Debunking the Myth of Mommy Guilt 2: Taking My Own Advice

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By Tracy G. Cassels

A couple months ago, I wrote an article on why mommy guilt is actually a good thing (see Debunking the Myth of Mommy Guilt) and while many people seemed to understand and agree about the goodness of guilt, there were others who were adamantly against the idea that guilt can be beneficial.  Reading the article again, I realized part of the problem is that it may have read as though I mastered the art of listening to and accepting my guilt while avoiding feelings of shame and thus could condescend to everyone else, but that could not be further from the truth.

For most of my life, I was absolutely one of the all-time best people at feeling “guilty”.  I could feel guilt over putting too much milk into coffee or forgetting to turn a light off.  In my mind, it was just the way I was, but it really didn’t affect my life so much because I was also a master of feeling guilty then brushing it aside (because who the hell needs guilt?).  People would say “Oh – don’t feel bad about that.”  And so I’d simply ignore those feelings creeping up or push them away and think about something better.  But things changed when I had my daughter; for what seemed like the first time, my “guilt” became a detriment.  In the first couple months of her life, I would try to ignore it, but the feelings were so intense and strong that it was nearly impossible.  The first time I accidentally got soap in her eyes, my daughter was about 2 months old.  She started crying in the shower and at first I didn’t know what was wrong.  Eventually, I figured it out.  But instead of helping her, I had to pass her to my husband, listen to her scream in his arms while I sat on the floor punching myself in the head for hurting her because it seemed like the only penance that might possibly suffice.  The self-loathing I felt every time I did anything that caused her even the remotest bit of pain was overwhelming.  The guilt was just killing me.

Except it wasn’t really guilt.  I finally realized that I didn’t suffer from guilt at all, I suffered from shame.  Every time I made a mistake, it was as if that was one more thing that made it clear I was a bad person, a bad mother.  Now, to be fair, when things went well, I felt fantastic – and that was most of the time – we would cuddle, go for walks, breastfeed, co-sleep, etc. and it could be wonderful.  But every now and again, I would do something wrong and that ugly beast would rear its head.

My husband would tell me that I had to stop it.  That I simply could not function this way.  Not only was it ridiculous to feel so bad over such small indiscretions, but it didn’t help our daughter either.  To be honest, I don’t know exactly how I was going to be able to change, but I realized he was right about how it would affect our daughter and I would not put my crap on her.  So I went to work on myself.  I would consciously tell myself that I wasn’t a shitty mother when I felt down, which helped a bit, but what really worked was learning to actually focus on the guilt.  It sounds crazy, but by really focusing on the act that would lead me to feel awful about myself, I was able to start finding ways to learn from it instead of feeling helpless.  It was actually quite empowering.  All my life, I had ignored the bad feelings and all that managed to happen was that the events would repeat (though perhaps with slight variation) and that negativity I felt built up inside me.  By the time you’ve made the same mistake, or some variant of it, the third time, you start to think it’s about you.  You’re the screw up.  And after a bit longer it no longer takes repeat mistakes, for each mistake you’re ready to see that one act as the centerpiece highlighting what an awful person/parent/child/sibling/partner you are.

I think this process is accelerated for mothers because we see the immediate effect on our child.  It’s impossible to ignore the cries that pierce your heart, and when you realize those cries are there because of something you’ve done, how can you not think that you’re an awful person?  I believe it’s because of this that the whole “guilt-free” parenting movement started.  If you get people to not feel guilty, the hope is that they won’t feel shame either.  But it doesn’t really work that way.  Guilt has its purpose and it is a very important one – we learn from it.  Ignoring guilt can result in exactly the opposite effect intended which is to build up the bad feelings and turn them into shame because we fail to learn from our mistakes and are thus bound to repeat them.

What’s a mother to do?

I stand by what I wrote earlier which is that you have to listen to your guilt.  Focus on it, live it, breathe it… for at most 30 minutes (if you need to repeat it later because you haven’t come to a solution, so be it, but take a break after 30 minutes).  And by this I don’t mean to wallow in how shitty you feel, but focus on the why of your guilt and how you might make it better.  For example, when the first article was posted on Mothering.com, some people wrote that they felt guilty over having to send their child to daycare in order to return to work to put food on the table but would try to ignore that guilt because there was nothing they could do.  In one sense, they are correct.  They have to put food on the table and put their kids in daycare in order to do it.  But in another, they aren’t.  While a solution may not be that you give up work or give up daycare, there is an area in between that isn’t being examined.  For some, it may be a decision to co-sleep if they don’t already in order to get bonding time at night with their child.  For others, it may be a conscious decision to spend an extra hour a day in the evening just sitting and playing with their child, laundry be damned.  There are always a plethora of options available if you think outside the box a bit; ones that can lead you to be happy with how you are parenting, even if you aren’t given the ideal circumstances to begin with.

The other thing is to make sure you aren’t confusing shame with guilt.  It’s very easy to think we feel guilty because we feel bad when we do something, but in reality what we feel bad about is the implication that act has about our view of ourselves.  I like to think of it this way – if you do the act just once in your life, how will you feel?  If you’d feel bad, it’s the act.  If you wouldn’t, you’re using that act to represent you as a parent, and that’s shame.  For example, if you put your kid in daycare and feel “guilty” about it, would you feel guilty if you had to put them in only once, or even once a week?  Probably not, and it’s why daycare guilt is rarely guilt.  Parents feel bad because they typically feel that the fact they have to use daycare is saying something bad about them as parents, not because the act of daycare is bad in and of itself.  But if you were to yell at your child (something we all inevitably do), you would feel bad even if it happened only once and that bad would be guilt, not shame (but you repeat it enough times and it does become shame).  But it’s something that you can learn from (what triggered it and can you find a way to avoid that trigger?) and hopefully not have it happen again – at least until they’re teenagers.  Understanding the distinction is crucial to not only learning from the experience, but knowing when you’re letting your mistakes define you as a person.

All this isn’t to say it’s easy – it’s far from it.  It takes a lot of practice to be able to learn to not only listen to your guilt and learn from it, but to stop it from spiraling into shame.  I’ve been working on this for a while now and sometimes I still catch myself just ignoring the guilt and pushing it aside.  Inevitably, it comes back to bite me on the ass in the form of repeating my mistakes and then I have to take that moment, realize what’s going on and find a way to fix it.  And I am always happier for finding the solution.  (I’m pretty sure my little girl is too.)  It is worth it to listen to yourself and learn from your feelings – they aren’t there to steer you wrong, but the way you interpret them or deal with them can send you on a path that would do you and your family absolutely no good.  So the next time you do something and feel bad about it, learn from it.  It really is that hard and that simple.

 

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Comments

  1. says

    I’ve said frequently: life is simply, it might not be easy, but it is simple; if you think it’s getting complicated it’s either because you’re asking the wrong question or you’re ignoring the simple, correct answer because you don’t like it.
    Guilt is our signal that we did something we know if wrong. It’s simple to get rid of guilt: repent, which means to turn from the wrong action and do it no more. It’s not easy always to turn from what is making you guilty, but it is simple. Unfortunately many people want to either ignore guilt, or think they can take care of it by being ‘sorry’, but not by actually turning away from the action(s) that lead to the guilt-inducing end. People spend so much time being sorry about something without doing anything to keep it from happening again. You know I mentioned in your first post about this that I don’t necessarily agree that shame is bad or a purely external factor. I think shame is what happens when the hypocracy between saying ‘sorry’ and feeling guilty about something and then turning around and not doing anything about it (true repentance). We feel shamed that we got ‘caught’ in this hypocracy, and we get forced to either live in a state of hypocracy, which is very difficult on our emotions, or actually turn from our wrong deeds and repent, which is now much more difficult because we’ve fallen into a rut of feeling ‘sorry’ and then going on our way. Shame, as I think I said before, is more about falling shy of our own expectations for ourself and less about doing something inherently wrong (although certainly the two can overlap).

    That all being said, like fear, guilt and shame can be good for us if we can listen, learn from, and master them, or they can spiral rapidly out of control. Some people are naturally and very litterally paralized by fear, and it takes significant practice, motivation, time, and dedication to get to the point where they can deal with their fear constructively (after all, courage isn’t the absence of fear, it’s the perseverence in the face of fear). Likewise some people do not respond well naturally to guilt or shame, they can be paralized, or driven to rash actions that can cause harm. That is no fault of the person, as long as they don’t continue to dwell in it, just like being paralized with fear does not make someone any less of a person.

    It sounds like you are doing a good job taking control of your natural reaction to guilt or shame, I wish you luck, dedication, and perseverence.

    • says

      Thank you! Part of me just wishes I’d been taught growing up to deal with guilt appropriately. I do believe that’s where a lot of this stems for people – as children we don’t see the right modeling on how to deal with things when we behave badly and so we grow up simply repeating what we’ve seen. And that’s usually not that healthy in our society.

      I can definitely see what you mean about shame now – it took me writing about it to get the internal link to it :)

      And I do believe people somehow want to equate simple = easy. But that’s just not the case. Simple can be very hard, and unfortunately people usually want the easy way out. Not sure when we decided that hard work didn’t pay off anymore because it really, certainly does!

  2. says

    (I’m glad you got the shame point I was making :) )
    Hard work isn’t apreciated anymore because we’re two or sometimes even three generations into this obsurd notion that instant gratification is the highest form of pleasure and happiness, and, what’s more, that pleasure and happiness are the highest goals in life. Happiness used to be a side effect of a job well done, it wasn’t sought as a means unto itself. Security and accomplishment were sought with the notion that happiness (joy really) was readily availible to anyone with the ability to pursue these ideals. Now *joy* is something only weird church goers talk about and happiness= pleasure, which is an ends unto itself, which is to be sought to the exclusion of all else. You can’t pursue pleasure AND hard work at the same time.

    It’s absolutely a learned behavior, which brings me to one of my pet peeves, this notion that parents are somehow hypocrits when they tell their kids not to do something they did. How obsurd! (Btw, I don’t use that word nearly as much in speech as I do in written corrispondence, I just can spell it, while spelling ‘ridiculous’ or ‘atrocious’ is frequently beyond me) I’ve heard so many parents say ‘how can I tell my kids not to do drugs when I did them?’ Or ‘i can’t talk to my kids about my past, how could I ever tell them to obey if they knew what I had done?’. I think this is so dangerous and I’m very confused where it comes from. Parents have the ability to impart real wisdom to their children! Instead of just saying ‘don’t do this’, they can say ‘you don’t *want* to do this, I did that and here’s what happened, don’t make my mistake, don’t do it!’ One is far more effective than the other! Every mistaken you made, every scar you picked up along the road of life is one your children don’t have to, but that avoidance can only come if your children get to see those scars.

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