Feeling guilty seems to be as inherent to parenting as lying is to a politician. A parent who has never felt a single twinge of guilt is as unlikely, and questionable as a baby that never cries. When you give birth to a baby, nobody tells you that you have just signed up to a lifetime of guilt. If it’s not something you’ve done or something you didn’t do, it’s something you think you’ve done. At least a few times, your self-condemnation will be the result of an all-expenses paid guilt trip compliments of someone else.
I’ve dealt with so many petty feelings of guilt, and some bigger ones too. Guilt for not breastfeeding exclusively until my kids were a certain age. Guilt for being a stay at home mother and not contributing financially. Guilt for going back to work and not being at home 24/7. Guilt for getting divorced. Guilt for taking time off work to be with my sick child and the list goes on. I also once dealt with guilt when my son ended up in play therapy – and it turned out the problem was me, I was praising him too much. This resulted in him fearing that I won’t love him if he doesn’t do amazing things to earn that praise! Have you ever? I was now feeling guilty for loving too much. I seriously did NOT see that one coming. By now I have enough guilt to start my own religion!
Why is it that as a parent, guilt is the fixture you will never be devoid of? Seriously, it’s like finding out your mother in law has a twin sister, and the one you know is the nice one. I’m no psychologist, so I’m not going to attempt to delve into a Freudian analysis of the deeper source of our parental guilt, but I reckon one of the main reasons we feel guilty as parents is the built in innate desire to be the best parent you can be, which starts from the day you find out you are pregnant, and ends when you die. Guilt is a way to express that you are a person of good conscience, sympathetic and exhibit a willingness to be a better person. The good thing about guilt is that you have a conscience and you care (so pat yourself on the back for being a loving parent). People who lack feelings of guilt are sociopaths.
While this guilt will be omnipresent in your life as a parent, this means you are a good parent because you care – but don’t let it weigh you down. With the help of a therapist, I’ve learnt some very valuable lessons on how to rationalise and deal with my feelings of guilt. Some tips that have helped me along the way.
How do you plead?
You should only feel guilty if you have done something wrong. Technically. However we feel guilty for what we did, didn’t do or even what we think we did. We gladly accept that all expenses paid guilt trip compliments of your boss, mother, or in-laws. So before you pack your bags, do a little self-check. If what you “coulda/woulda/ shoulda” done was not possible then accept you have done your best and let it go. If you’ve done something that you could have done differently, is there something you can do to remedy the situation? Make amends and move on.
Making a bad thing good
It may take some time and practice, but if you can learn to embrace your mommy guilt, and turn it into a positive experience, it will save you a lifetime of self-doubt. When you feel guilty, you should take out of that the learning experience. If not it’s just self-loathing and that is not good for you, or your family. You need to either
• Accept you did your best, in which case there is nothing to feel guilty about
• Realise you could have done things differently, and resolve to do that next time
• Don’t forget to give yourself credit for the stuff you do well.
One of the biggest guilt trips mothers face is not breastfeeding. For some reason women feel extremely guilty for this, but the fact is breastfeeding does not work for all families for many reasons. I’ll be honest, this is not really something I felt massively guilty about – but so many of my friends have, and I’m going to go there. Yes we know, breast is best. In an ideal world. But it’s not always possible, and for that reason, if you have not done anything wrong then stop it. A happy healthy mother who formula feeds, is not worse than an unhappy mother who breastfeeds. I had to stop breastfeeding as I needed to go on medication which was not suitable for breastfeeding. I realised that I had done the best I could here, because if I was not well and healthy, then frankly boobs or no boobs, this would be suboptimal for my baby.
Going back to work
You may feel guilty because you have to go back to work. That’s silly. Or, if you are like me, you may feel guilty because you want to go back to work (women don’t often admit to this for some reason). Did I do something wrong by going back to work- and wanting to? No. have I made mistakes as a working mom? Yes, most definitely. So my way of dealing with this was to separate my unwarranted guilt from the remorse I felt when doing things wrong. Even in those instances, the guilt is relatively short-lived when you remedy your mistakes quickly.
Far from perfect
We all make mistakes as parents, but its how we handle them that counts. We’ve all yelled at our toddler in frustration, resorted to TV as a babysitter or ordered take-out for dinner. If you are a working parent, you will no doubt have felt guilty for not spending enough time with your kids. I live by the “make up for it” mantra. Extend story time at bedtime if you’ve let them watch too much TV. Make a date for family time if you’ve had to work late. Serve extra veggies the following day if you’ve done a drive-through dinner. If you’re stressed and lose your temper, apologise. I feel very strongly about admitting my mistakes to my children, so they learn that we all make mistakes and that’s ok.