There is a social media conceit that all of us with children are terrible mothers. I have lost count of all the times I have seen friends publically describe their mothering as poor, often accompanied by use of the hashtag #badmummy. Typing the term into the search field brings up the type of “bad” behavior of the average Twitter mum:

Oh, and I forgot the pumpkin! ‪#badmummy ‪#halloween

Has just eaten DD’s last teddy shaped crumpet and feels slightly guilty ‪#badmummy ‪#ricekrispiesforbrekkie

Impatiently waiting for the kids to fall asleep so I can eat ice cream & not have to share ‪#badmummy

Oh crumbs. Toddlers. They do talk a lot, don’t they? ‪#headache ‪#badmummy

‪#badmummy now having to resort to bribery with new cars for taking antibiotics…. It’s working though. Nearly all gone 🙂

Things not to do ever: leave irreplaceable child’s pillow/blanky thing in holiday villa. ‪#badmummy ‪#pain ‪#howl

Am meant to have put children to bed. But am enjoying their company too much ‪#badmummy

Sock crisis… All other boys in long black ones, mine in short navy ‪#badmummy

What’s interesting about these tweets is that many of them are actually an oblique way of showing the world what good mothers they are. The mother who enjoys her children so much that she doesn’t want them to go to bed is clearly a mother who is doing a lot of things right. Mothers who uses Twitter to avoid losing their tempers with their toddlers’ incessant talking, or who ensure their children take their antibiotics by whatever means necessary are being responsible, not “bad”.

Even the mothers who feel a twinge of genuine guilt (or perhaps more than a twinge in the case of the missing blanky – I’ve been there and it wasn’t pleasant!) are using the hashtag in a tongue in cheek way. It’s a nod to the yummy mummy stereotype, to the idea that we should all be pureeing organic, home-grown veg for our babies, teaching our toddlers French, and making sure our little darlings achieve a Grade 8 in at least one instrument by the time they leave for university (a Russell Group one, naturally). We all know the ideal bar is high.

What’s wrong with that, you might wonder? Doesn’t every parent want their children to have opportunities and do well in life? And doesn’t every mother harbour at least a nugget of concern that they might really be a #badmummy? Making these kind of sly jokes is a way of letting off steam about the impossible standards against which mothers are judged. Only that’s not how I feel when I read them. Because I, dear reader, have been a bad mother. Not a #badmummy, not a jokey, “gosh I know I’m OK really but maybe not quite Gwyneth Paltrow standard” bad mother. It has not always possible for me to be a good mother, because I have a serious mental illness.

Parenting started well, considering. I had a history of major mental health problems and had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 20, but didn’t feel psychiatric services had anything to offer me so I chose to “go it alone” when I had my firstborn three years later. I expected to struggle, but was pleasantly surprised. Maybe, I thought, if I got in fairly quickly with a second pregnancy, I could get away with it again.

Problems started by the third trimester. All the books talked about postnatal depression but I had never heard of anyone being acutely depressed antenatally. I told no one that I felt as if I were just going through the motions in preparing for my daughter’s birth and it was years before I spoke of the shame of sitting by a river at 30 weeks and wanting to chuck myself in.

After a fantastic home birth, I was on a bipolar high. I didn’t know it, and nor did anyone around me, but with hindsight the episode was textbook. Despite have just given birth, I didn’t feel the need to sleep much, let alone rest. Everything was fantastic, I was head over heels in love with my gorgeous newborn, and I had plenty of energy to cook, clean and get the Christmas tree up. Until, of course, my mood crashed. On day 12 a sense of profound and inescapable misery descended and over the next months I sank deeper and deeper into depression. My GP prescribed antidepressant after antidepressant, with no success. And every working day between 8.30am and 17.30pm I was responsible for the children’s wellbeing.

By this point, I was so incapacitated by my illness that I was incapable of meeting my children’s needs. I fed them whatever would cause me the least difficulty. I let my two-year-old son watch TV all day, every day because I was in so much pain I just wanted to be left alone. I would plonk him in front of Nick Jr and put my newborn daughter in her bouncy chair and then I would curl up in a ball of misery at the end of my sofa or hide from my own children in the kitchen.

I wanted to be a good mummy, but the bar dropped from good to adequate, from adequate to survival. If we were all alive at the end of the day, if I hadn’t hurt myself or run away, if I hadn’t shouted at my toddler too much and the kids had eaten anything that could be regarded as an actual meal (rather than cereal or yogurts), that constituted a good day. All the time, I was acutely aware that I was failing my children; never mind home made baby food, I could not even give them love or kindness.

I did ask for help in addition to the medication. The Health Visitor administered the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale on me, but dismissed my high score as being because I was “too self aware.” It took until my next episode – and an overdose on my part – for her to accept that I couldn’t cope and find to an emergency nursery school place for my son, which gave us all breathing space and helped me recover. I know I was really ill, I know I asked for help and complied with any treatment given, but 14 years later I still feel deep shame and distress about what a bad mummy I was. I wish I could say my children were fine despite their early experiences, but certainly in my son’s case this was not true and he developed behavioural and emotional problems in childhood.

I know the women using the #badmummy hashtag are saying something about their own insecurities. I know they don’t mean to cause hurt to people like me. But it does hurt, knowing their idea of basic, “good enough” mothering is a standard I was completely incapable of achieving. I still feel shut out of the club, resentful of mums whose lives are so straightforward that the kind of trivia in the tweets above constitutes an “issue”. I am not one for wanting to turn back the clock, nor even for having my bipolar removed with a wave of a magic wand. But I do wish I could have another go at my children’s early lives with more support, a proper diagnosis and a treatment plan. Because even though they are now happy, well-adjusted teenagers, I will never be shift the guilt of having been – even through no fault of my own – a genuinely #badmummy.


About purplepersuasion

40 something service user, activist, writer and mother living with bipolar disorder. Proud winner of the Mark Hanson Prize for Digital Media at the Mind Media Awards #VMGMindAwards
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20 Responses to #badmummy

  1. They may be tongue-in-cheek ‘bad mummies but I’m pretty sure that there are thousands of other mothers out there who are too busy, too overworked, too overloaded, too stressed, too ill to be tweeting such cuteisms, on their behalf, thank you for writing this, to ‘owning up’. Accept the guilt that comes from your own love but never that which comes from a pressurising society which has its priorities and standards all messed up. #realmummy. 🙂

    • shezzle says:

      Elizamerwin- your comment is so,so true about surviving one more day for the people you love. I wish my father had been able to,despite all of the horrendous problems he had to deal with and the effect it had on us as children. His illness played a part in how I turned out as an adult- in a good way and gave me an awareness of others and their struggles which I would not have had before. Even if life is hard in the early days of a child’s life all is not always lost and I would have rather had my father here next to me with whatever he had to deal with so I could be by his side and cope with him.

      • Naomi says:

        Thank you for sharing this. I struggle so much re: what to tell my son when the only thing I can manage some days is just to stay alive. Maybe I need to appreciate what I do provide for him, even when I feel sure I am failing him. I know he helps me and gives me a reason to keep moving forward.

  2. elizamerwin says:

    Thank you for sharing this. When you’re fighting mental illness, sometimes the best thing you can do for the people you love is to survive one more day. When my wife struggles with feeling like the worst mother, I remind her that what matters is love. It sounds like you love your children immensely and have always done the best you can for them. Even when the best you can do feels like failure, what matters and what stays is that you love them and you do what you can.

  3. butterflywgs says:

    Ugh. Agree with idiosyncratic above – I know they’re joking, but if they’ve got time to sit on Twitter and no doubt Mumsnet, their lives are easy. ‘OMG I didn’t knit my own hummus, I totally bought some at Waitrose!’ is not a problem. Grrrr. Xxxx

  4. butterflywgs says:

    And don’t feel guilty, it’s NOT your fault xxxx

  5. badnelly says:

    help and support for people with mental health problems is disastrously lacking in this country. I had post natal depression too. Apart from tablets, there was no help. I feel like we all lost 5 years of our lives.

  6. Phineyj says:

    I think you should be proud of yourself for surviving something really terrible.

  7. JJ says:

    You’re not alone in feeling this way. I was also an abject failure in the early years & absent at times due to similar MH issues. All we can do is be the best we can now & take each day as it comes. I admire you and your honesty. Thank you because I know that I’m not alone

  8. Sitting here on the verge of tears because you have just described what I am going through right now. I lay on the couch and don’t do much else with my son and the guilt eats me alive but I just can’t physically drag myself off and to interact. It’s much easier to stay lost in my own world, and I know that he craves my attention, and I know that the ways that he acts out are to get some sort of reaction out of me. I want so much more for him but I just don’t even know where to start. This past couple of years the shutting out has gradually gotten worse, to the point where my partner is starting to question if I even love him anymore. Now, for the last 3 or so months it is just a sense of nothingness. I feel tired right down to my bones, and basic caring has pretty much gone out the window. I only leave the house to take my son to childcare and to attend psych sessions. I’m just sick and tired of always feelings so damn awful.

    • Awww, Tegan. that sounds so much like what I went through, and it’s stuff I’ve been revisiting in the process of writing my memoir and it’s still painful to think about. It’s interesting to notice how all the things I want to say to you – be kind to yourself, you are suffering, you will come through this and it isn’t your fault – I mean wholeheartedly but still find it difficult to apply to myself! Thinking of you. Charlotte x

    • Live says:

      Hi Tegan, I’m going through what you are right now. I have been this way for 17 years and now I have a child of two who I feel removed from. I am a zombie and constantly in pain, only sometimes do I blink and hug her, in a pathetic attempt to make up for all that I am failing at. We used to go out practically nowhere, and when I did drag myself, she was so overwhelmed and afraid of the newness of the experience that she cried and acts out, and I would lose it and crumble. When she is hurt, or in pain, she always calls for her father, not me for, because I am not a good mother and she knows that. What I want to say is – if you can – drag yourself up, plaster on a smile, try, even if it is for two hours a day, to conform to the mental image of the wonderful mother that we all have in our heads and make that sacrifice for your child . Otherwise, your child will grow up with mental issues of their own. My mother did the same thing to me and now, here I am doing it to my child. I wish she had tried and pretended, even for a little while, instead of making my life a total living hell. So that’s why I’m telling everyone in my situation, try..pretend..smile..laugh louder so that they won’t guess that it is hollow – maybe it will make your child’s life a little better. They deserve better than we are giving them. If it helps, there is another stranger (me) somewhere out in the world, praying for you and your child (and for me and mine) right now.

    • Naomi says:

      I have been feeling just like this, so guilty that I cannot look my son in the face. Let us all please promise to make an effort to love ourselves, and to appreciate each thing that we can do for our children, even if things are nothing like we imagined they would be. Are you allowed to have medical cannabis there? It has minor side effects but it does help to “abstract” the emotional and physical pain we go through, and create a temporary space where you can enjoy the things around you and participate. I am only mentioning this because I have myself “failed” the pills that were prescribed to help with these symptoms and it pains me to know how people suffer. xxx. Don’t stop trying, even if you have to give yourself breaks from trying so hard.

  9. I think though that so many of us are eaten up by guilt, so worried that the care we provide isn’t good enough. We project our best, so it looks like everyone else is sailing along and we are the only ones struggling, it’s so hard to admit we are struggling or failing even. Don be hard on yourself, but don’t imagine these other women are all doing great.

    • They might not be doing great. But “not great” and “in the acute phase of a severe and enduring lifelong illness for which there is no cure” are two utterly different things.

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  11. I had a breakdown after my daughter was born and so I understand where you’re coming from. I have a hangover of guilt about the early months and ways in which I felt I was surviving rather than being a good parent. I don’t think I was a bad mother though, just not the mother I wanted to be. I disagree though that you were a genuinely bad mummy too because it was illness that prevented you from providing the type of care that you wanted to not laziness or alck of interest or other ‘bad’ mother qualities. And your guilt that you couldn’t is even more evidence of your lack of ‘badness’. I hope you can forgive yourself because it wasn’t your fault and as you yourself say, they are happy well adjusted teens. And that wouldn’t be true without a hell of a lot of good mothering thrown in that mix.

  12. Lisa J says:

    Been there. I’m mildly bipolar and have also suffered with anxiety and OCD since I was a pre-teen. After I had my son, I developed post natal OCD which, simply explained, makes you think you’re going to be compelled to kill your baby and gives you the most horrific intrusive thoughts about it. When he was a few weeks old, I couldn’t hold him, didn’t want to be near him, couldn’t pick him up and just cried and shook at the thought of having anything to do with him. I was medicated and spent the next few weeks having 3 times daily visits from the mental health crisis team and my mum had to move in with us and do most of the parenting once my husband went back to work. If it hadn’t been for her, I may well have been sectioned. Fortunately the meds kicked in and I was a lot better after a few weeks, although I felt like I’d ruined my life and didn’t enjoy being a mum at all until my son was about 18 months old. Awful guilt, nasty, crushing, dreadful guilt over his first couple of months, and also for his first year and a half when I desperately didn’t want to be there and my favourite fantasy was walking out and never coming back. #badmummy indeed.

    You do your best though – that’s all you can do when you have mental health problems. Hopefully, like me, you can now see that for a bad mother, you’re actually a very good one.

    • Naomi says:

      Wow, yes I had exactly this type of recurring obsessive “bad” thoughts. It was horrible. Thank you for describing this; I understand better now what happened after he was born.

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