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.