Whether you’re a biological parent, foster parent, adoptive parent, stepparent, legal guardian, or care giver of any kind for a child, there’s often no escaping the feeling of guilt at some point in your parenting journey. So, if that’s something you’ve experienced, you are definitely not alone!
Parent guilt is very real and can really impact both the way we feel as parents and the decisions we go on to make.
This article will explore what parent guilt is, why we might experience it, and how we might manage it differently.
What is parent guilt?
Parent guilt is that feeling that lots of parents experience from time to time that might cause us to feel like we’re not doing “enough” as parents, or that we’re not doing things right. Sometimes parent guilt can be triggered when we’ve not done anything wrong at all. It can lead to great distress and may even increase feelings of anxiety, sadness, and even anger towards ourselves. These difficult feelings can affect sleep, appetite, and general mood, too.
Please note that parent guilt in this context is really different from feeling remorseful about something we might genuinely have done that we want or need to make amends for. Remorse reflects on how we can repair wrongdoing, whereas guilt alone (when it’s attached to that feeling of wanting to be ‘more’ or do ‘more’ rather than a genuine need to make amends) is often focused inwards and might channel self-blame rather than repairing something that needs to be repaired. It might be the voice that says, “you’re a bad parent” rather than “how can we do things differently?” or “how can we manage this?”
So, why do we feel guilty?
There could be a whole host of reasons that contribute to your individual guilt. These could include:
- Factors from your own childhood experience
- The relationship you have with your parents or caregivers
- Working patterns
- Past trauma/difficult experiences that have affected you or your children (e.g. drug or alcohol misuse, domestic violence, separation/divorce, housing or financial issues)
The driver behind most parental guilt is a sense of wanting to do a good job. However, that can at times bring a lot of pressure and expectation. As a result, sometimes the parents we aspire to be can feel different to our reality.
This can be influenced by lots of things, including:
- Social media and the portrayal of “perfect” parents and families – Social media has many positives, but the ways in which people portray themselves in photos, blogs, and posts and discussion threads in specific groups means that we see an edited version of family life and parenting, rather than a true reality. Of course, this is not always the case, but it can unfortunately contribute to the unrealistic expectations that parents put on themselves.
- Generational changes – It often feels like people today think more about their role as a parent than ever before. Possibly because there’s such an array of information out there and so many ways to access it. That need to be a certain type of parent and to be “good enough” can be very much part of the generation we live in right now. It lives in the conversations we have with others, the books we read, the podcasts we listen to, the programmes we watch, and even the things we google at 3am! That’s not to say that previous generations cared any less, but advice and support about parenting is now more accessible and visible than ever before, which can be both helpful and overwhelming (and anxiety provoking), too.
- Expectations from people around us This might include family members, friends, or other parents at school or in the community. The expectations we feel from others whether directly or indirectly can have a huge impact on how we feel as parents.
Look what parent guilt made us do!
Parent guilt can cause us to have lots of self critical niggling thoughts and feelings and sometimes make changes or do things that are not all that helpful at all. Let’s take a closer look using some examples from the parents we spoke to recently.
Overcompensating because of your own experiences
“I didn’t get a lot for Christmas when I was a child, so I totally overcompensated with my children when I became a single mum. One year, my living room looked like a grotto, and my kids – who were both under five at the time – were so overwhelmed with the mountain of gifts, they cried. The lesson for me was that I didn’t need to go overboard because of my own experience. Gifts don’t make holidays memorable; it’s all the little things that we do. The bedtime rituals, the stories before bed, the chance to play all day with people you love. Christmas is more than gifts.” ~ G
Changing the rules
“My child spends half the week with her mum and half with me, as we separated a few years ago. I feel guilty about not being able to work things out with her mum, and even though I know we’re much happier now, it doesn’t stop the guilt from creeping in sometimes. I find when she’s with me, I’m less boundaried than I would be if we all lived together still. Bedtimes are later, unhealthy snacks are increased, and I say yes to things more often than I should. I am working on [it] – it’s…really hard!” ~ K
Doing too much
“I work full time, which in itself creates so much guilt. I feel guilty if I work when the kids are around, which has been impossible over the last year or so. Because of my working hours, I have to use a childminder, which makes me feel even more guilty – so, I spend my spare time doing far too much to make up for it. I arrange playdates, extravagant birthday parties, and buy things I don’t need to. It stems from the guilt of not always being around, but it also makes me exhausted, and I forget to take care of myself sometimes. I feel like I never get a break, as there’s always something else to do.” ~ H
“I feel guilty a lot of the time. I ask myself, ‘Did I say the right thing, do the right thing, could I have done things differently?’ It, of course, comes from a good place of wanting to be a good parent. But the pressure doesn’t put me in a good place at all. It sometimes keeps me up at night, which then ultimately makes me feel tired and irritable, which I then feel more guilty about. The cycle of guilt never seems to go away.” ~ L
So, what can we do about all this guilt?!
While we know that parent guilt is this silent feeling that eats away at many of us, just what can we do about it? Here’s a few ideas from the parents we spoke to.
Take care of yourself
Sometimes, we can be so busy taking care of our children, we forget about ourselves. Practising some self-care can help us have a breather, recharge our batteries, and gain some perspective by taking the focus off our children for a minute and on to ourselves.
“One day a month, I go and get my nails done. It’s just for me, I go alone, and it’s just the right amount of time away from the kids and [of] self-care that tells me that I’m important, too.” ~J
Talk to other parents
Often, talking to other parents can give you perspective and help you to feel less alone, too.
“I can be having the most awful day, but talking to other parents – even if it’s on Whatsapp – can often have me laughing out loud when five minutes earlier I was crying or feeling guilty about working too much or something else. Knowing that so many other parents feel like me is such a comfort.” ~ A
Switch that guilty self-talk
When you spend a lot of time in your own head, saying things like, “You need to do more”, or “You’re not good enough”, it can make you feel inadequate as a parent. So, reminding yourself of the parent (and person) you are can give you a different perspective.
“When I’ve had a particularly guilty day, I find practising a positive mantra really helps. I might say, ‘You are doing your best’, ‘You’re being a role model for your children’, [or] ‘You are enough’. Sounds simple, but it’s much more helpful than the other negative things I tell myself that stem from guilt.” ~S
Remember that parenting is NOT easy sometimes!
And finally, it’s important to remember that parenting is something we are all learning about, wherever we are in our journey. It’s okay not to get things right all the time, because parenting is a work in progress. And even when we think we’ve cracked it, something else can happen that we have to work on. So, whatever has happened today or whatever has kept you awake at night, just remember that you are enough.
We all struggle from time to time. This is completely normal. If you feel that you need help and are in crisis, head here to see a list of organisations that can help. Alternatively, if you feel able to, share your worries and questions with trusted friends or family. Your GP is also available, so if you are feeling in need of more support, do consider making an appointment with your local doctor. Remember, you are not alone.
There are lots of parenting support communities online filled with help advice from professionals and parents too. Here are just a few you might find useful:
General parenting communities
- Mumsnet – The UK’s best-know parenting website
- Bounty – If you have young children, you might remember your free bounty pack when you became pregnant. This parenting network offers specialist information from midwives, doctors, and parenting experts too
- Babycentre – An online community to help you from pregnancy and into parenthood.
For families who have children with additional needs
- Contact – A charity that helps families with disabled children
- The Autistic Society – An organisation offering information for families with autistic children
Baby loss support organisations
- Sands – A stillbirth and neonatal death charity
- Bliss – Support for families with babies born premature or sick
- The Miscarriage Association – Support for those affected by miscarriage
By Gemma Campbell