Overcoming Mum Shame

A post from the archives: my mama shame in 2013...

Shame has been a part of me for as long as I can remember. Shame of being different, of not fitting in. Shame of being too bright. Of not being bright enough. Shame of being unlikeable, of being unloveable. Shame of being me.

While I’m much more comfortable in my own skin these days, accepting of my flaws and more aware of those internal voices that trip me up, I still feel shame. And it affects me as a mother.

Do my children see it yet? At two and five, they have very little shame of their own. I don’t want to pass them mine.

Beating Mama Shame with Story of MumHow can I teach them that they are deeply loveable?

By providing a safe and nurturing home - and by putting my own shame aside and loving myself. This post, this month’s Mum Shame theme, is a step towards that.

I’m ashamed of my house – of the mess and disorder.

Of the kitchen cupboards that are barely ever cleaned, and overflow with orphaned Tupperware parts.

Of the surfaces of our tiny galley kitchen stacked so high with stuff that you have to clear a path through yesterday’s chopping board debris before you can cut toast.

Of the piles whose purpose I hold in my head, their logic invisible to the human eye (‘to mend’, ‘to recycle’, ‘ to craft’, ‘to persuade husband to throw away’) Never sorted, just added to and taken from, an ebbing flowing tide of chaos.

The saddest part is I’m so ashamed of my messy chaotic home that I simply avoid inviting new people over. I miss out on true connection.

I meet friends for coffees in cafes, haunt the library, encourage outdoor play-dates in the freezing cold. I keep people talking at the door when they come to collect their children and apologise for anything they can see on the stairs. When old friends pass the threshold, they’ll never know the whole family has been under the cosh to bring the house standard up to ‘general chaos’ from ‘chaos incarnate’.

I don’t think I was shamed by my parents. There was a lot of the ‘go and think about what you’ve done’ variety of discipline that has fed my internal voice, but I felt loved, not worthless. I think my shame snuck in from peer bullies, from other relatives and social structures. Sometimes it came from being ‘favoured’ without understanding why. Or from seeing the treatment of others like me who were ‘found out’.

Amongst my happy memories of the Woodcraft Folk, (a kind of mixed-sex Scouts with left-leaning protest songs and a general ethos of equality and empowerment), sits a bizarrely shameful one.  As children on our first camping forays away from our parents, we sat round campfires to recite our creed, sing songs, watch skits and stories. And to dread a strange reunion of lost items with their owners: Missing toothbrushes, mugs, or worst of all, underwear, would be held aloft by the camp leaders. The children who had lost them would be called out into the centre of the circle to collect them, alone – as we all joined a loud chorus of ‘SHAAAAAAME!”.

I don’t think I ever actually lost anything at camp, but I feel like I did. Thirty years later, I still fear that gleeful public judgement. That some lovely mum from school will think I’m filthy, lazy, a failure, someone they’d ridicule and hurt if they knew the terrible truth. I fear that they will walk into my home, look around and bellow ‘shame on YOU’.

I feel I should be different. I feel I’m not good enough. I feel I deserve to be ashamed. Despite all the wonderful evidence to the contrary, I feel I am still unloveable at my core. And yet as an adult, I also know this isn’t true. I know that voice is wrong.

So what is true? Are my husband and I really living in a way that deserves the shame I feel, or are we simply living like parents who choose to work and play instead of cleaning?

When did I lose faith in my own grace? I make conscious choices every day about how I spend my time. Opportunities for family adventures and shared treats, fulfilling work commitments and following my passions, exercise, writing, playing – all of these things take priority over cleaning my house. And I choose that.

I get frustrated at my husband for not clearing out the attic or the back room or a million other things - but I’m the very same person that encourages him to drive us all off on a family adventure instead. I still see all those frustratingly urgent chores whenever I walk into a room, but I don’t want to spend our life doing them. We're not Britain's Biggest Hoarders, or Filthiest Family, we just live in a messy house with sticky floors and happy kids.

While I’d like to be more familiar with the carpet and the tabletops (in fact, any surface ever), I simply don’t want it enough. Set a tidy house against the other things I value in my life, and it doesn't win. You might choose differently, and that’s wonderful. I won’t judge you for your thoughtful decoration, beautifully arranged items, order and peace, for the joy that brings you. I’ll be envious.

But can I let go of some of the shame I feel because my choices are different? Can I avoid passing my shame on to my kids in a rush of panicked tidying and shouty pretence?

Because the truth is I choose to do the minimum I can to get by without spreading disease or creating a major health and safety risk. I carve my path through the chaos  to where I want to go, stopping now and again to clean and sort when I must, but mostly going forward.

It isn’t a failure, it’s a choice. And it’s a choice that comes from a love of family, of life, and of me.

What are you so ashamed of? I'd love to hear your thoughts below.


We'd love you to join us at story of mum:

Burst some shame you don't want any more with a quick Balloon of Shame.

Share your story of being (or having!) an Embarrassing Mum with us.

And if, like me, you're embarrassed by your chaotic house, why not take a photo and turn it into art for Photograph Your Chaos, making us all feel less ashamed?