Stop telling us to get over our mum guilt

mum and toddler

When my son was 11 months old, he fell down a flight of stairs. And I’m not talking one or two steps, it was a full 15-stair flight. The worst part about the whole thing: I was checking an email at the time.

Here’s how it happened …

Every morning, my son and I go for a little stroll down the road. Sometimes I’ll get a coffee. Sometimes we’ll just enjoy the sunshine. When we return home, I wedge the door open, manoeuvre the pram around the tight corner and promptly park it in its resting spot. My son, itching to get out, is unstrapped and off he goes. Some days I’ll tidy up a bit while he plays, other times I’ll play with him and sometimes I’ll head to the kitchen to sort out his snacks and lunch. That particular day, my phone pinged. I glanced down and started to type a reply. And then a shrill scream pierced through the building.

It’s not unusual for my son to wander around our home, flitting from room to room to see what will spark his interest. It’s also not unusual for him to get himself stuck in weird nooks and crannies that no one else would even think to enter. I raced around the apartment trying to find him before I stopped, frozen. I had left the front door open.

When I got to the top of the stairs, there he was, right at the bottom. Crocodile tears seeping from his eyes, his face bright red from the screaming and his little arms reaching up for me to come and get him. If a heart could break into a million tiny pieces, mine was most definitely shattered.

We were both shocked

When I scooped him up, his crying stopped. It’s kind of how I knew he wasn’t hurt that badly. In fact, I think it was the shock more than anything. For both of us.

As I cradled him in my arms, wiping away his tears, I couldn’t stop saying sorry. Over and over and over again. I prodded and pressed at every point where he may have been hurt and he barely flinched. And while this comforted me slightly, emotionally, things took a lot longer to get better.

That night over dinner, I couldn’t stop replaying things. Why didn’t I close the door? Why did I check my email? Why wasn’t I watching him? And while my husband tried to reassure me that it wasn’t my fault, it most certainly was.

I left the door open. I checked my email. I wasn’t watching him.

Rationally, I told myself, this was bound to happen. The mere fact that it took 11 months for my son to hurt himself to this capacity is actually a miracle. Especially because he has two big cousins who love nothing more than rough and tumble play. But what element of motherhood is rational?

The guilt still plagues me

To this day, I still feel exceptionally guilty. It was my son’s first big fall. And I was responsible. Sure, he’s had a few falls off the bed since then, a couple of falls off the couch and a face-plant onto tiled floor. In fact, just recently he had an almighty argument with the pavement and has a nasty graze on his forehead and nose.

But it’s that first one that will get you. Every time.

Everyone I know told me not to feel guilty about it. Things like this will happen, sure, but that doesn’t mean mothers don’t have a right to feel what they feel. In my case, I felt exceptionally guilty that I was checking a work email at the time. When I went back to work I promised myself that my ‘work hours’ would only be when my son was sleeping. However, smartphones and the constant connectivity of today mean that this was never going to happen. Whenever an email, a call or a message comes through, it’s human nature to glance at the phone.

I broke a promise to myself

I promised myself that when I was with my son, I was with my son – no work. Yet, somehow, I broke that promise. I checked the email. And he fell down a flight of stairs.

Mum-guilt is real and it’s something that most, if not all, mums deal with. Whether you feel guilty because you’re working, guilty because you’re sending your child to daycare or guilty because you’ve stolen an hour to get your hair done; mum-guilt is a legitimate thing. And while there are times that it’s definitely not necessary to feel guilty (hello grabbing a massage!), there are times when your guilt is founded. It gets worse when your child needs more of your attention. The start of a new care situation, developmental leaps, sicknesses. But here’s the thing, mum guilt will always be there. It’s pretty much a fact of life. Because there are times when you’ll feel guilty for not being with your child, and times when you’ll feel guilty that you’re not at work, or doing the household chores, or hanging out with your other child.

Know that it’s okay and normal

The best thing to do is recognise that it’s okay to feel guilty. In fact, that enormous feeling of guilt made me actually put my phone in the other room when I’m with my son. So really, I have guilt to thank for the quality mummy-son time we’ve had since.  

Needless to say, my husband and I prioritised teaching our son how to go up and down the stairs from that moment on. It’s now his favourite past-time. And we’re getting fitter everyday chasing him.

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