Hi Maxine, I came across you Instagram and blog recently and I just wanted to let you know how much I love the content. So much of it aligns with how I want to parent my children. Do you have any plans to do any posts around ‘mum guilt’ of finding playing with your children dull at times? It feels so awful to write that down; I feel very ashamed. I adore my children but feel so guilty that I find playing with them tedious at times. It’s hard to express this to anyone – if I do I’m just dismissed.

I loved your blog post on spending quality pockets of time with your children and intend to implement that more. A lot of my guilt seems to stem from the fact my mum used to play endlessly with me and never seemed bored or distracted. I wish I knew how to navigate this feeling and wondered if you any intention of addressing anything similar in a blog or Instagram post? Thank you

Dear follower,

Thank you for getting in touch, I’m really pleased you took the time to reach out. I’m sorry to hear you’re feeling so guilty all of the time. While I would love to jump in and reassure you that everybody, including me, finds playing with their children mind-numbingly boring sometimes. However, I also know that reassurance doesn’t always work and that’s the point of reflective parenting – to offer you questions so you can explore your own experiences more.

While this is similar in style to therapy, I must note that this is for education and reflection only and should not be used as a replacement for a relationship with a mental health professional. Therefore, if you find yourself becoming overwhelmed at any point while you read this, please take the time to stop and take care of yourself, returning only if you feel able. You can also download our guide to managing your feelings here.

There are a number of things that you’ve written that have made me curious, and we’ll think about it like this

  1. What is the guilt telling you and is it guilt or shame?
  2. What has led you to believe that you would find playing with your children fun all of the time
  3. What’s so ‘bad’ about finding things ‘dull’ and ‘tedious’?
  4. Your memories of play with your mum

Then, you ask, how you can navigate these feelings so we’ll think about:

  1. What makes it more likely that you will start to find playing with your children ‘dull’ and ‘tedious’
  2. How you can be kind to yourself when the mum guilt hits
  3. Talking to other people about your feelings

For you and anyone else who reads this, please remember, I don’t know you. I don’t know your answers to these questions and I don’ know whether they will resonate – I may be barking up entirely wrong trees. That is a reflection of this process, not of either of us.

Let’s start with the guilt

What is the shape of your guilt? What is it telling you? What’s the function of it telling you that? Usually, our minds tell us things that they think are helpful in some way. How might your mind be trying to help you in telling you what it’s telling you?

While you’re looking at these thoughts, remember to keep breathing out and to take care of yourself.

Maybe it would be helpful to define guilt and shame:

Guilt is an emotion that tells us we have done something that doesn’t align with who we are or want to be. We’ve done something objectively wrong and we can repair it by apologising, listening and acting.

Shame tells us that we are wrong. There’s no space for repair because there is something wrong in us and so we end up feeling ‘bad’ or ‘defective’ in some way.

Take another look at the thoughts that come up for you around finding play with your children ‘dull’ and ‘tedious’. Are the guilty thoughts – have you done something objectively ‘wrong’ and do you need to repair it? Or are they shame based thoughts – are you as a person somehow ‘wrong’ and need to be a better person?

What would you say to one of your children if they were thinking these things? How would you simultaneously validate their feelings and help them to question the reality of those thoughts?

How could you do that for yourself?

Maybe the following will help.

What’s led to the belief that we will find playing our children fun all of the time?

It would be great, wouldn’t it? If we just loved being with our children 100% of the time, everything would be easier. For the most part, no one does. So where does this myth come from? The idea that we are not ‘doing it right’ if we don’t always enjoy the time we spend with our little ones?

Is it only from the memories of playing with your mum or are there other images, stories, media that give you the idea that you ‘should’ be finding this fun all of the time?

How can you limit your exposure to these or question the reality of them?

Let’s think about it another way:

Why would we find playing with our children fun all of the time?

Think about games that are created for children and those made for adults, how are they similar? How are they different? Why do you think you need different games for adults than for children? Different media for both? Different outlets for each age group? It’s not just about explicit content and wanting to protect our children.

What do you understand the function of your children’s play to be? A lot of their play tends to be repetitive because they are learning and learning takes practise. They are learning things that you learned many years ago and so don’t need to do 5813518 times in a row. Their play is not for you, it’s for them. Most things that we are subjected to that are entirely for the needs of another, particularly if they are repetitive and easy for us, are unlikely to feel mentally stimulating enough to not feel ‘dull’ or ‘tedious’. So why do you think you wouldn’t find their play ‘dull’ and ‘tedious’ at times?

Is it about not enjoying spending time with them more generally? The idea that if we don’t love spending time with our children we don’t love our children?

What’s so bad about ‘dull’ and ‘tedious’?

I know, they are feelings that we tend to avoid and they are feelings all the same and my opinion still stands: all feelings are good feelings. They are all a communication to us about something. So what feels so uncomfortable about those feelings?

My therapist once said to me that ‘bored’ is a word we use when we don’t have a better word for our feelings. Could that be the case in this instance? Is it possible that rather than feeling bored (I know that’s not your word), you actually feel frustrated? Annoyed? Impatient? I’ve chosen those three words because I can completely see why those feelings would come up.

Let’s think about Groundhog Day. How do people feel when they do the same thing over and over again with no obvious signs of change? Especially when the same thing seems meaningless? Especially when parenting at a time of extremely limited support in a world that already limited support to parents and diminishes their experiences and needs?

In a time when having a bath is seen as a grand act of self-care. When we have to be reminded that it’s OK if you want to go to the toilet on your own.

When overlooking our basic needs is that ingrained in society and then we have to do things that do not meet us mentally, socially or physically, it is quite possible that we will start to feel more than bored. We are likely to feel annoyed, angry, frustrated and/or alone.

And those feelings are OK. Understandable. A message to us that something needs to change and that thing is unlikely to be us. We are not wrong. There are very big problems in the system.

“My mum used to play endlessly with me and never seemed bored or distracted”

This sounds like a lovely memory you have of your mum.

Here is a perfect example of the ultimate parenting paradox: you are damned if you do and you are damned if you don’t. If you are the perfect parent, your children grow up with huge expectations of themselves. If you are not the perfect parent, you are likely to feel guilty and, possibly, your children will grow up with some need or other not quite being met.

Nobody escapes childhood unscathed. It’s impossible.

I don’t want to take your memories of your mum away from you and I do want to unpick your expectations of yourself a bit.

When do your memories like this start? It’s unlikely that they will be from pre-school age, which makes it unclear if your mum actually enjoyed the early play that is so repetitive and also unending because you’re not at school to break up the day.

How much was your mum around you? Was she there 24/7 because there was a pandemic on and you weren’t allowed to leave the house? Or did she have time for herself? Some breaks? Even if it was only while you were at school?

It sounds like she did a really good job of conveying to you that she loved spending time with you and she was willing to meet you where you were at. That doesn’t necessarily mean she was loving life while she was doing it. Do you have the kind of relationship where you can ask her about it? Be honest about your experiences and what you’re looking for from her (see below)? Remembering that hindsight can look very rosy and, if she is feeling wistful and nostalgic, there’s a good chance she may say she loved it and can’t remember any downsides. That’s not necessarily true.

Even if she did play with you all day every day and really did love every minute of it, why do you have to? What makes you think that you’re getting it ‘wrong’ if you don’t do it exactly like your mum did? What do you do well as a mum in your own right?

If I were to ask your children, ‘what’s it like when you play with Mummy?’ what would they say? What do they love about playing with you? And what might they change? Just because they would change it, does that mean you have to?

Do you have to live your life just to make your children happy? Or are you allowed to live for yourself as well?

Who does it serve to believe you have to be happy and enjoying things all the time? Who does it hurt? What is the effect on your children if you hold onto the belief that it’s not OK not to enjoy things? That it’s not OK to be honest about how you feel?

What makes it more likely that you will start to find playing with your children ‘dull’ and ‘tedious’

While it’s totally normal to find play dull often, I do wonder whether this feeling has changed over time? Whether lockdown has had any effect on this?

Which roles are you fulfilling for your children now, that you didn’t have to do when you could see friends with ease, go to baby groups, soft play, anywhere that isn’t home or a park? What impact is this having on you? What impact is it having on your experience of playing with your children?

It’s also worth being aware of when you find it easier and when you find it less enjoyable. What are the differences there?

Are you more likely to find it difficult if you’re tired, hungry, feeling overwhelmed, feeling isolated or lonely? Is it easier if your children are in a ‘good’ mood and being extremely engaging? Or is it just hard all of the time?

Would meeting your basic needs help you to find playing with your children more enjoyable?

There are a number of feelings you’ve spoken about – finding play dull and tedious, and feeling guilty about it. All of which sounds really challenging to deal with.

I’m really curious about when these feelings come up. What makes the dull and tedious more likely to come about? What makes it less likely? My hunch is that the more time you have for yourself, the more time you will be able to give to your children.

And then, in response to the guilt (or, maybe, shame). Take a deep breath and let it out for a long time. Then another. Then another. Keep breathing out.

What are you telling yourself? “You’re a terrible mum because you don’t like playing with your kids”? “Every other mum loves playing with her kids”? “You’re going to mess your children up”? “Why can’t you just love your children”? “You’re not as good as your mum”?

What’s the reality in these thoughts? Keep breathing. Keep breathing out. Slow and steady.

And have good look at really what’s going on here? Is what you’re thinking true? If it’s true, does it matter? Why does it matter, true or not true?

Are there some affirmations you can think of to remind yourself that you are a good enough mum? You do love your kids. They do love you. And they are lucky to have you. Not because it could be so much worse but because you are that great.

What would you tell your children? What would you want your children to know if they were thinking this? How can you hold onto that for yourself?

Talking to other people about our feelings

I also noticed you said “When I talk to people about it I feel dismissed”. This can be so painful and it’s, sadly, very common. Particularly when we’re trying to open up about something personal and difficult for us, if people don’t hear us it can leave us feeling even more alone.

It might be worth considering why people find it difficult to hear what you’re saying and respond in the way you need them to.

Is it that they also struggle with these feelings and don’t want to face them? Maybe they aren’t aware of how they’re feeling and so find it difficult to empathise with you?

Is it that you haven’t been clear about what you’re looking for? Often, people’s go to is reassurance – ‘don’t worry, it will be fine, everyone feels like that’. They don’t like to think that you’re struggling and they want to make you feel better quickly. This is to do with them, not you.

It can be really helpful to be clear about what we need when we’re opening up. “I’m telling you how I’m feeling and I need you to listen and tell me that you get it. I don’t need you to reassure me or to tell me I’m being silly. I need to know that you really do feel like that sometimes and that you get how hard this feels”. Or something like that. It doesn’t always work. We have to be thoughtful about who we ask to do this, I wonder whether there’s anyone in your world who can offer you this space?

How are you feeling after this? Can you take some time to take care of yourself? To do some breathing exercises and have a treat? Let it settle. Come back to it if you want. Be kind to yourself.

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