Forget Feeling Bad! Own Your Mommy Guilt

Guilt written on trashI've been thinking a lot about moms and guilt. It seems like becoming a mom means beginning a lifelong immersion in a neck-deep pool of brackish, odiferous regret, and remorse: I don’t do enough and my kids feel neglected, I do too much and my kids are spoiled, I do the right amount for my kids but I don’t work hard enough at everything else, I had an epidural ....

We can be our own worst enemies, and guilt is the club we use to beat ourselves over the head.

But I’ve been inspired to take a different approach: instead of saying “don’t feel guilty,” I’m going to feel guilty -- because I’m tough enough to deal with negative feelings, and if I work through the guilt, I can come out stronger in the end.

It’s an idea whose time has come.

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For Martha Neovard of The Babe and Breast, this whole thought process started (surprise, surprise) when she had to supplement breastfeeding with formula, and was wracked with guilt. “Anytime an article expressing the merits of breastfeeding or the demerits of formula arises,” she points out, “there is an almighty chorus of ‘don’t make me feel guilty!’”

But she goes on to say, “It is okay to feel guilty. It is a national reaction, and the emotion will not cripple us. Guilt is designed to make us deal with our feelings ... it’s nature’s way of helping us evolve, of forcing us to do things differently next time.”

Blocking guilt rather than dealing with it, she says, makes us freeze in our tracks. If we can’t feel guilty, we can’t heal from the guilt and move on from it.

She tells the story of her own breastfeeding tribulations: she ended up formula-feeding her first child because a doctor told her she should make things easy on herself, give herself a break, and go with formula when things got difficult. This seems like a well-meaning action, but I can see where she’s coming from: Hey. Let me decide when I want to give up. It’s great not to judge me for needing to supplement, but I’ll make that call.

This goes way beyond breastfeeding. The term SIDS is used as a catch-all explanation for infant deaths so that moms don’t suffer from guilt in the wake of a preventable death due to sleep injury. Well, it’s very nice to want to spare parents guilt, but not if it means obscuring the reasons for a death, which means the word doesn’t get out to other parents who could avoid the same fate.

The larger problem, to me, is that we’re afraid of big emotions. When a friend is heartbroken, we tell her to buck up and move on when she might need to wallow for a bit. We say, “Cheer up!” or “You’re doing great!” or “Don’t feel bad!” when, you know, it’s okay to feel bad, as long as it’s part of the road back to feeling okay.

If you bury feelings, in my experience anyway, they end up clawing their way out of their graves like bad-feeling zombies, and they often come bearing copious amounts of donuts and Chardonnay in the bargain. It took me a long time to give myself permission to have regrets, to work through them, and to allow the negative feelings to do their work -- not beating myself up, but changing what I did going forward.

Here’s how it worked for me: My daughter Penny was born 10 weeks early, and I absolutely agonized about what actions I had taken that allowed that to happen. My doctor said, “You can drive yourself crazy wondering. It’s just a random thing.” But when I got pregnant again, I resolved that, random event or not, I would do all I could to proactively keep my baby safe. I changed my situation at home so that I wasn’t dealing with an emotionally draining situation; I switched to lower-impact workouts; I switched to an OB practice that specialized in high-risk pregnancies. The list goes on. If I had just gone the route of desperately jettisoning guilt like a spit-out watermelon pit, I wouldn’t have been able to change what I was doing, and I might have spent another 6 weeks in the NICU -- or worse. At least this way, I gave myself the chance to improve things.

Here’s another way of saying it: Replace guilt with remorse -- an emotion that implies action rather than inaction. And if you can’t change anything because it’s all in the past, forgive yourself rather than now allowing yourself to feel that dirty, dirty guilt in the first place.

Because guilt, like mistakes, is a part of life, and a part of motherhood. It’s okay. We’re going to do the wrong thing, and that can turn into the right thing -- if we let ourselves learn. And sometimes, feeling bad is the beginning of the lesson, just like burning yourself on the hot stove is the beginning of learning not to touch the damn thing. You apply your balm, adjust your approach, and then you can move on.

Do you think it’s okay to feel guilty sometimes? Do you think “don’t feel guilty” just makes us feel worse?


Image via Derera_Toujours/Flickr

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