**This is a Guest Post from Clare Kirkpatrick is a former NCT breastfeeding counsellor with over eight years experience of supporting parents in the early years of their children’s lives.**
I did a brief search of google for things to do with guilt – firstly just guilt as it stands, and then guilt with regard to motherhood and parenting. I also used different search terms – firstly ‘how not to feel guilty’ and secondly ‘made to feel guilty’ and boy was there a difference in the number of links returned! And, guess what! When I put in ‘made to feel guilty’ without any other words, so with no reference to parenting, nearly all the links were to do with decisions made by mothers (warning, some of these are links to the Daily Mail, you won’t be surprised to hear!):
“Made to feel guilty for being a SAHM” (stay at home mum)
These were all on the first page! How is it that for most of our lives we only feel guilty for making truly bad decisions – immoral or unethical ones – but when we become parents, we feel guilty for nearly every decision we make? And how is it that we are not just feeling guilty, but feeling that we are made to feel guilty? Who is it that is making us feel guilty? The Collins definition of guilt is:
guilt (ɡɪlt) — n
1. the fact or state of having done wrong or committed an offence
2. responsibility for a criminal or moral offence deserving punishment or a penalty
3. remorse or self-reproach caused by feeling that one is responsible for a wrong or offence
Apply this to parenting decisions – let’s go for formula feeding – and you can see how misplaced it really is:
1. the fact or state of having chosen the wrong method of feeding your baby
2. responsibility for the decision to formula feed, which is deserving punishment or a penalty
3. remorse or self-reproach caused by feeling that one is responsible for choosing the wrong method
Well, as formula feeding is not ‘wrong’ or ‘an offence’, we can strike out the first one. And as it certainly is not something deserving of punishment or penalty, we can lose that one too. So we’re left with: ‘remorse or self-reproach by feeling that one is responsible’.
This whole issue is so tangled and messy, it’s very difficult to tease out what exactly is going on and why. The fact is that there is usually plenty of incontrovertible evidence why one choice is better for your child than another in terms of physical health. We know that formula feeding carries more risks than breastfeeding; that putting your young baby to sleep in his own room carries more risks than having him sleep in your room; that not using a car seat carries more risk than using one; and that feeding your child McDonalds every day carries more risk than feeding him fresh fruit and vegetables.
But if we remove the children factor, why do we not feel guilty whenwe choose to do things that we know carries risk: dashing across a busy road; smoking; drinking; rock climbing? The reason is, I believe, because we are all very comfortable with the idea of making informed decisions about ourselves. We are all very comfortable with the idea of taking responsibility for ourselves as adults.
But very few of us are comfortable with the idea of being totally responsible for the safety and well-being of our children – let’s face it, it is terrifying!
Nearly every parent wants his or her child to grow up safely and happily, and yet that responsibility is so weighty that it often doesn’t disappear even when your children are grown. Many parents of grown children will tell you they still worry about their children, and about how their parenting may have caused any problems they’re going through now.
So we agonise over every decision; we read everything we can on the subject; and we try to make the best decision we can…until we read something else that contradicts other stuff we’ve read. We’re told that breast is best in one breath, but we hate breastfeeding, and then we read that a ‘happy mother means a happy baby’ so we stop breastfeeding…we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.
And this is where the ‘made to feel guilty’ bit comes in, but it’s not true. We can’t be made to feel anything. Every feeling we have is our responsibility. We can choose whether we feel angry or sad or happy or guilty. It may not feel like we can choose, but, ultimately, we can.
We don’t have to feel guilty when we read the piece of research that says ‘whatever you do, don’t feed apples to your children!’ because we’ve spent the last five years cutting up ‘apple moons’ for them to eat for a snack. Wecould just shrug our shoulders and say ‘well, I did my best’. We don’t have to feel guilty when we put our children into nursery. We could just shrug our shoulders and say ‘it’s the best I can do at the moment’. We don’t have to feel guilty that our children spent three hours (or more!) in front of the TV yesterday. We could just shrug our shoulders and say ‘it’s the best I could manage’.
The fact is, as I have said in the past on here, children can cope with nearly everything so long as they know they are loved. Yes, formula feeding carries risks, but so does being breastfed by a mother who is doubled over in pain – both physical and emotional; who cries with grief at every feed, and who hates being a mother with every fibre of her being because she hates breastfeeding and is doing it only because she thinks she should.
Yes, it’s best if toddlers remain in the care of one or two adults who love them, but it’s also best if they’re not with their mother every minute of the day if she has got to the point where she is at the end of her tether and screaming daily at them. All we can do as parents is make the best decisions at the time, with the knowledge and resources (both emotional and financial) we have and the circumstances we’re in at the time. But we still feel guilty, right? We’re still made to feel guilty?
This blog says that:
Guilt is an attachment to judgement.
But who is judging? Well, anyone who visits parenting forums will know that an awful lot of judging comes from other parents. We also know that some health care professionals can be judgemental – again, visit any parenting forum to read about situations when that has happened.
But does that mean we need to judge ourselves? And why do we feel we are being judged by newspaper articles, blogs and parent-helpers (breastfeeding counsellors, parentcraft educators) who are simply trying to impart information and are probably doing their best to be anything but judgemental.
I have so far had only one accusation of being judgemental on The Awakend Parent. Someone said that my articles that were full of the evils of formula milk made her feel guilty. You can read every single post over there and you will find nothing that says that I think formula milk is evil, but she (and other women) have such strong feelings of guilt and self-judgement that they see it in places where it isn’t there.
I wish I knew the answer to the question of parental guilt, but here are some tips that may help you if it’s something you suffer with:
- Be kind and compassionate to yourself
- Imagine your son or daughter feeling this way about his or her children and what you would want to say to them
- Know that guilt wastes time and energy that you could be spending in much more productive ways
- Know that most people who try to impart information are doing only that
- When you are feeling judged, ask yourself why that person feels a need to be judgmental and whether your emotional reaction is appropriate, or necessary
- Learn to live in the present – looking back to the past is not helpful. If you feel you’ve made a mistake, note it, and then move on
- Love your children
- Love your children some more
- And when you’ve done that, make sure you love yourself plenty too!
Clare Kirkpatrick is a former NCT breastfeeding counsellor with over eight years experience of supporting parents in the early years of their children’s lives. She is passionate about helping parents to hear and to heed their inner wisdom and writes about how to parent the way individual families feel is right for them despite what everyone else around them is doing. She blogs at The Awakened Parent (formerly Free Your Parenting) and also holds circles in Gloucester, UK, where mothers can come and have a chance to speak their stories and feel truly heard and held.