Thursday, January 5, 2006

The Art of Feeling Guilty

I think there's a real reason moms are known for dishing out the guilt. It's because they do. However, there's also a reason they're so good at it.

I've only been a mom for three years (and nine months, if you're counting gestation) and I've already managed to create enough guilt for myself to last a lifetime. I might as well spread the wealth.

Hell, I came home from the hospital feeling guilty because I couldn't breastfeed my son. I spent two sleepless nights in the hospital with him screaming bloody murder because he was hungry and I had no idea. I tried nursing him, but he would pull away, leading me to believe he was full. Poor guy was trying to tell me he wasn't getting anything. I wasn't producing enough colostrum or milk to sate his hungry little belly. And the nurses were no help. Not one of them ever suggested it might be hunger. They told me he was upset because I was upset. Welcome to the Wide, Wide World of Guilt.

After Brendan spent several hours under the bililights and our pediatrician convinced me that I had no choice but to supplement our breastfeeding with formula, we came home where I tried to discern what had gone wrong and how I could increase my milk production. And that was my first mistake.

Everywhere I turned for support, advice, or comfort, I found nothing but guilt, guilt, and more guilt. On one breastfeeding support board, I actually had another mother tell me that I was poisoning my son by giving him formula. She (and several others) suggested that I stop giving him formula immediately and only offer him the breast. She said that within five days my milk should come in. But when I tried this, he would try to nurse, staying on the breast for up to 30 or 45 minutes, only to start screaming his little head off within a few minutes because he was still hungry. I simply could not bear to see my son starving in this manner. I would pump fruitlessly and desperately, never getting more than 1/2 an ounce of breastmilk even after pumping for an hour with a good electric pump. I ended up going back to supplementing with formula after only two days, questioning the decision and counting myself as a failure and a quitter because I couldn't deal with a little crying from a starving newborn.

I was doing the very best I could. Yet, because a select group of women deemed themselves the arbiters of good mothering, I found myself so consumed with guilt and shame that I spent the first month of my son's life in misery because my body wouldn't do it's job. Never mind the fact that he was thriving.

I still feel sad that I wasn't able to exclusively nurse my son. In hindsight, I realize that I did absolutely everything within my power to nurture my son. If I hadn't supplemented with formula, who knows what complications might have resulted from a lack of proper nutrition in those first few weeks? Instead he thrived! He grew into a happy and contented little fellow who began sleeping through the night when he was eight weeks old.

He's three now and has never had an ear infection. I'm convinced this is a direct result of being on soy formula and not having any dairy until he was 12 months old. He has been incredibly healthy despite my only nursing him for 12 weeks.

Sadly, it has taken me this long to come to terms with this issue. And how many other issues have been wrapped expertly in the layer of guilt I apply to everything that isn't perfect?

Fortunately, I've discovered I'm not alone in this. Every mom I speak with on this topic finds herself conflicted when it comes to issues of parenting. One neighbor went back to work because she didn't feel fulfilled as a stay-at-home mother and would often find herself screaming at her kids out of frustration and anger. But then, when she returned to work she felt guilty for putting her own sanity ahead of what she had been told was best for her kids. Despite every ounce of evidence to the contrary -- she was a far better mother when she was working because she was a happier person -- she left her job after only a few months. She couldn't accept the fact that it's okay for a parent to put herself first sometimes and that having a stay-at-home parent is not necessarily the best option for every family, even if finances allow it.

Another mother I know, eats herself up with guilt whenever she yells at her kids. I'll admit I do the same thing. No sane parent enjoys yelling at her kids. But we're human and we make mistakes. The best we can do is admit when we're wrong and apologize for the way we might have mishandled a situation. Guilt, however, is simply not helpful. In fact, I'd venture to say it's quite harmful to us and our relationships with our children.

First, if end up yelling at our kids because they're not listening or following directions, and then we let ourselves become consumed with guilt, the next time we need to correct a child, we may find ourselves hesitating and not taking appropriate action. The kid will sense your fickleness and frailty and you'd better believe they'll take advantage of it.

I don't really have answers. Just hope. Hope that I can win the battle with guilt. Hope that I can encourage friends and loved ones who might be fighting the same battle.

Psychotherapist and social worker Debra Rosenberg extends the hand of hope in her book Motherhood Without Guilt. She explores the underlying causes of "mommy guilt" and offers practical, constructive approaches for escaping the cycles of guilt. Key to her approach, I believe, is reinforcing the notion that women need to take care of themselves in order to take proper care of their families.

Now, if only we can all indulge ourselves in a little "me time" without feeling bad, we'll be well on our way toward ridding ourselves of the plague of guilt.