How to Ditch Parent Guilt

As parents we spend almost as much time beating ourselves up as we do looking for socks. Neither is ever very fruitful but both are part of the undeniable fabric of parenthood.

The new Sleep Mums episode is five ways to help lessen that horrible ache of parent guilt. Our podcast is about baby sleep, but I have found that my own feelings of inadequacy have kept me up at night - almost as much as my kids - and because we want to help you get more sleep (and generally just feel supported and less alone) it seems like a really important thing to talk about.

As ever, we hope it helps.

The transcript for The Sleep Mums episode 14 How to Ditch Parent Guilt is below. You can also listen to The Sleep Mums podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your pods.

[Parent Guilt Transcript]

Cat: [00:00:00] Hello. By the way, you're doing brilliantly today. I'm starting this episode with a compliment because if you want to hear about ditching parent guilt, you probably need it. We spend almost as much time beating ourselves up as we do looking for socks, and neither is ever very fruitful. I'm Cat Cubie, chief investor in parent guilt and broadcaster. And this is Sarah Carpenter, mindful mama and baby sleep expert.

Sarah: [00:00:24] Other things we spend too much time doing as parents, wiping bottoms and talking about poo.

Cat: [00:00:31] Did you not want to say bums there? You were like 'wiping dirty bottoms' [laughter].

Sarah: [00:00:36] Did I go all posh?

Cat: [00:00:37] All right, Muuuum!

Cat: [00:00:42] Together we are The Sleep Mums. So parent guilt, in case you don't know, is this gross, uncomfortable ache that kind of lodges itself in your heart and then creeps into your head often in the middle of the night, and it can keep you from sleeping almost as much as a newborn. And that's why we want to talk about it. On the nights that Sarah spent with me as a client, she was as much a therapist as she was sleep expert, cuddling me with supportive words during the 3a.m. feed. So, with that in mind, we want to give you a bit of a cuddle too and share five ways to get rid of the parent guilt because, honestly, it sucks.

Cat: [00:01:20] Our first advice is really hard in this super connected world. Try not to compare yourself to others. Everywhere you look, there are mums and dads who seem to have this whole parenting malarky down. It's not new that parents like to brag about their kids, but what is, is that we're kind of bombarded by it. 'Look at my baby rolling over at two weeks', 'Look at my six month old reading Shakespeare', 'Look my kid has slept through!' *smug face*. But it's also not just a case of one way of parenting being the sole comparison, because literally, whatever you're doing, you'll probably feel guilty about one aspect of it, because there will be someone right there beside you saying they did it differently.

Sarah: [00:02:02] The advice, the conflicting opinions, you know, people really do take it all on their shoulders and then beat themselves up about this decision that they've made. And the other thing that I see so often is parents who have made one decision once for one child and then compare their own children, so then feel guilty if that same thing doesn't work for another child in their family. So it's not just the guilt around what other people are saying or doing, it's guilt within the family as well. And it just makes the whole day a battle for a lot of people.

Cat: [00:02:39] Yeah, I mean, like literally as a parent, there are around 897 decisions you need to make about or for your child on the daily. So that means 897 things that you're going to worry about choosing correctly. And then obviously if you've got more children that just multiplies. Beating yourself up about those decisions is in part about the fact that you care. But I can promise you that fretting about them will not help you be a better parent. It will not inspire you to do things differently or do it better next time. If anything, it's just going to make you feel crap and totally take away your confidence. Parent guilt only works to make you question everything you've done, are doing or might even think about in the future. And we promise you it is rubbish. You are doing your absolute best.

Cat: [00:03:28] Sarah, you must have loads and loads of stories about how her confidence affects how people parent, because that's kind of the essence of what you want to give to parents, really, isn't it?

Sarah: [00:03:40] Absolutely. I mean, my sole mission is to give people back their confidence and their ability to enjoy being parents and the confidence to make the decisions based on what's right for them and their family. But it's difficult. You know, it's difficult for people when they're in the thick of it to actually realise how connected everything is as well. And you can see, obviously, as people are becoming more and more sleep deprived, you can see their confidence is getting further and further away from them. But to them, it just becomes a vicious cycle of, you know, they're worried about the decisions that they're making so they've been up more in the night, you know. In fact, I've had a message this morning from somebody saying we had a fantastic night last night, all your advice really worked, baby slept through. But I've been up since four o'clock worrying about things so that, you know, even though they've got to the point where they wanted to be, it's still that guilt and worry that all these other decisions and all these daily parenting things are just chipping away at their confidence. And because they're sleep deprived, it just feels so much worse.

Cat: [00:04:47] Totally, and as you say, that is so common. That's why we wanted to talk about it in a podcast because once your baby's sleeping, often parent guilt or those feelings of guilt or shame or whatever it is, are the things that keep you awake. So it's important to deal with those as well. It's part of the whole parcel. What do you think from your experience you have found parents feel most guilty about or beat themselves up about the most?

Sarah: [00:05:17] Definitely not being where they think they should be as parents and as a child or baby. It comes back to the comparison thing, like Jo has said that her baby rolled over at 12 weeks old and Hannah's baby didn't roll over until nine months. And it's that just constant, you know, somebody has said this or somebody has said that. And they just cannot get on top of those feelings of guilt and failure. You know, it comes back to the failure thing. Again, it's very much parents feel like if their baby hasn't done what Google says that they should have done, then they failed. And that's not the case at all. It's trying to get across to people that every single baby is so different. And even within a family, every single baby is so different. I mean, when you compare the ages that my three all walked, people can't believe the difference in that. You know, it was like 19 months and then the second one 10 months and then the third one was almost 21 months. So they're just completely different. But for parents who are all talking, that's horrendous. You know, for some parents to hear that a child walked at 10 months, that sends them into a spiral of worry that their child isn't doing what they should be doing. And that is not the case. Every child is just completely different, needs to be supported in different ways. And they all need to learn these new skills at their own pace. And you can do that. You can support them with that, but you don't need to feel guilty about that. But, a it is obviously easier for us on the other side to be able to say that we do exactly what it's like to feel that you should be doing something more.

Cat: [00:06:58] Yeah, but I don't think that feeling goes away as a parent. I think that's true whether you have a newborn and it's about rolling over or you have a kid who's going to school or you have a teenager, those feelings... Because you want the best for them. But I think that's one of the things that we've made such a point in talking about. And it's one of the things that sets The Sleep Mums apart from other advice is how much we talk about those differences between us as individuals, between our babies and between our family set ups, because all of those things are important and acknowledging and celebrating our differences should and is a good thing. So try to remember that every time you think Jane or Jim or that lassie with 20K followers on Instagram is doing better than you, because they're not they're just different.

Cat: [00:07:48] The second thing that can help with parent guilt is asking for help. Now, I know that asking for help might make you feel like just another way you're failing. And I know that because I've been there so many times. The first was actually right before I met Sarah. I was struggling so much, but I couldn't bring myself to get in touch with her. I thought if I do, it will just show how shit I am at this whole motherhood thing. And in fact, it was my partner that contacted her and yes, you guessed it, that made me feel a million times worse. Even he thinks I'm doing a crap job. Please, can I have some guilt with a side order of shame? Thank you. But then I met Sarah and she totally put me at ease and she helped me know what to do. I wasn't a worse parent for asking for help. I was a better one because, honestly, I didn't know what to do.

Sarah: [00:08:42] You know, everybody feels like they should have this mothers or fathers instinct and they should know exactly what to do. And they are you know, they're going to be viewed as being a failure if they get help. Years ago, I worked with a client who had a very, very close antenatal group, and there was eight of them. Now that client never told anyone that she was getting help. And then another member of that antenatal group got in touch with me and they never told anyone they were getting help. By the time those babies were nine months old, six out of the eight at all had help from me, but none of them ever discussed it until the babies were 2 years old. So it just emphasized that they were all comparing themselves to each other and, you know, and very aware of the some of the babies were doing things that other babies weren't doing. But they didn't actually talk about how we don't got to that place. And it was it was just this massive amount of guilt and feeling like failures for asking for help. And then they all eventually confessed to the fact that we had help and we had a really good giggle about it. And then they all had more babies and they were all getting help straight away and it was a big laugh. But it just showed and emphasised the fact that, you know, we need to get the message out there that it's OK to ask for help. You wouldn't fix your own boiler, but everyone thinks that we should know exactly what to do with a baby.

Cat: [00:10:06] I think that, as you say, it's not just asking for help. It's trying to change that narrative about asking for help. It is not a shameful thing and you should not feel guilty about it for all of those reasons. But it's also not just asking for help from a professional like you. It's asking for help from your partner, from your neighbors, your family, your support network. If you don't ask. And I know, I know that feeling of not wanting to have to ask, like you want your partner to put the dishes in the dishwasher or wash their pants or whatever and what you don't want to have to ask them to do it. But sometimes asking is the fastest route to get what you need. And I know that can be hard when you're lacking confidence and things, but it is so important to not feel bad about it and to not feel shameful about it because we all need support.

Sarah: [00:11:03] It's also knowing what you want to ask for help with as well. Like, you know, coming back to it doesn't need to be that you're asking for help from somebody like me or you. It's the level of things too, you know, it might just be that you need somebody to come and sit outside the bathroom door for ten minutes, holding the baby right there, right at the bathroom door, talking to you the whole time so that you can have a shower. And that's OK as well. You know, it's OK to take help in very small, unusual ways. I remember my sister sat outside my flat once in the car with Harry when he was maybe six months old and she sat in the car with him for half an hour while I did the hoovering quickly and did a bit of tidying defendant. And it was ridiculous. You know, looking back, why did I not let her come in the house and sit with him? But I was just in that zone where I was, like, so overwhelmed by everything, I just needed that little bit of help. And I just needed to know that I was in that flat doing it and getting on with it on my own. And she just didn't say anything about how ridiculous it was. And she never mentioned it. She'll probably listen to this and be like, oh, yeah, that? You were totally mental! But it was fine, she helped and it was what I needed at the time. So thinking outside the box of what you need as help as well.

Cat: [00:12:18] And sometimes that help can come, as you say, you know, like from your sister, without you even having to ask for it or knowing that that's what you need. I have a similar story about a pal who came over and she came over at the kind of witching hour, or as I call it, twitching hour. And my daughter Indy was going nuts. You know, I was really struggling with her at that point. It was before I'd even heard of you... awww those sad days. And she came over and she just took one look at me and she said, I'm going to take Indy out for a walk. And she took her out and she came back because my partner was away quite a lot at the time. And the relief of having someone else just take some of those decisions away. And I was I was so anxious. I think it was probably one of the first times that I'd been away from Indy, but I just felt like I could breathe because she was crying so much at that point. And I think that's another thing. I'm sure we'll come to talk about that again. But I think often parent guilt can be connected to taking things that you need because you feel like you should be put in your child's priorities before yours all the time. And whilst, yes, of course, you need to be thinking about your child, you're their parent or their guardian, you really need to look after yourself as well to be a good parent or guardian.

Sarah: [00:13:35] And, you know, again, that can come in the really simplest ways it could just be that you've even had a bath with baby and then if there is someone else in the house, if your partner's there, they can take baby away and just leave you in the bath. You can obviously add hot water and get a glass of wine if you want, but you can just have that extra 10, 15 minutes while someone else is dressing baby. And that can be enough just to reset you ahead of that witching hour period of bedtime, that can be quite stressful. It can just be enough to take the edge off and let you get on with things. So it's been a little bit selfish in your own head for the greater good. And it isn't unselfish, it's necessary.

Cat: [00:14:17] I think it's a really hard thing to do. And I guess this is us giving you that free ticket, that hall pass to say ask for help and don't feel bad about it. A lot of the advice around parents often comes with the same idea of just letting it go, in a kind of hippy and free spirited kind of way, and we will come to that. But also, you guys are grown ups or kind of grown ups (I'm maybe like a half grown up, at a push!) and sometimes there might be something that's going on in your family life that isn't working. And actually what it is, is your intuition that's giving you that guilt vibe. So our next tip is change one thing. Look at your day. Are you stressed out? Are you run ragged, always looking after everyone else but you? Well, you're parents, so absolutely you're probably answering yes to all of those. But is there something that you think you could change that might help take away this feeling of guilt?

Sarah: [00:15:15] Of course, we always bring it back to sleep. But it's the main thing that can really change things. Obviously, we know that there's so many things with babies, feeding, etc, etc. But if you're getting sleep or if you've got that routine within your day so you at least know what's happening when, it can just make such a difference to how you feel overall. And it can really start to shelve some of the guilt that you're feeling. Initially, though, when you sort of look at the bigger picture and think, OK, this is what I need to change, whether it is the schedule that you're on or sleep in general, it can just feel so overwhelming. But actually, when you break it down, the changes are totally doable. It's building on that to get the confidence back that you need to make the changes and ditching some of the guilt to know that actually when you get some sleep, you're going to feel so much better for that.

Cat: [00:16:12] So don't go 'Ahhh I feel like naps aren't working. I'm going to change them. And bedtime's not working. I'm going to change that. And oh, you know what? Let's just throw in some weaning and maybe, I don't know, moving baby into their own room. Like you should never, ever try and do all of those things at one time because you will just break yourself.

Sarah: [00:16:31] Exactly. You need to break it down. You need to, like we've said in previous episodes, if you want to make a change at bedtime, sometimes you actually have to go back to the start of your day. And it's similar when you're looking at sleep. You're not just looking overnight. So you've got to break it down and actually change one thing at a time so it can take a period of time to make changes. But you will start to feel the confidence with each and every change working, you'll feel more confident, you'll be calmer and you'll have the stamina to keep on going.

Cat: [00:17:03] Obviously, we're talking about sleep or, you know, your schedule because that's what we like to bring it back to. But actually that changing that one thing might be trying not to be cross or trying to give yourself some more time as we've spoken about, like don't feel guilty about that. So it doesn't have to be a sleep related thing. It could literally be anything that you feel is maybe not working in your day because it might be that little noise that's going to know what something is making me feel rubbish. And it's that rather than actually guilt, when we were talking about this episode, you also mentioned that feeling of tying yourself in knots with advice and how unhelpful that can be in terms of parent guilt, too. And so I think that comes in here as well. It was really one of the reasons we wanted to start The Sleep Mums because we wanted to kind of cut through all that rubbish and make it way more more streamlined. Like, I think a lot of parenting advice ultimately just ends up making you feel like a less good parent, not a better one, because there's like guilt laced into everything. It's like if you're not achieving something, then you're a bad parent. So, I think, try not to feel overwhelmed with all the different advice out there. And I do realise that we kind of fall into that, too! So just choose one thing that you'd like to change and focus on it.

Sarah: [00:18:27] Whether it's something to do with sleep or an aspect of your parenting that you don't feel is working for you or your family, it's really important to come back to The Sleep Mum's Golden Rule. Try changing it for five days. Honestly, you will be amazed at how quickly you see a difference. But, also remember, given that we are talking about parenting guilt. Don't get tied in knots about it, and if you do find that there's a day where, you know, for example, if you've chosen to fix naps in cots on one day and it's just getting too much for you, ditch the nap, go out in the buggy, get yourself a coffee and try to zone out, don't feel like we're saying, once you've made this decision and you want to make this change, you have to keep going regardless, because we're not. We're saying it can be fixed but we also don't want to add in more parent or more worry there.

Cat: [00:19:19] Yeah, sometimes I think you can be so focused on on trying to fix things that you suck all the enjoyment out of it. And that's also something that we want to change as well, because we want you to enjoy being a parent.

Sarah: [00:19:35] Absolutely. It's so important.

Cat: [00:19:40] Our fourth thing is be your own best mate. We are always our own worst critics. We are the Simon Cowells of judgment in our heads. We make a mistake and a buzzer goes off in our heads and it doesn't stop going on until the next thing we feel we do wrong. We lose our temper. We use the wrong nappy cream and baby gets a rash. We turn our back on our one year old and he jumps off the bed and breaks his leg. Yes, these are all things that have happened in my house. And of course, I have told myself I am a terrible parent over and over again. But what do you think happened when I called Sarah and told her these things? Do you think she bollocked me and told me that I should put myself in a timeout because I was so naughty?

Sarah: [00:20:21] No, of course I didn't. We laughed and compared how both our one year olds had broken their legs and we were both terrible parents together.

Cat: [00:20:31] That's what you're joining here, guys, your part of the crap parents club.

Sarah: [00:20:36] And then we worked out, which nappy cream was going to work better. But the main thing was, we were tjere, we just had a giggle about it. Because at the end of the day, these things do happen and they happen in every household. Like, I cannot tell you how many parents have phoned me in a panic and my baby just rolled off the bed. It does happen, as much as we don't want it to and we try so hard to protect our little people. These things happen. We're just all being parents together.

Cat: [00:21:05] And it comes back to that. What I said earlier, the 897 decisions that you make on the daily for your child, it's very hard to get all of those correct. In fact, I can tell you now you will not get all of them correct. None of us will. It's impossible. All you can do is do your best, which I have absolutely no doubt that you are doing.

Cat: [00:21:26] And so, yeah, obviously, when I called you up and told you those things, you did what I would hope you would do. You were a friend to me. And you kind of need to learn to be that to yourself. So if you're ever feeling like shit or guilty or wretched over something that's happened, just do a bit of like role play - darling! - or something. And imagine what you would say to people in the same situation if they called you up and they said this thing has happened, what would you say to them? And I'm sure it would be something like, 'Don't worry about it. It happens all the time. You know, you're a good parent. You're a good person.'

Sarah: [00:22:07] Yeah. We definitely need to be kinder to ourselves as parents. It's difficult when you're dealing with so much and you do lead on more and more go. But just stop and like, you say, be a friend and imagine what you would say to somebody else.

Cat: [00:22:24] And finally, our fifffth tip, that's really hard to say [laughter] And finally, our fifth tip is because I have clearly watch too much Disney in the last few years, but Elsa did get it right. Sometimes you just need to let shit go, although I'm not sure that's strictly the Disney version. Take a breath, like a really big one, possibly even put yourself in a timeout if you're in the moment. And this is a confession that I feel kind of bad about, but I'm learning to let it go, too. Sometimes I lock myself in the bathroom when I'm feeling really cross with the kids, it saves me and it probably saves them, not because I'd do anything awful, but I just I just need that moment to take a few deep breaths and tell myself to calm down. And I feel a bit like a teenager that stormed off in a huff. But when when I've done that, I can come back and I can be clearer and I can be calmer when they're refusing to put socks on for the elevnty billionth time or whatever it is. And there is absolutely no point in hanging on to what has gone wrong. Learn from it. Absolutely. Should I try and get them to put their shoes on or their socks on differently? Yeah, I can. But there's no point beating myself up about the fact that I didn't and I got mad about it. You just need to put the past in the past.

Sarah: [00:23:47] You absolutely do every day is a new day and as much as, you know with babies, a lot of my advice is routine based, take each day as it comes. You are going to have days where everything works and everything is perfect and you have the most amazing day. You're also going to have days where nothing works. They're not robots. They don't want to sleep at the time that you want them to sleep. They don't want to do this. You're ready and about to walk out the door and then they do a massive poonami. These things are going to happen always. Just remember, that is one day and tomorrow is a fresh day and you just have to let it go. And you also have to let you see learn from it. So you will have the massive arguments about getting shoes and socks on and things like that, but try so hard to think about the behavior, you know, it's far better to actually like you say walk away and lock yourself in the bathroom for 10 minutes or 10 seconds, whatever you need that is going to result in a calmer exit from the house because you haven't got wound up and lost it. So it's just thinking about what you can do. And another thing that I really struggled with; so this was actually a little bit of advice a friend gave me...

Cat: [00:25:01] What! The incredible, amazing Sarah was given advice? I don't believe it!

Sarah: [00:25:07] So my friend reads she reads a lot, and I remember saying to her, you know, how do you do it?Do you just stay up all night and read books all the time. She was like, no, but when the children are playing, I'll read a book. I just couldn't get my head around it. And I was like, you know, I would feel so guilty for doing that. And she was like, But you've always told me that, you know, you don't need to play with them 24/7. They need to learn how to play by themselves and things like that. And I was like, well, yeah, I've just never actually taken that advice. And then the next time the children were all sitting playing happily, I just picked up a book and I just read and I was like wow....!

Cat: [00:25:40] And then they started jumping all over you. And they're like, no, we're not allowing you free time.

Sarah: [00:25:45] Yeah, I mean, it didn't last long. And again, it was just that little bit of doing something for me that made me feel more relaxed, which then allowed the next part of the day to flow a little bit better. So it doesn't you know, we're talking about sort of doing things for yourself and taking a little time out and things. It doesn't need to be massive. It can be quite small, but it's just remembering that each section of every day is one thing and it can change in a heartbeat.

Cat: [00:26:11] I think I mentioned before I've been having a little bit of difficulty with my five year old and bedtime, things like that, partly, I think probably from starting school and lots of different stresses going on. But I was also getting really wound up. It was the end of the day. I was tired and, honestly, I just wanted her to go to bed and we were escalating this situation because, you know, the more she like, the more extras she wanted, the more wound up I got, which I know was a bad thing. But this is what we're talking about... I'm like, I'm such a bad parent. But I just decided to try and take it down. So we started listening to an audio book, rather than me reading her story, which I love doing. And books are important to me but we started listening to an audio book and having a snuggle on the bed and somehow it just brought it all down again. So it's a wee bit like what you're saying, you know, you take that onus off you. And I think she actually, even though I'm I'm not the one reading to her, she sort of gets more of my attention because we're having a cuddle. And it's weird, like on the one hand you might say, oh, well, that's me not doing a thing that I should be doing, if you like. I should be reading to her. How lazy of me but by taking it all down, we're having a much nicer end of the day and it's helping with bedtime. So, like, maybe I've jumped away from letting things go, but in some ways I haven't, because actually it's about letting expectations go as well.

Sarah: [00:27:40] It absolutely as a client that I've been working with this week, actually in bed, same battles the last three nights, her 3 year old has fallen asleep on the floor at the door. The first night she was a bit like this just feels really wrong. And then once she'd sort of picked him up and popped him into bed, we had a chat and she was like, actually, that's the calmest, bedtime because I didn't get wound up. I just stood at the door. He didn't get wound up there he just sat on the floor next to me and then he fell asleep. And so everything did just calm down, it felt very alien for her that she was letting her baby - toddler - fall asleep on the floor because it calmed everything down, after two or three nights of that happening, he was then comfortable to get into his bed and fall asleep on his bed. And it just took all the anxiety and the anger out of the situation. So it is changing the way you view things to get a better result.

Cat: [00:28:36] And that is exactly it. Sometimes you just gotta [Cat sings in the style of Disney's Frozen] Let shit go... Let shit go! Sorry! [laughter]

Cat: [00:28:47] So that's five ways to help you ditch the parent guilt. Here's another wee extra thought that might help, too, though. We all feel like this. Literally all of us, even those insta perfect parents or the mama at playgroup who wears makeup and lovely clothes are never covered in spit up. The dad who seems super relaxed and his kids always do what he says. All of us are battling the guilt. I know that doesn't necessarily make it better, but it might make you see it for what it is. Some sort of perfect ideal that we have totally made up in our heads the fantasy of what parenthood might look like. And honestly, it's not smooth and lovely and calm. It's messy and complicated and you are a human and you will cock things up. I'm sorry, but you will. And I will. And learning to deal with that and showing your kids how to cope with making mistakes is going to be healthier for you as a family long term than some sort of crazy benchmark that neither you nor them can ever achieve because it just doesn't exist.

Cat: [00:29:50] And what's more, the fact that you're worrying about this already tells me you're a good parent because you're trying to do the best you can for you and your child or your children. I can also promise you that whatever happens, you will be a better parent next month, then a better parent next year and in five years time because we are all learning on the job. This episode wasn't about sleep directly, but we care about finding ways to help you all sleep better. And that includes parents as well as babies. The guilt was largely what kept me up at night, long after my son had started sleeping through. Like the parent we talked about earlier in the episode. I wasn't in a great place mentally and I totally beat myself up nightly for all the things I had done wrong. By focusing on the advice we've shared, I have managed to let a lot of it go. I still get the guilts, but I'm learning to deal with them better. And you will too.

Cat: [00:30:40] Look after yourself and sleeps soon.

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