getting over guilt

Stop the self-blame cycle: You'’re a better mom than you think.

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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.”

When guilt is good

Just because guilt makes you feel bad doesn’t mean it always is bad. In fact, it can prompt you to act positively, according to Hardy. “Guilt is a motivator,” she says. “If a mother feels guilty that she’s not spending enough time with her child, she’ll make more time.” Feel guilty about missing your prenatal vitamin this morning? You’re unlikely to forget it tomorrow. Kicking yourself over your child’s first sunburn? Next time out, you’ll remember the sunscreen.

“Guilt is good when it’s due to something that you really are responsible for and can apologize for,” adds Stern. Perhaps you gave your toddler daughter a time-out for something it turns out she didn’t do, and you feel guilty about it. “You can say, ‘I made a mistake,’ and tell the child why it’s a mistake. This way, guilt can be used to show a child how to cope with fallibility.”

Of course, not every guilty moment can be used as a learning experience. In those cases, the anxiety that is provoked by the emotion is simply wasted energy. “Guilt is not good or useful when it doesn’t motivate positive behavior or when the source of the guilt is not under a mother’s control to begin with,” Hardy says. “So it doesn’t do any good to feel guilty about putting your child in day care if you simply have no other choice.”

Getting rid of guilt

Knowing that the guilt you feel is doing you no good is one thing; doing something about it is another. How can you sweep guilt out of your life? “If you can’t change the source of the guilt,” says Hardy, “then you need to work either on reframing the situation in your mind (‘I hate leaving my child in day care, but I’m providing food and shelter for her as well as a positive role model’) or on modifying your behavior in some way (‘I hate leaving my child in day care, so I’ll make sure to put aside some time at the end of the day just for him’).”

Moms who’ve been there have come up with different strategies for working through the self-blame cycle. Some women actually set aside one afternoon each week to mentally kick themselves for all the mistakes they’ve made; when a guilt-provoking situation comes up during the rest of the week, they simply file it away for later.

If that seems too contrived for you, you could always try the “bad daddy” test. “One thing I do when I get a ‘bad mommy’ attack is try to turn it around,” says Hilary Perkins of Webster Groves, Mo., mother to 3-year-old Maia Langdon. “For instance, my husband both picks up and drops Maia off at day care. I started to feel guilty, thinking they probably considered me a bad mommy because they rarely saw me. Then I thought, ‘There are probably tons of families where they see only the mother; does that make the dads ‘bad daddies’? Probably not. End of guilt.” Translation: Women need to stop being so hard on themselves.

“Kids are awfully resilient,” Hardy says. “Yelling at your child once or twice is not going to do lasting damage. Most of the good that a mother does far outweighs the bad, so mothers need to remind themselves of these good traits and behaviors whenever they get a case of the guilts.”

Banishing guilt is fundamentally a process of modifying your expectations of yourself, of understanding just what you can and cannot control. “We are not responsible for our children’s thoughts, personalities, vulnerabilities or strengths,” says Stern. “We are responsible for keeping them safe, for making them see the world as an interesting place, for encouraging them to explore. A parent’s task is not to drive children through life, but to teach them to drive so they can find their own way.”

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