Enough with the “Mum Guilt” : It’s time to prioritise your own health

Us mums can be guilty of using our family as an 'excuse' for not exercising, because we feel guilty and selfish if we did. Don’t wait for that threatening life disease to strike - make your own health a top priority. I share how to do it without feeling guilty.

When my first born was 6 weeks old, husband and I went out for dinner for the very first time since her birth. We left her at home with our Nanny while we headed out to a local restaurant which was a 5 minute drive away. But I was a nervous wreck at the restaurant, convinced that I was the worst mum in the world for not being with her for that hour. Of course, she was fine. That was the first time I experienced “Mum Guilt”.

Owning a pilates & fitness studio in Singapore, I hear from many women who say that they just don’t have time to exercise. Because, they have to be there for their children. Is it the children who need us, or do we just have trouble ‘letting go’. Maybe, we just don’t have a compelling reason to find time to exercise. Maybe something scary has to happen to us first.

A huge, scary thing happened to me.

Full disclosure: I was brought up by a family who pumped iron, ran marathons and competed in triathlons. So finding time to exercise was just a natural thing for me to do because I saw it everywhere in my life. Going for a 5 km run before school (when I was merely 14) was completely natural to me. I felt very comfortable in a gym setting, and loved to work out.

Therefore, it wasn’t hard for me to carve time out for myself to exercise. Even when I became a mum.

But then something happened to make me truly appreciate how important it is to set aside time to exercise.

5 years ago, my breast cancer diagnosis made me really think about what it meant to put “my health first” and stop feeling guilty about it.

In October 2015, even though I was at the peak of my health (albeit highly stressed), I was still diagnosed with cancer at 43 years old.

A few days after my diagnosis, I was an absolute wreck. I stayed up all night, thinking of what would happen to my family if the cancer killed me. It was around 5 am, and sleep just wouldn’t come to me. All I could think about was my two girls who at the time were 9 and 6 years old. My cortisol and adrenaline were sky high, so I got into my car, drove to the coast of the tiny island I lived in, sat on a bench and sobbed my heart out as the sun slowly rose.

I felt such despair. It was so unfair - why did I get cancer? And what if it took my life? How could I not be around for my girls?

So I sat on that bench and started planning. I planned on writing birthday cards in advance for them, and to arrange it so that my good friends would do special things for them on their significant birthdays. I felt so guilty, thinking that I could have avoided this somehow.

I knew what it was like to grow up without a mum. Because my own mum died of breast cancer when I was only 7. She didn’t leave anything behind for me. I only have old photographs, and a vague memory of her. No - I didn’t want my girls to grow up motherless, like I did.

Some good news though - I beat cancer. But the journey wasn’t easy, and I was a wreck physically and emotionally. A shadow of my former fit, healthy self. And even though I was alive, I wasn’t “there” for my girls. I tried so hard to make it normal, even going to their School Christmas performance feeling nauseous and barely able to stand. But, I was their mum, I had to suck it up and be there for them! Mum Guilt!

Once I recovered fully, I knew that no matter what, I was going to make sure that my health wouldn’t be a problem again. And the way to do that, was to prioritise my health and focus on exercising and eating nutritious foods, and managing my lifestyle and stress. It was time to put aside time for myself.

Bryan Adams sang, Everything I do, I do it for you. This couldn’t be any truer for any mother out there. But, if we aren’t looking after our health, then can we actually claim that we are doing as Bryan says? While we hope our kids will never know what it’s like to grow up without a mum, it’s time we stopped feeling guilty that we are being bad mums if we want to head to the gym, or yoga, or pilates, or go for a run or cycle. Or just to spend time by yourself to recharge mentally.

Your kids don’t need you to be with them 24/7. They just don’t. And perhaps it’s time we stopped using our kids as an excuse to not exercise.

It took cancer to make me see how vulnerable health is, and reinforced my decision to make my health #1. It didn’t mean that I loved my kids and husband any less- au contraire. It was because I loved them with all my heart, that I knew I had to make sure that I wouldn’t die of a chronic disease.

It was my responsibility to be healthy for the long term. And I couldn’t do that by making excuses that I didn’t have time to exercise (when I knew deep down, I actually had time, and I could make time).

I may die by getting hit by a bus, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to die of “complications related to diabetes, liver disease, kidney failure, heart disease etc”.

Mum Guilt : regardless of how old your kids are

In our pilates, fitness & Nutrition coaching studio FitNut Loft, my average client is a 50 year old mum with teenagers. You’d think there’d be no guilt at this age right? But, a lot of these mums still say that they feel disheartened that they just can’t put their own needs first. They still feel guilty for taking time for their health and fitness. It’s as if it's such a selfish decadent thing to do. What a waste spending an hour on ourselves when we could be hanging out with our kids - doesn’t matter if they actually even notice we’re not there. And if you have a teenager you’ll know what I mean.

My girls are now 14 and 11 years old. I asked them the other day if they minded that I took time out to exercise. My 11 year old said to me “Of course not. You had cancer, you have to look after yourself!”.

Does it actually take a big life threatening disease or immense pain to make us finally prioritise our lives? Sadly, for a lot of women, yes. And for my clients, I see that those who have finally prioritised their health have had a wake up call. Such as :

  • Diabetes.

  • Breast cancer.

  • Arthritis.

  • Chronic pain.

  • Thyroid disease.

  • Uterus prolapse.

A survey in the UK in 2019 found 61% of mums felt guilty taking time out to exercise, so they didn’t do any at all.

But when we take 3 hours a week to exercise (which incidentally is 2.6% of your weekly waking hours), there is a positive knock on effect. My client Joyce found that so many positive things can spin out of exercising, such as:

  • It gives you an inner confidence, that in turn, gives you a whole new outlook on your life.

  • Your relationship with your partner may improve because you feel you’re also getting “me time”

  • When your kids see you exercising, and see how it’s become a normal part of your life, they too will start to exercise and not see it as a “huge deal”. (Have you read that childhood obesity is on the rise?)

  • Let’s face it, exercising and making your health a priority will put you in a very good state for avoiding disease like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Too often I hear the excuse for not consistently working out from mums is because their kids need them. I ask you to honestly, seriously, ask yourself - would you child mind, (would they even care?) that you are not with them for 60 minutes thrice a week? It may hurt to learn the truth, but that umbilical cord was cut a long time ago. (Say it out loud, “It’s OK for me to take time for myself”).

Or is this the Mum Guilt, the burden that we like to carry, saying that we are the Rock, we are the centre, and that without us, everything crumbles?

Hang on a sec.

Look back at that sentence : “..without us…” Yes. Without you. Poof. You’re gone.

I know that’s harsh.

But if you are not alive, or you’re in palliative care, or need to be helped with everyday things, then are you actually there for your family? I don’t want to be a burden on my children. I want to be independent, and to be able to help them when they need me. Not the other way around.

Why should you prioritise exercising?

Covid-19 has shown us how important it is to be healthy, without any underlying diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and chronic diseases of other organs (heart, kidneys, liver etc).

But why is exercise so important? Here are some reasons why exercising can help with longevity.

  1. Exercising can help with weight control. If you are obese, you have higher levels of inflammation in your body, and this will compromise your body’s immune system to kill viruses.

  2. Many women are at risk for osteoporosis. Strength training will increase your bone density.

  3. A lot of training methods will work on your balance, which is so important in preventing falls. Sadly, studies show that hip fractures can lead to death especially amongst women.

  4. Exercise pumps blood around the body, keeping the blood vessels healthy so that oxygen rich blood can go where it needs to go. Some studies have suggested that exercise can also ward off dementia and Alzheimer’s.

  5. Exercising can control blood sugar levels.

  6. Strength training makes you stronger. This is important because strong muscles can take the burden off joints, and help with osteoarthritis.

  7. Exercising releases endorphins, the feel good hormone that improves your mood. Better mood means you will also have better relationships with those around you, while reducing your stress (this can help lower blood pressure, which is good for your heart and reduces stroke risks).

And when you exercise you are just a great role model for your children! They will grow up with a healthy relationship to exercising. It will be a normal part of their lives, which will just serve to encourage their future children to be active. Such a positive knock on effect!

But, how do you take time out without feeling guilty?

  1. Speak to the family. Chances are, they will support you 100% when they know how important this is to you, and how it can affect the whole family. Plus, being in a better mood means less yelling at the kids!

  2. Give and take. For instance, I tell my kids that on Monday I'll be about 15 minutes later than usual to pick them up from school as I need that extra time to squeeze in my workout. They're totally cool with it.

  3. Reduce exercise time - choose something that gives you bang for your buck, that will give you results. Rather than going for a long run, you’re better off doing a strength and cardio based circuit training for 15 minutes.

  4. Back up plan - If your kids need you (if they’re unwell etc) then have a back up plan, ask your coach for a 10-15 minute down and dirty workout you can do in your kitchen while you’re prepping dinner. You don’t have to get that ‘perfect workout’ in.

  5. Involve the family in your workouts sometimes. But don’t forget to make time for yourself too.


Answer this question honestly - can your family survive if you took 3 hours a week to yourself to exercise?

I ask you to really consider this, because the change has to start from within you. You’re going to have to want to, and then you will find a way to do it.

Don’t wait till you have that wake up call to start exercising. It also doesn’t matter when you start, it is actually never too late to enjoy the benefits of exercising.

Then when you’re ready, give yourself a small goal. Aim for something so easy, like a 10 minute walk. Once you nail that, consistently, then increase the time, or aim for something else. You want to be able to say “I nailed that one” consistently.

If you start too big, and aim too high, you’re setting yourself up for a huge goal. If you fail, then all you'd have achieved is a sense that you're not good enough, you failed, you're a loser, so may as well just give up now.

Learn from your children. It took them years to develop their running skills. They started by crawling.

So start small. Take that first crawl. Then the first step. Then that first jog. Then before you know it, you’ll stop feeling guilty because you’ll see how amazing you are. And you did it all for your family.

FitNutter Elin training Virtually - making time even though she has 2 kids under 10. What a star!

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