Author shares anguish over teen mum guilt

With her only child soon leaving home for university, Rhian Elizabeth is feeling sad and grief-stricken - but also guilty.

The 36-year-old author says she simply cannot forgive herself for not being more engaged as a parent after becoming pregnant at 16.

"I love my daughter more than anything in the world but I never enjoyed being a mother when I was younger," she said.

"Everyone is going to hate me for saying this and I hate myself but I perhaps even resented having a kid at times."

Rhian Elizabeth
Rhian Elizabeth has written a novel and two poetry collections [Rhian Elizabeth]

She said her latest book, a collection of poems called "girls etc" was an "attempt at an apology" to both her daughter and herself.

In her poem 'If we could just go back I’d push you higher' she recalls half-heartedly pushing her young daughter on a swing and "playing at being a mother the way you played with your dolls".

"You deserved so much better, so much better," she writes.

Today Rhian, who lives in Cardiff, has three published books, is a Hay Festival writer at work, writer in residence at the Coracle International Literary Festival in Tranas, Sweden, and also at night school studying to be a counsellor.

But those early days of juggling being a teenage mum in Tonypandy, Rhondda Cynon Taf, while studying at university is what she finds herself writing about.

"Guilt / is a roundabout / that won’t ever let you get off," she writes.

Of her parenting-style she said: "I was 16 and I just simply wasn't very good at it.

"You see all these happy photos on Facebook of mothers enjoying spending time with their kids like it's the most treasured thing in the world to them but I'd have to fake it, have to force myself to do it and pretend to engage but I wasn't, I wasn't engaged in parenting and I know my daughter would've picked up on it."

She said when it came to the night she would watch her daughter sleeping and “feel overwhelmed with love and gratitude”.

"But the next day I'd just feel out of my depth again,” she said.

"That hurts now. I mean seriously, can you imagine being a child and picking up on the fact that the one person in the world who you rely on for all your happiness and self-esteem would rather not be spending time with you?"

Now the days of having a child at home are coming to an end she is filled with regret.

"I now just simply wish I could go back and be better and do all those things properly and right. But you can't. This book is an attempt at an apology. To her, to myself," she said.

But she has single-handedly brought up a child who is about to go to university, all while finding success as an author. Why is she so hard on herself?

"It's hard to be forgiven for that and it's hard to forgive yourself," she said.

Rhian Elizabeth with three other people at the Penarth Literary Festival, holding a banner with the event's name
Rhian Elizabeth recently spoke at the Penarth Literary Festival [Rhian Elizabeth ]

Parenting author and broadcaster Sue Atkins characterises so-called "mum guilt" as "feelings of self-doubt and anxiety about not being a perfect parent" and said it was incredibly common.

She insisted there was "no such thing" as a perfect parent.

She said the pressure can come from society, relatives, a mother’s own expectations and that social media could "fuel the feelings of guilt and inadequacy".

"It’s not just mums that suffer with parent guilt, dads suffer from this too," she said.

"They want to be present, they want to be changing nappies, they want to be engaged with their kids, playing with them, talking to them, eating with them and of course, trying to provide and put food on the table in the cost of living crisis is challenging for dads as well."

Rhian said the death of her father when she was 12 was the catalyst for her "going off the rails".

"I call them the messy years of my life… I just did lots of things that I shouldn't have done and that set my life in a different direction," she said.

She said once her daughter was born she felt she was living two lives.

"I had one life where I had to be a mother, or some shoddy attempt at being a mother, and then another life where I went to college and went to university and still wanted to be that teenager who partied and had fun," she said.

Through it all her determination to be a writer never waned.

"It was the only plan I ever had in my life," she said.

She went to what was then called the University of Glamorgan to study for a degree in creative writing and wrote her first novel, Six Pounds Eight Ounces, when her daughter was three or four.

The novel about a schoolgirl growing up in the Welsh valleys was published in 2014 and she is working with Pendragon Works to adapt it into a TV series.

Her second work, a series of poems, The Last Polar Bear on Earth, was published by in 2018.

 An aerial view of a residential area in Tonypandy, Wales
Rhian Elizabeth grew up in the former coal mining area of Tonypandy in Rhondda, which continues to inspire her writing [Getty]

Her latest book "girls etc" is by far her most personal work - as well as her reflections on being a teen mum she writes about the drama of living with a teenager and explores issues including abuse in a same-sex relationships.

It came about because she "just found myself writing about the girls in my life - my daughter, ex-girlfriends," she said.

"It's just my process of working through things that have gone on, or difficult things in my life."

She said she had been apprehensive about family and friends reading it.

What does her daughter think of it?

"She doesn't talk about it. She doesn’t talk about much besides Taylor Swift," she laughed.

"Everything I do is embarrassing to her, she thinks I should get a proper job."

But she hopes one day her daughter will read the poems.

"This book was in a way me speaking to her," she said.

"In spite of me, she's turned out brilliantly. She's really smart and kind and conscientious, despite a Taylor Swift addiction."