It seems more and more in Western society, women are trying to push for ‘guilt-free parenting’ as a response to the ever popular ‘mommy guilt’ problem. There are books, blogs, and articles on the topic of mommy guilt, many telling you that no matter what you do, you shouldn’t feel guilty; whatever you choose to do as a parent is valid. Most of these people will tell you that guilt is a bad emotion that we should try to rid ourselves of and it does no good to anyone to be feeling guilty, especially about parenting choices. But they are totally, unassailably wrong.
Before we take a better look at ‘mommy guilt’ per se, we need to deal with the issue of guilt in general. Specifically, the idea that guilt is a bad emotion that doesn’t help us. Yes, it feels horrible; we all know that pit in the bottom of our stomach that comes from feeling guilty over something. You so desperately want to make something right and you feel like you can’t at that moment and you just want that feeling to go away. Permanently. But just because it feels awful doesn’t make it a bad feeling. In fact, the reason it’s a good emotion is because it feels so bad.
Unfortunately, us humans are much more sensitive to negative emotions and situations than we are positive ones. This means that we’re more apt to learn when negative things happen. For example, if someone robs your house, you suddenly take a look around and figure out what you can do to prevent that from happening again—you learn from the experience. It doesn’t do you as much good to try and focus only on positive things while ignoring the bad. In fact, there is evidence that individuals who are insensitive to bad (and focus only on maximizing good) are prone to negative events and tend to die earlier than others – I consider this an ‘undesirable’ outcome. Evolutionarily, this distinction between good and bad makes sense because the bad could be so bad (i.e., death) that we have to learn to avoid it. While we’re no longer being chased by tigers or attacked by bears (most of the time), we still respond to negativity. And Guilt is the emotional bad situation that focuses on social situations. Like getting robbed, it tells us when something bad has happened, but specifically when we’ve caused something bad to happen. And just as in a bad situation, we have to learn from this as well. If you forget to pick up your friend from the airport, you’ll feel bad (as you should) and the guilt will force you to look at why you forgot and how you can avoid being an inconsiderate ass in the future. You feel crappy for a bit, but the feeling hopefully makes you a better person going forward. In fact, people who are high on guilt also tend to be better at perspective-taking, show greater empathy towards others, are more prosocial, and tend to have values that are more in line with equality and kindness. Not looking so bad anymore, now is it?
This is why ‘mommy guilt’ is key for parenting – you learn from it and it can make you a better parent. And if you can’t learn from your mistakes as a parent, then you’re bound to mess up again and again. Even in the smallest of ways, guilt can play an important role. I was once walking around with my daughter cradled in my arms and accidentally bumped her head against the wall as I was turning a corner. While my daughter’s cries were bad, what really felt awful was the guilt that it was me who had hurt her. It’s been months since that happened, but I felt so awful that to this day, every time I walk around a corner with her cradled in my arms, I’m much more aware of the space around me to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
Now, if you think that the ‘guilt’ leads to feeling immobilized and useless, that’s not ‘mommy guilt’, that’s post-partum depression (or just downright depression). And if you have that, you need to seek medical help immediately. Those extreme thoughts help no one. But it seems that we’ve now we’ve confounded the two such that any bad feeling is considered bad and should be removed from mom’s experience, which is ridiculous. You do need to feel guilty over some things so that, once again, you can learn from them.
But if ‘mommy guilt’ is so good, why are so many people speaking out against it? First, there are those who speak out against it because they don’t want to have to be responsible for their own behaviour and having to make changes to their lives. These people need a serious reality check because all they’re doing by ignoring the guilt is harming their child. No one is perfect and we’re bound to make mistakes, but guilt is our way of telling ourselves that we need to shape up in one domain or another and we need to listen to that. Second, and I believe this to be a greater issue, people tend to feel guilty over too many things, not all of which are to do with what’s best for baby or mom, but what they believe society wants from them. In this case, listening to the guilt is also a good thing only the response is to truly analyze why you’re internalizing society’s expectations instead of your own.
In fact, it may be that what people are referring to when talking about ‘mommy guilt’ is actually ‘mommy shame’. In shame, one views themselves as being less than worthy and is typically a response to something social, whereas guilt is really a feeling of regret over a wrongdoing one has done. Although guilt has been related to positive outcomes, such as empathy and prosocial behaviour (as previously mentioned), shame has no such correlates. It has been said that “shame is associated with the desire to undo aspects of the self, whereas guilt is reported to involve the desire to undo aspects of behavior”. This distinction is key as no one should intentionally make a person feel debased in such a way, but we also must realize that guilt does not do that, and people can and should feel badly about certain actions without it having to affect their sense of self. (We have a newer problem of people crying “shame” when no such thing has occurred and this seems to be misplaced guilt. Trying to turn guilt into shame and flipping it on others isn’t helpful either.)
A mother shouldn’t be made to feel shame over many choices or actions, but if you feel guilty about something, you should listen to that. Simply pushing it aside or repeating mantras about refusing to feel guilt for one’s actions doesn’t benefit you at all because it only allows you to master the art of ignoring your instincts. The fact remains that you’re feeling guilty for a reason and you should address what that reason is. Guilt is powerful and shouldn’t be ignored, especially not in favour of “anything goes” attitudes. If you listen to your guilt, it can be used for good. It can make you a better person, and more importantly, a better parent.
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 Ibid, citing: Niedenthal PM, Tangney JP, & Gavanski I. “If only I weren’t” versus “If only I hadn’t”: Distinguishing shame and guilt in counterfactual thinking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1994); 67: 584-595.