are overrated – if you ever watched BBC’s Groundforce in the late 90s, Charlie always had her Dimmocks out, and it got her both fame and fortune. 

As the pandemic started to subside, and schools started to reopen, I attempted to rebuild my businesses from the ashes. It felt like that point in an Apocalypse movie, where the danger had dissipated and people started to roam the abandoned streets again. I started to take Jessica (who was just months old) to work with me, and for a while this worked. When she was very small, she would sleep most of the time, and I could teach. But as she grew older, she also grew more verbal, more mobile, and more unpredictable. It was like having a miniature Boris (though infinitely cuter) whereby she could be one thing one moment and something completely different the next. All of a sudden, that Mum Guilt started to slip back in. When she was good, she was very very good, but when she was bad, she was horrid! On the days when she was teething / running a temperature / just being a baby, it was like having a timebomb that could go off at any moment without warning – and herein laid the guilt…. If she cried and I picked her up / comforted her / fed her, I felt guilty that I was taking my attention away from the client who was paying for my attention. If I let her cry I felt guilty that my baby was upset / in pain, and also that I was a bad mum for not attending to her. It got to a point where it wasn’t fair on anyone involved, so I arranged to put her in nursery 2 days a week.

This worked well for a while, and I was back to being a part-time working mummy, just like with Josh (minus the baby groups due to Covid restrictions). Then something unexpected happened. I got offered a job. I had gone for an interview for a Psychologist job, just for the experience, and maybe to get my name on the radar for future positions. At no point did I think that I would actually be offered a job. Then came an extremely difficult decision; due to the office hours, I would have to hand over the majority of my hands-on work at the studio to other instructors and take more of a managerial position. It would also mean putting the children in full-time childcare, which was both financially and emotionally difficult. At this point, guess what reared its ugly head…yep, you’ve got it… hello Mum Guilt! Eleventy billion things ran through my head; am I a bad mum for abandoning my children, will my children hate me, can I afford full-time childcare (the answer is technically no…it actually currently costs me more in childcare than I earn), will I be seen as slacking at the business, can I really give up hands-on work at the studio, am I letting down my long-term clients at the business by passing them over, will I get fat doing an office job, can I still disguise gin in a coffee mug on Zoom meetings…?

Over the years I’ve known baristas, barristers, stay-at-work mums, stay-at-home mums, Instamums, Instabums, bloggers, sloggers, mum bosses and mum-don’t-give-a-tosses, cupcake bakers, cake fakers and everything in between. But the one thing that unites us all as parents is the struggle to make work actually work. According to the Equality & Human Rights Commission, 54,000 mothers feel pushed to leave employment every year. This includes those who are forced out by bell-end bosses, to those who trot out of the office merrily only to regret it 6 months later (it’s hard to go back, there’s always someone bouncier and less yogurt-stained ready to slot into your position). Times are slowly changing, but for every fresh company that offers flexible working, there are 7,690 that are set in their archaic ways. In this sense, I do feel ‘lucky’ that I own my business (lucky is the wrong word, as it’s not something that has been handed to me on a plate, I’ve not stolen my business model from someone else, and I don’t live out of the bank of mum and dad… I’ve spent a decade building my business, and then rebuilding it post-Covid). Being self-employed at least allows me the possibility of creating a work-life balance, even if I’m not always super awesome at the execution. My Psychologist position, too, offers flexible working, and they are very accommodating to my strange, often unsociable, hours to work around childcare, for which I am eternally grateful.

Having been in my new job for 3 weeks now, balancing the business, the office and the kids seems to be getting a bit easier, at least practically (maybe not emotionally yet, but we’ll work on that). Though there was one occasion where I was running late, trying to balance Teams meetings, Zoom calls, emails (btw, whomever invented the QWERTY keyboard put the ‘t’ far too close to the ‘g’ for emails written in haste… signing off “kind retards” is not looked upon favourably), studio timetabling, Asda shopping and school pick-up… where I turned up to the wrong childcare provider to collect Jessica. The woman just gave me a very confused sideways look and immediately I knew I’d f*cked up. I made my excuses and zoomed across town to pick Jess up from her actual nursery, where the poor teacher was waiting to go home. I have to admit, sometimes it is a lot to juggle, now I’m technically a full-time part-time working mum. With this said, I really do hate putting labels on things – we’re all just essentially trying to put fish fingers on the table and Paw Patrol on the TV. What I’ve come to discover is that it doesn’t matter what equilibrium of work and home life you have, there will always be judgment by others and by oneself, and because of this, there will always be the prevalence of Mum Guilt. For example, I’ve outlined below just a few work-life structures that one may choose, and the perceived issues/judgements associated with them:

The Full-Time Stay At Home Mummy (SAHM)

This mummy deserves a medal for enduring a combination of tantrums, tears, teething and Thomas The Tank Engine on repeat without breaking something or someone. She may be a SAHM by choice (and is far stronger mentally & emotionally than I could ever be), or is forced to because she can’t afford the childcare or her work is not flexible enough to accommodate simultaneously looking after small humans. She has no escape, no respite and often no regular adult contact to assure her that it’s ok not to be ok all of the time. Her jobs may include teacher, cook and cleaner, and the highlight of her day may be having a wee with the door closed whilst the baby naps. However, this supermum is often viewed by the public as “too lazy to work”, sponging off of family/the state, or lacking in determination/drive. Cue Mum Guilt.

The Part-Time Working Mummy

I’m going to include the Self-Employed mummy in this category too, as everyone knows that when you’re self-employed you can just take time off whenever you like, right?! The Part-Time working mummy is often berated as the “part-timer”, as if their efforts on the work front are a token effort to make it seem like they’re doing something. They have the best of both worlds right? They get to spend time with their kids AND get paid! No. In reality their reduced hours to try to balance spending time with their kids mean that their wage barely covers the childcare for the time that they are at work. Additionally, because it is possible to spend more time with the children when you’re self-employed, there is often an expectation to and a guilt that follows if you don’t, so the PTWM ends up completing the work she should have done in the day after the kids have gone to bed and actually works more hours than if she was in Full Time work, but with no additional pay. This mum feels guilty for not being good enough at home and not being good enough at work. Overall, the PT/SE working mummy is knackered.

The Full-Time Working Mummy

This is your business-driven/career-focused woman who wants to earn enough to set her kids up for the future. She wants to be able to afford a nice house and nice things for her family and to take the kids to nice places. She also has a strong work ethic and wants to instil this in the children. This mummy feels guilty for not spending enough time with the children, but she can’t afford not to work. But to the public, this mummy is cold and uncaring, palming her kids off to ‘strangers’ at childcare institutions. She has abandoned her offspring for her own selfish needs.

You see…no matter what you do, some arsehole is going to have an opinion about it. The stay-at-home vs go-to-work debate is as dated as Simon Cowell’s elasticated waistline. Neither is better. Both are valid. What I’ve learnt over the years is that when it comes to parenting, the only opinion that matters is your own, and you should do what works best for you. And this may change over time, as circumstances change, and that’s ok. Studies show that often the person who imposes Mum Guilt on us the most, is ourself, and a reason for this is the influence of and comparison to other people. Like everything in life – childcare, education, religion, politics, Covid vaccinations(!) – everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but no one has the right to enforce their opinion on others. It’s when these third-party opinions take precedence over our thinking that it can become problematic and eat into our confidence, insecurities and self-esteem. This can be done directly (e.g. social media attacks stating how something SHOULD be, with no alternative), covertly but with intent (e.g. “oh, are you still breastfeeding? Aren’t they a bit old?”), or indirectly (e.g. the insta-perfect snapshots that fail to recognise the other 97% of life’s fuckwhittery & fails). Work, don’t work; dummy, no dummy; breastfeed or formula; nursery or childminder; whatever you choose, make sure it’s your choice, and you’ll be just fine. As for the Mum Guilt, well the fact that you are questioning yourself shows that you care. It shows that you are a good mum. And if it becomes overwhelming at times, try sharing your feelings with other parents because you can bet your bottom dollar that, like a terrible remake of a Wet Wet Wet song, guilt really is all around us. It’s normal and you’re not alone.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Chris Humphrey says:

    Love you
    Dad x


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s