When my daughter was a fledgling toddler, I would watch her sitting on the couch happily sucking away at her bottle and know for a fact that I was ruining her life. What if her “baba” fixation was behind her recurrent ear infections? What if her baby teeth rotted away? What if I was stifling her emotional growth? On the other hand, I would think, what if I forced her to wean? How could I just yank away her lovey, her crutch, the last vestige of her infancy? Sometimes I feel as if I’m drowning in guilt.
If I am, I’m not going down alone. Guilt is one of the universals of motherhood — even impending motherhood. My friend Diane spent a sleepless week certain that her occasional cups of coffee were doing untold harm to her unborn child. When her daughter was 1 year old, Ambre was convinced that her child wasn’t talking yet because of day care. Lisa was sure her daughter suffered socially from staying at home with her all day.
Some mothers even feel guilty that they don’t feel enough guilt. “There’s so much information out there about what you should and shouldn’t do that it just drives people crazy,” says Joanne Stone, M.D., a specialist in maternal-fetal medicine, perinatology and high-risk obstetrics and co-author of Pregnancy for Dummies (IDG Books Worldwide, 1999). “We need to give ourselves a break.”
Where does it come from?
My guilt trip began in my fifth week of pregnancy, when I broke out in hives and had to take a prescription antihistamine. For other women, the trigger is that one drink they had before they knew they were pregnant, the food they haven’t been able to keep down, the sex they had the night before they started spotting.
At the root of all this guilt is a basic issue of control, says Stone. We want to believe that we can keep our children — born or unborn — safe and healthy through sheer willpower. But we can’t. “Three percent of babies will be born with some sort of birth defect,” says Stone. “It’s nature, something we can’t control. Yet even though most of these things aren’t caused by anything mothers do, if something does happen, the first question they ask is ‘What did I do wrong?’”
Anxiety and self-blame don’t end with the birth of a healthy baby, either. Raising a child is chock-full of guilt-provoking choices, and everyone from the “experts” to in-laws seems to think it’s necessary to get in his or her two cents. “When parents follow their own instincts, they don’t feel guilt,” says Loraine Stern, M.D., an associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California, Los Angeles. “But when they’re assaulted by everyone’s opinion, it fosters that feeling.” Of course, relying on instinct is no guarantee of guilt-free motherhood: Some parents are bound to worry that they haven’t read enough or considered the right number of options to make informed decisions.
Blame social and biological forces. “There is significant pressure on women to be everything: good wives, good mothers and hard workers,” explains Marjorie Hardy, Ph.D., a clinical child psychologist at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., and a mother of two. “Often something has to give, and that is bound to lead to guilt.”
In addition, says Hardy, women often shoulder the lion’s share of guilt because of their hormonal programming. “An infant or child’s cry evokes a certain physiological response in women, motivating them to figure out what is wrong and help,” she explains. “If the mother knows she is the source of that crying — because she disciplined the child, left him at day care or is trying to get him to sleep through the night — then guilt is inevitable.”