• Is feeling guilty just part of parenting? Psychotherapist and author Anna Mathur doesn't think it has to be

  • Here's her three-step guide for managing guilt and warding off shame

  • If you are struggling as a parent, find a therapist here

‘Oh well, mum guilt is just a part of motherhood’ we laughed. I sipped tepid coffee with new friends, babies in buggies in varying states of doziness. But as motherhood progressed, and I added more to my brood, so did the reasons to feel guilty. 

Guilt for how I had chosen to do things, guilt for what didn’t seem to go as I believed it should, guilt for letting them down, guilt for failing. Guilt just became the background buzz to parenting, and I’d accepted it as I would a finger-pointing bully.

There must be another way 

One day, in the pandemic as I sat to try and write some of a book within the chaos of juggling my three children, the reasons to feel guilty seemed endless. Waves of guilt were pulling me into a turbulent storm of failure and shame. 

I thought, there has to be another way. Being a psychotherapist, and loving a tip and a tool, I set about to create something I could use to relieve the constant feeling of guilt. I created a three-step technique to use for every form of guilt, and I am going to share it with you!

When guilt turns into shame

You see, when we don’t address that guilty feeling of ‘I’ve missed the bar, I’ve failed, that didn’t go as I planned’, it can landslide into shame. Guilt says ‘I failed at that’, whereas shame makes a huge, damning statement about the entirety of who you are. Shame says ‘I am a failure’. When we repeatedly let our guilt morph into shame, we risk damaging our self-esteem, our confidence and our identity. 

Consider how your child would feel if they dropped something and instead of ‘oh dear, that didn’t quite work out, did it?’, you said ‘you’re rubbish, you can’t do anything right’. That first response is an observation about what happened, the second is a criticism of who they are. The first response invites exploration of what happened, it leaves things open to learning or response. Whereas ‘you can’t do anything right’ labels someone as ‘bad’, and where can you go from there?

When you feel mum guilt, you have the opportunity to explore what happened and what you might do next. When you let guilt move into shame, instead of seeing a problem to explore, you believe you are the problem.

See guilt as a red flag

I want you to begin to see feelings of guilt as a little red flag that pops up for your attention, or the warning light that flashes upon the dashboard of your car. Don’t ignore it, turn your attention towards it. 

There are two types of guilt. The first is justified guilt. This guilt arises when you’ve done something wrong or failed somehow. Perhaps you shouted at your child and you’d rather you’d responded differently in that moment. 

The second type of guilt is unjustified guilt. I have worked with many mothers who have battled with unjustified guilt. This guilt isn’t theirs to carry. Maybe they feel immense guilt because they struggled to get pregnant, and now they have their child, they are shaming themselves for the natural feelings of exhaustion and overwhelm that come with parenting. I’ve worked with mothers who’ve felt guilt for not having the birth or parenting journey they expected they would, and have taken blame upon themselves.

If you acknowledge that you’re feeling this unjustified type of guilt, please do speak it through with a therapist, trusted friend or family member so that in time you can let it go, along with all the associated feelings of shame

So, here is my three-step ACT technique for you to move through next time you feel a wave of mum guilt swell inside of you.

Step 1: Address

Name the guilt out loud. ‘I feel guilty for losing it with my kids this morning’’.

Step 2: Compassion

Offer yourself some kind and understanding words, as you would a friend. This isn’t about absolving yourself of responsibility, but it’s an acknowledgement of your humanness. This step is vitally important if you are to ensure that your feeling of guilt doesn’t move into the dangerous, self-esteem destroying shame. 

In our example of losing it with my kids, I might say ‘I was tired and burnt out from juggling too much. I only have so much patience to give, and things were stressful’.

Step 3: Tweak

If guilt is there as a little flag or prompt, rather than a pointing finger, then what might it be prompting you to do? Might it be prompting you to seek support, a resource, a break or a chat? 

In our example, I might think ‘my guilt is prompting me to find some way to refuel somehow, I am going to go for a walk and rant to a friend, and then speak to my boss about my current capacity’.

Living a guilt-free motherhood

Now, I’m not saying I never experience guilt any more. Guilt has a purpose, it prompts us to learn, to be teachable, to apologise and to accept our humanness by lowering the bar of expectation sometimes. 

But, what I am saying, is that when we don’t address guilt, it impacts our life in a deep and wide way. We can feel undeserving of good things, we can hold back on important acts of self-care, our inner critic can take precedence in our minds. 

Next time you feel guilt, acknowledged it, move through the ACT technique, and let it go. It has served its purpose. You are not a bad person, you are an imperfect parent, in an imperfect world, doing your best to bring up imperfect children. 

Anna Mathur is the author of Raising a Happier Mother

Further reading

How to help your child manage big emotions

My mental health tips for new mothers

Should parents step back from rescuing their children?

4 steps for a good night's sleep with young children

How EMDR helped me recover from birth trauma