by Jessica Martin-Weber
Trigger warning- sexual abuse mentioned.
This post is talking about guilt, settle in, it’s a long one because… guilt.
If I had a dollar for every time I hear a mother share her infant feeding story under a thick layer of guilt, I would be a wealthy woman. If I had a dime for every time I hear a mother share her pregnancy story, her birth story, her postpartum/newborn story, her parenting decisions and realities under that stifling wet blanket of guilt that turns so many beautiful stories into a dark, twisted confusing drama, I would be an incredibly wealthy woman. Lots and lots of companies are getting wealthy capitalizing on mothering guilt, it’s big business. Be it for the length of time they breastfed, how involved their partner could be with them breastfeeding, their child’s health issues, how many bottles their child received, if they used formula, how well pumping went for them, or how she feels about breastfeeding, often guilt is a regular theme in these stories. Permeating the pregnancy journey, birth experience, first days, recovery, relationships, the learning curve, sleep experiences, solids, purchases, you name it, guilt underlies even many of the joys. Guilt, regret, and grief. Bittersweetness. Through their tears or defensive tone, guilt and sometime shame underlie their words, a framework on which to hang their tapestry of fear that in reality they are inadequate.
And it hurts.
This guilt upon which their story is spread causes many of them deep yet inescapable pain. For some that pain has made them feel vulnerable to the attacks of others or even what they simply perceive as attacks from others when they share. For some that pain has made them harden, putting up their defenses and adding caveats to the stories of others. For some that pain threatens their very confidence, adding a sinister voice to the question so many find nagging within: am I enough?
I know guilt well. Far too well.
This emotion is triggered when we’ve done something wrong or wonder if we have done something wrong. It can be a very good thing, alerting us when we’ve gone off course or ignored our moral compass, inspiring education to learn how to do better. I’ve been grateful for guilt at times, it has helped me be a better person, a better friend, better worker, better partner, and a better mother. With an important purpose, guilt can help us keep our actions in line with our values. Brene Brown explains that guilt is about what we’ve done whereas shame is about who we believe we are. That’s where things get blurry. Sometimes guilt grows into shame and we question not only our actions but our very worth as a person as a result of those actions. Usually starting with “what kind of person/mother/partner/friend/daughter would DO that?”
Sometimes guilt is legitimate, we’ve done or not done something that doesn’t aline with our values. Sometimes we bring guilt on ourselves unjustly. Either because of the importance we’ve placed on something (i.e. I must have this kind of birth because it is the best and science says my child will have a better life if they are born this way) or because we punish ourselves for what we didn’t know. Sometimes guilt is a result of privilege, easily missed as being artificially manufactured from a culture of expected norms based in privilege. Sometimes guilt is triggered by someone else wanting us to feel guilty in an attempt to control us or make themselves feel superior. Some of us have mothers that are particularly skilled in this manipulation. True, nobody can make you feel anything without your permission but we are social beings who need community and our feelings are a part of that dynamic and they matter. Why else would we even want to be with other people and take that risk?
Guilt has woven in an out of my own mothering stories, still does. I have felt guilt over a great many choices, accidents, ignorances, and situations entirely out of my control in caring for my children; from how I ate during my pregnancies, how their births went, what I have fed them at meal times, car seat mistakes, educational choices, health care decisions, discipline choices, the mess of my house, you name it. In 16.5 years of parenting, my mothering guilt has built up quite a rap sheet. But it all pales in comparison to my greatest grief as a mother. In the shadow of this one thing, I see these other areas for what they really are: mistakes or insignificant variations from my plan that are nothing more than blips on the radar.
I may have wept when breastfeeding my 2nd daughter ended at 4.5 months, 8 months shy of my goal. Guilt accompanied me for a time that I wasn’t strong enough to push through excruciating pain, couldn’t manage her screams from reflux, and wasn’t able to find the bonding promised in breastfeeding and instead found each feeding session a blow to my already fragile mental health in the midst of fighting postpartum depression. It felt real and devastating at the time and I won’t minimize anyone’s struggle through such an experience, it isn’t easy. A few years later though, for me that seemed as small as guilt in having to throw away a ruined meal due to forgetting to set the timer.
No, the guilt I hold and have gone to therapy for years over stems from when I failed to identify someone who would hurt my children and failed to notice they were experiencing ongoing sexual abuse at the hands of someone I loved and trusted. That two of my children were used, their bodies abused and their spirits crushed because of a person, a 13 year old boy I brought into their lives and I couldn’t tell it was happening… that is a guilt and grief I have lacked the words to explain for 10 years. How could any good mother miss that? How could I have missed the warning signs that the perpetrator was a risk? How could I not have known? How could I have failed them and allowed them to experience so much pain?
Maybe I didn’t deserve to be a mother. Maybe my children weren’t safe in my care. Maybe… maybe I wasn’t enough.
I haven’t been alone with this guilt, my husband, their daddy, has battled it too. It has brought out in both of us at times protectiveness, aggressive fury, self loathing, depression, and fear. Oh so much fear. And shame. For a long time that’s really all there was, guilt, fear, and shame.
That was a terrible place to parent from. No confidence, nothing healthy. Nothing to help our children heal and recover. We were trying but it wasn’t working.
The abuse wasn’t really our fault but it kind of was too. Our therapist and friends would try to encourage us by reminding us that the one responsible was the one who did it. That’s true, he is responsible but then, we’re the ones responsible for our children. It could happen to anyone, they would say, and that’s true too, but it happened to our children and we were supposed to stop it. We did as soon as we found out and we fought hard for them, demanding justice, accountability, and help for their abuser. But it still happened. As our eldest fractured before our eyes, splintering into little shards of herself losing her kindergarten year to nightmares, outbursts, and locking herself in the bathroom to cry wracking sobs or worse, sit curled up in the corner without a sound as she picked at her skin, we could only blame the one that did this to a point. When you point one finger out, there are 3 pointing back at you.
Guilt sucks. Shame is an asshole. Fear is crippling.
Our daughters were hurting and they needed us. As much as I didn’t feel like I was the right mother for them, as much as my confidence was shattered, as much as I had already failed them, I was the mother they had. After CPS had investigated and cleared us, our children were stuck with us, failures and all, we were the only parents they had. It became time for guilt to do something positive, it was time for course correcting, time to educate ourselves and learn how to do better, time to grow. We had little confidence in our abilities as parents, just enough to believe that maybe our love for our daughters would be enough and we could learn and grow.
We did. The approach to parenting we had taken was ditched and we started over from scratch after careful analyses of what we had believed and practiced as parents. Not only did we want to change our parenting because we felt our approach had failed our daughters and enabled abuse, we also were creating mindful changes to support their healing. With a critical eye we dismantled it all. Reading sources on child development and parenting that took a different approach than what we had tried before and intensely scrutinizing our parenting that may have contributed to the abuse or made our children more vulnerable, we gradually developed a parenting philosophy we could put into practice that was drastically different. Proactive in getting our daughters help and altering how we parented led to healing and over time, confidence building for all of us.
Guilt, whether it was rightfully placed or not, helped us get to that place. Guilt that broke us.
We could have stayed in that place of guilt, eventually embracing and internalizing shame as parents but that would have been an even greater failure of our daughters. Moving on wasn’t the answer, getting over it, letting it go, wasn’t what helped us, it was moving into and through it that made the real difference. With the help of therapy and the sharing of a few other bold individuals, our family found our way to healing that led to thriving, strength, and confidence.
Guilt hasn’t disappeared from my life, I still make mistakes, still am disappointed with myself from time to time, still hurt when I can’t manage to be the “best” parent I have idolized in my head. From worry and guilt about what I did before I learned differently (car seat safety, sleeping arrangements, etc.) to guilt that we sometimes find ourselves short of the resources to help our children reach their goals (such as our eldest’s dance training- still so far from the funds she needs). It’s still there, still pushing me to learn and grow and sometimes to change and figure out how to do better. But it doesn’t get to stay around for long, my children need me too much to sleep with guilt. Now, as our eldest is 16, she’s taking her sexual abuse experience and turning it into something powerful. From my guilt has come this overwhelming pride confusingly mixed with humility. (Read her story here and listen to her share in her own voice here.) And I’m done wasting time feeling guilty about things like formula feeding my 2nd (never had much guilt there actually, it was necessary and right for us), over guilt for things I didn’t know, past guilt issues out of my control, and moved on from guilt that I am human and make mistakes. Now when guilt pops up, I sit and examine it, question the source, and assess if it is genuine or artificially manufactured. Then I determine what I need to learn from it and dismiss it from my life so I can get on with the growing and learning. There are those that want me to wallow in it and try to throw it in my face from time to time, those that attempt to feel better about themselves by attempting to provoke guilt in me, and even those that try to turn it into shame so I question my very worth. They are powerless over me now because I’m no longer afraid of guilt, I can use it to grow. In the big picture, so much of the guilt we hold onto is for mistakes, wrong-doing, ignorance, or bad choices that are not lasting issues. I’ve survived true guilt for something so terrible, I already know the truth.
Even with my mistakes, even with my failures, I am enough.
And I don’t judge other parents or wish guilt or shame on them. Because now, I know it can happen to anyone. Even accidentally leaving a child in the car on a hot day.
I am a rich woman today, not in material possessions or my bank account. The wealth I treasure today is the intricate tapestry of experience in my family. Guilt has a place but it doesn’t own me or define me and it is my hope that every parent that truly loves their child and is willing to grow and learn as they parent will take the inevitable guilt they will encounter as they care for their children and turn it into something beautiful and enriching. Because when we know we are enough, our children can believe it for themselves too.
My eldest, 16 year old Ophélia talks openly about her experience healing from sexual abuse, you can learn more about how she is now working to help others even as she continues to grow and heal by going here. To support her in that journey, see her fundraising video (she’s still a long way from her goal) here.