Feeling Shame in Parenting: Share Your Experience

By Julia Caldwell

“Are you sure she’s hungry again? Didn’t you just feed her?”

“Don’t you think your baby is wearing too many clothes? Won’t he be too hot?”

“You should put the baby down, otherwise she will never be independent”.

“You know, if you don’t teach her to share/sleep/have manners/eat healthy foods, he will never learn”

Being a parent is hard. Really hard. Nothing can prepare you for the intense joy and the equal degree of exhaustion that comes with having a baby. Advice on how to be a “good mum”, whether solicited or not, is everywhere. Look up a mums’ forum online and enter at your own peril. In the shame-filled pressure cooker of the early postnatal period, even well-intentioned advice (like the suggestions given above) can feel like personal attacks and criticism. 

Shame, in Gilbert’s model of compassion-focussed therapy, is defined as the negative evaluation of one’s self as bad, unworthy, inferior, or undesirable, and underpins a wide range of psychological symptoms. This is like a critical relationship that mums can have with themselves (internal shame), seeing themselves as a bad or not good enough mother. Perhaps, more painfully, we can also feel shamed by others (external shame), where we believe we are viewed as such in the eyes of other people – especially those we look up to, such as other mums who seem to have it “altogether”. Although mums can have internal and external shame, this isn’t the case for everyone. Although most mums can relate to an experience of being externally shamed by others, this does not necessarily mean they will develop an internal sense of shame as a mum.

The use of mindfulness, acceptance, and compassion is shown to powerfully counteract the poisonous effects of shame. Mindfulness and acceptance helps us to build present moment awareness, and attend to what is happening in the “here and now”, rather than getting “fused” with, or “hooked” by, shameful and self-critical thoughts about one’s capacity as a mum. Compassion allows mums to rest in kindness in the present moment, facilitating greater acceptance of shame-based thoughts and actions that might keep us stuck in a relentless struggle with our experience as a mum. From this standpoint of compassion and kindness, we can find it in ourselves to turn towards, rather than away from, the pain and shame that comes with caring deeply for others. We can then move towards compassionate, and effective, values-guided action on how we want to be as a mum, enriching our relationships with a sense of connection, warmth, and inclusiveness.

We are currently investigating the experience of shame, and the benefits of compassion, in Australian mothers. If you are pregnant (third trimester), and would like to be involved with our research project, please click here to find out more and to participate in our survey: https://survey.app.uq.edu.au/CompassionateMums.survey. We also encourage you to share the survey with anyone you know who is pregnant (third trimester).

About the Author

Julia Caldwell: Clinical Psychologist, PhD Student, School of Health and Rehabilitation Science, UQ

Julia Caldwell is a Clinical Psychologist and a PhD Student at the School of Health and Rehabilitation Science at The University of Queensland. She has worked as a Psychologist since 2008, and a Clinical Psychologist since 2014. Her clinical and research interests are in perinatal health; specifically, shame, compassion, and psychological health in this period.

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