Guilt and motherhood: life’s sad package deal

Ellen and her daughter as a baby

Ellen and her daughter as a baby - Credit: Archant

Ellen Widdup’s escape to the country

GUILT is the default setting for most mothers.

We set ourselves impossibly high standards we invariably fail to meet.

When my daughter was born five years ago I felt guilty about wanting to quit work. Two months of sleepless nights later, I felt guilty for wishing I could return to the office.

I felt guilty for failing to keep up with marking the milestones in her baby book; for using the TV as a babysitter; for feeding her chips when she was six months old.

As I filled my bin with disposable nappies I felt terrible about being environmentally unfriendly.

I felt bad for sleeping when she napped; for rarely finding enough time to read to her; for thinking playdough and finger painting immensely boring; for letting her wear pyjamas all day when I was too tired to get her dressed.

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I felt guilty that she didn’t have a sibling to play with; but then, when I had my son, I felt guilty I had to divide my time between them.

A recent study revealed a staggering 87% of mothers feel guilty at some point, with a quarter admitting they feel this way “most” or “all” of the time.

More than 60% said they had been made to feel guilty about their parenting because of something someone else said.

I know all about this.

In fact, my first experience of maternal guilt – three days after my daughter was born – was thrust upon me for this very reason.

I had suffered a severe and rare allergic reaction in my final week of pregnancy.

The result was an itchy, inflamed rash that covered my body from my neck to my toes.

The day after I gave birth I was in so much discomfort I could barely hold my newborn. Finally a doctor decided the only option was a course of steroids – the downside being that I had to temporarily stop breastfeeding.

I was told to express my milk while I took the medication and supplement with formula in the meantime.

“Your baby is going to get used to that bottle now,” a midwife told me, shaking her head. “You will probably not be able to sustain her if you return to breastfeeding. You just won’t produce enough and she will starve.”

And, just like that, I felt like a terrible failure.

After the medication stopped I tried to ditch the formula with a period of combined feeding – breast at night and bottle in the day – but my daughter was having none of it.

Every week I would trudge along to the baby clinic, where the health visitors would frown as I got out a bottle and ask pointed questions about how much effort I was putting into re-establishing the breastfeeding.

I felt miserable and their insensitivity was overwhelming.

I turned to the National Childbirth Trust for advice but a well-meaning but completely clueless representative told me in no uncertain terms that “every single woman can breastfeed if she tries hard enough”.

Websites such as Mumsnet were not much help either.

It was there that I encountered a particularly unpleasant faction of the pro-breastfeeding mafia who only added to my crushing sense of disappointment.

Eventually I found a group of mothers at a toddler group who were supportive and sympathetic, and I stopped beating myself up about it.

And gradually, as my daughter’s milk diet was replaced with a variety of orange and green purees I put the whole horrible mess out of my mind.

But quite out of the blue, those feelings of inadequacy flared up again last week when I read Save the Children’s Superfood for Babies report.

It recommended formula milk be plastered with cigarette-style health warnings informing mums that “breast is best”.

Listen, I am not against breastfeeding. I would have dearly loved to have breastfed my child.

I am fully aware that breast milk is good for a baby and that the first milk – called colostrums – is packed full of antibodies that help kickstart a newborn’s immune system.

But while I understand why the World Health Organisation recommends you exclusively breastfeed your baby for the first six months, I also believe that in a first-world country such as Britain, where water is clean and we understand the importance of sterilising, formula milk is a perfectly acceptable option.

I do not think women who choose to use it – for whatever reason – should be demonised.

The suggestion for adding health warnings on formula packets seems to me to be a way to make millions of mothers feel worse than they already do.

Which brings me back to the guilt of motherhood.

I think the mixed messages we get bombarded with are largely to blame for this particular burden.

Send a child to nursery, they will be more sociable; keep them at home, they flourish with one-to-one care. Ban sugar, it kills brain cells; don’t ban it, they will want it more.

The kids of working mothers are less confident; the kids of stay-at-home mothers don’t mix. Breastfed babies are healthier, bottle-fed babies are more intelligent.

Study after study, research after research, all of it fuelling our tired, guilty souls.

My mother once told me that guilt was a necessary part of parental evolution. That the extra worry made us better at the job.

I believe her.

After all, the fact remains that despite the fact that mother is always beating herself up in the blame game, when push comes to shove she knows what is best for her child. Mum is always right.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Please drop me an email to or find me on Twitter @EllenWiddup.