Oh mum guilt. Stepmum guilt. How I loathe thee.

Why is a woman’s worth still so tied up in how consumed she is by her family? Why do we judge ourselves and each other on our abilities as a homemaker and child carer?

Mum/Stepmum guilt is the anxiety, nervousness or fear that we’re somehow falling short of the expectations placed on us as mothers or stepmothers. These expectations could be other people’s, or they could be our own – maybe manifesting themselves because of the social media ideal, or through comparing ourselves to the people we know.

It might make you feel heavy, full of dread, or panicky and wanting to fix whatever the issue is immediately.

It can be a short term “oh no, I didn’t put the biscuit jar high enough again” to a longer term “oh my god, she knows not a WORD of French” (although maybe we should all feel guilty about that one).

This is an approximate definition because the dictionary doesn’t yet contain one. It’s probably only a matter of time before mum/stepmum guilt appears on the “new words” list, but before they do we have a golden opportunity to expunge these concepts from our collective consciousness before they can further damage our female population. And here is why.

The first time I experienced stepmum guilt

Hark back to before I had even met my stepdaughter. Her father and I were out having a really great time together at a cocktail bar (a really great time); think there was a live trumpet… he was teaching me how to jive.

The thought suddenly popped into my head that I shouldn’t be having fun. A little brain gremlin was whispering at me that we should be sat at home, talking about my stepdaughter, missing her, and not having any fun until she was around again.

My partner was going through some fairly severe parental alienation at the time, and life was not easy. It didn’t make any logical sense for us to be miserable in all areas of our life together, but I still couldn’t help feeling enormously guilty about the fact that we weren’t.

There was some innate fear in me that my maternal instincts weren’t strong enough, or obvious enough. I was suddenly very conscious of my happiness being judged. “How can she laugh like that when there’s a little girl living without her father?”

What do you feel guilty about?

GootoKnow undertook a survey of 900 mothers back in 2017, and an unbelievable 78% of mothers said they “feel guilty”, with 68% of them saying that this guilt arises once or twice a day. I don’t know why this is surprising though. As I write, my own son is bouncing away in his bouncy chair with a look of complete joy on his face, and I’m feeling guilty just for the fact that I’m watching him over the top of my laptop. I know, I’m even annoying myself.

It takes no great leap of imagination to see how stepmothers fall victim to a similar guilt pattern. You might feel guilty because:

  • you decided to have a haircut on your weekend with the stepchildren;
  • you have no motivation to cook that three course dinner the family expects on a Sunday;
  • your stepchild wanted to take a particular soft toy back to their mum’s, and you forgot to remind them; or
  • you’ve had to discipline your stepchild and, although it’s for their own good, it did not go down well.

More recently I experienced stepmum guilt in a park, as I strongly encouraged my enthusiastic stepdaughter to run to a tree and back whilst I finished having an adult conversation. To add insult to injury she asked me to count as she ran, and I stopped when she was out of earshot… oh the humanity!

You could come up with your own list a thousand pages long. In fact, why don’t you? It might help to illustrate this point to you; that this guilt does not serve you, nor womankind in general, and it’s time to get rid of it.

There is a very strong chance that you are doing absolutely nothing wrong

Looking at mum guilt specifically for a second; the founder of the Fifth Trimester, Lauren Smith Brody, undertook her own survey of 700+ working mothers in the US. Her research found that, whilst there was a huge range of emotions felt by the woman about going back to work 12 weeks after the birth of their children, guilt was a common thread.

The specifics of the guilt varied, but it seemed to Lauren that across the spectrum the women hadn’t actually done anything wrong. They had balanced the difficult scenario of rubbish maternity packages against the need to provide for their family, the importance of their career against caring for their small child. They had made compromises in various different ways and they were all taking positive action. So why were they feeling guilty?

Stepmothers, then. Could you name a more self-deprecating bunch of well meaning people? I have yet to meet a stepmother who doesn’t feel a huge range of complex emotions, whilst also beating herself up about all of them. Add this to the fact that we’re navigating an undefined role, leaving a void for us to fill with our own high expectations of ourselves, and you’ve got a recipe for complete guilt-ridden burnout.

It’s no wonder that anxiety rate amongst stepmothers is significantly higher than amongst mothers. Although even the fact that we’re comparing the two shows that there is a reportable rate amongst both groups of people – and perhaps we should be addressing female anxiety in general. But I digress.

Where has this guilt come from?

Here’s a fun stat for you:

“Globally, 75% of unpaid work is done by women, who spend between three and six hours per day on it compared to men’s average of thirty minutes to two hours. This imbalance starts early (girls as young as five do significantly more household chores that their brothers) and increases as they get older.

Caroline Criado Perez – Invisible Women

Reading this stat I want to take all of womenkind collectively by the shoulders and give us a good solid shake.

This is why we feel guilty! Generations and generations of women around the world being expected to behave in a certain way, to feel obliged to be the homemaker and child carer, and to complete this unpaid work regardless of anything else they have going on in their lives.

This expectation is so engrained that women have fallen into the trap of thinking that their worth is defined by their ability to carry this out, and that their needs don’t matter.

And if you want to be really cynical about it, it’s an easy way to control your female population – keep them so busy, and so knackered, that they don’t have the time nor the energy to question the status quo. The Man stays on top, and all is right with the world.

It’s so damaging because

… aside from the fact that it can become all consuming, dampening our enthusiasm, our confidence and our happiness, it’s thoroughly untrue that a woman’s worth depends on her ability to change a nappy in the optimal way.

Or to instinctively know how to be gentle but firm with a child who isn’t biologically hers.

Or to automatically and unthinkingly put off that haircut for the fifth time in a row, in order to accompany her stepchild to yet another party that she probably isn’t actually very welcome at anyway.

By personifying this guilt with a name, and accepting it as a normal part of what we do as stepmothers, we’re accepting that our worth is tied up in how we compare with other stepmothers (or, even worse, biological mothers). Even more than this, if our stepchildren are unhappy with us for whatever reason, our guilt reduces us down to the sum total of their feelings about us. If they think we’re evil, we are evil. If they think we’re mean, we must be mean.

It’s fine to feel guilty because, say, you did a Cinderella and locked poor Jimmy in the basement for the day (that’s probably more remorse, anyway). But it’s not fine to feel guilty because your own needs as a person are still very much present, and very much need to be attended to.

How can we stop it

“The real problem with ‘having it all’ for a lot of women is it means ‘doing it all.’ And the fact is, none of us can do it all alone. We need support. It really does take a village.”

Katrina Alcorn – quoted in Huffington Post

The beauty of being a stepmother, and it is a real beauty, is that we get to decide what the role means for us. It is entirely undefined, and changes from family to family.

Speaking from personal experience, it wasn’t until I had sat down with my partner and talked about the guilt I was feeling that I started to deal with it. We made my own Guilt List, and went through each one and rationalised it down. The side effect of this was that we had started to nail down what sort of a stepmother I was going to be, for example:

  • being there when my stepdaughter was with her father was great, but actually it was good for her father to have his own alone time. Occasionally looking after myself on our weekends on allowed him that space, and it gave him back the energetic, cheerful woman he wanted to be with in the first place;
  • the discipline was primarily his role, and we would feel our way through scenarios together to avoid me running off on a frolic of my own and feeling guilty about the outcomes; and
  • the same with communication with his Ex. If hearing about their communication was making me anxious, I didn’t need to feel guilty about not asking what was said. Likewise, if I did want to be included, that didn’t make me a monster.

Other mum-specific blogs I’ve seen suggest yoga or meditation. That is probably more effective at coping with the anxiety arising from the guilt than the guilt itself, but that’s not to say that it isn’t helpful. Whatever makes you feel good, stepmamma!

Ultimately if you can pinpoint the cause of the guilt, and agree that a) that the guilt is illogical, and b) what you’re going to do about it on a practical, day to day basis, your chances of kicking that brain gremlin out for good are much higher.


What is on your Guilt List? Have you managed to kick the brain gremlin? Head over to the message box and tell me your stories – I would love to hear from you.

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