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The Tapestry of Guilt- The Truth About Guilt and Parenting

by Jessica Martin-Weber

Trigger warning- sexual abuse mentioned.

Blooming amongst the hard places

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.

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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.

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Tone, filters, and information

Photo by Bas Silderhuis

Whenever I see articles talking about the importance of nutrition in pregnancy I get a little tense.  When recent articles came out about research findings that moms that eat a diverse diet of healthy foods during pregnancy expose their babies to flavors that can help them to be less picky and eat a wide range of healthy foods later, I had a momentary twinge of guilt.  With articles like that I find myself thinking “I guess I screwed up” and then “actually, they eat pretty darn well, thank you.  They turned out fine.”

I eat like crap when I’m pregnant.

An article like this one about how physical activity during pregnancy gives babies a “head start on heart health” cause me to want to curl up in the fetal position and cry that it must be my fault that Smunchie was born with a heart defect and I’ve probably taken years off her life because I didn’t exercise much during pregnancy.  In fact, I hardly got off the couch.

It’s not easy to hear that what we have done as parents may actually give our children a disadvantage or worse, hurt them.  In fact, it can be darn near crippling or lead us to defensive responses of anger.

Those articles all hit a sore spot for me, the vulnerable spot of the reality of my pregnancies.  With every one of my pregnancies so far I have battled hyperemesis gravidarum.  Due to extreme nausea and vomiting I lose tremendous amounts of weight and usually don’t even get back to my prepregnant weight by birth.  With my worst pregnancy I was down to 83 pounds at 5 months pregnant.  Instead of a diverse diet of healthy foods, I can’t even keep down prenatal vitamins and pick what I will attempt to eat based on how it will come back up.  (FYI, ginger burns like hell and saltines rip up your throat and make it bleed.)  Regular IVs, PICC lines and an impressive drug cocktail closer to a cancer patient’s regime than anything pregnancy related get me through my pregnancies sometimes along with TPN and NG tubes.  Usually with multiple hospitalizations.  Kidney failure, liver problems, gall bladder problems, and permanent heart damage from severe dehydration have all come with having my babies.

This article just about broke my heart and the possibility that my children may experience long term health and behavioral issues as a result of my pregnancies is a tough reality to face.  I hate it.  It makes me angry.  I may even get defensive.

Sometimes all I want is someone to tell me it’s ok, that nutrition really isn’t that important and all that matters is that the baby is growing.  Not to dismiss the suffering of HG but to somehow alleviate my fears that artificial nutrition is really not that bad and that poor diet in pregnancy isn’t going to ruin my children for life.  After all, I want to say, Lactated Ringer’s and TPN (total parenteral nutrition) are specially formulated to be just as good as real food, right?

No, no they’re not and they come with some very real risks.  I really don’t want people to lie to me and more importantly, I don’t want to lie to myself.  It’s not even close to “just as good.”  But it is as good as I can get.

I’ve tried it all.  Eating the “right” foods, avoiding the “wrong” foods, detoxing, homeopathy, gut healing, a variety of testing, cleanses, herbs, chiropractic, acupuncture, positive thinking (can’t convince me I’m not puking though), prayer, supposed miracle drugs and so much more.  Nothing has worked.  Some have made it a little less awful.  Every time I’ve been afraid of what the medications will do to my baby but more afraid of what not being on them would mean for both of us.  It is not what I would choose and I grieve the loss of the pregnancy experience I had hoped to have.  And, I have to admit, sometimes when I hear that someone else has the perfect pregnancy with no problems and never even took a Tylenol I not only get a little jealous (or a lot, as in completely green… again) I may even get defensive even though what they’ve said really has nothing to do with me.

Do those articles set out to make me feel guilty that I barely eat during my pregnancies?  No, they are just sharing information and sometimes aim to encourage and inspire moms.  Do the moms celebrating their beautiful pregnancy experience do so to punch me in the gut and knock me down?  I’m pretty sure they are just excited about their own experience.  Does the fact that I have very little physical activity during the prenatal stage of my mothering make me a bad mom?  I don’t think so but it doesn’t mean I don’t wonder from time to time or that it doesn’t hurt a little when I’m faced with the reality that it really isn’t a good thing and could be putting my children at risk.  Blaming the information though doesn’t help me or make my reality better.  Hiding it, or worse denying it, doesn’t help anyone else either.

But maybe I have an acceptable reason that gets me off the hook?  Maybe because I had no choice and couldn’t move off the couch or do a prenatal work out with my IV I “shouldn’t feel guilty.”  (I thought this blog post from Analytical Armadillo about telling others they shouldn’t feel guilty was interesting.)  Some may say that but just as soon as some try to make me feel better about the reality of my situation, others will tell me I “should’ve tried harder.”  In fact, when I was pregnant with Lolie I had multiple psych evaluations and was told that if I just wanted my baby and if I would make up my mind to stop throwing up I would be able to eat.  If only that had worked.  It was in moments like those that I felt like nobody really heard me and my suffering and that maybe I was a really bad mom and didn’t deserve my children.  Where is that line?  When is the problem real “enough” that it  doesn’t deserve criticism?  And who gets to decide that?

What if I had just decided to be that way though?  What if I didn’t have HG and just had a normal pregnancy with normal pregnancy fatigue and nausea and I didn’t eat well or get off the couch?  I’m sure the harsh criticism would have been significantly more and maybe even deserved.  But what if there were other factors that others couldn’t see?  What if my husband wasn’t supportive of my pregnancy and I struggled with wanting my baby but having no support?  What if depression was already an issue for me and pregnancy changes led to more of a mental and emotional health battle?  What if no longer feeling in control of my body brought flashbacks of my sexual abuse history?  What if I was totally terrified at becoming a mother, giving birth or that if I moved wrong I’d hurt my baby?  What if I didn’t tell anybody what was really going on and instead I let people think I was selfish and lazy?

Harsh criticism only goes so far.  Occasionally it will inspire people to change but usually it inspires people to become defensive.  It’s hard to listen from a defensive position.  Dialogue, information sharing and genuine care, on the other hand, help people explore their own situations and choices honestly.  It is important to remember that the tone with which we share information can make a difference, making it personal towards someone else’s choices rarely is effective.  At the same time, when reading and receiving information readers bring their own baggage and filters to the message.  Remaining objective is incredibly challenging particularly when we live in a world where much of what we see and read is intended to rile us up and get a reaction.  A form of entertainment.  Even fairly objective peer reviewed studies can be reported in the news with headlines that immediately spark controversy and raise emotions that really have nothing to do with the study.  One I linked above reads as though women who love their babies will be doing prenatal work outs, leaving unsaid but certainly implied that not working out indicates a woman does not love her baby.  With tones like that the actual message can be a bit hard to accept.

Yet these caveats should not preclude us from sharing information.  In fact, we have a responsibility to share it.  My training as a midwife required me to learn a lot about prenatal nutrition and the impact it has on pregnancy, child birth and the health of the baby.  It took a while but I got over the urge to write in every margin on prenatal nutrition “but not always…”  Because ultimately that response was about me, not the standard, normal, healthy, low risk pregnancy these texts were talking about.  Over time I even developed sympathy for women dealing with normal nausea and vomiting in pregnancy, able to offer up suggestions that could help with their discomfort that never touched mine.  These days I can also legitimately celebrate with those that have healthy, normal pregnancies, gain weight without problem and enjoy food and I don’t take it personally or feel the need to remind them “not everyone can, you know.”  They’re not making a personal indictment against me and even if they were too, life is too short for me to dwell on that and let it get to me.  I know they legitimately don’t understand.  Frankly, I’m glad they can’t, I wouldn’t wish my pregnancies on anyone.  But I risk isolating myself, winding up in a dark, lonely hole of guilt and anger if I remain defensive towards the information and the people sharing it.

Whether we’re talking pregnancy health, birth choices, breastfeeding, formula feeding, or just about any other subject related to the choices we as parents have to make, sensitivity and recognizing our own filters in the conversation go a long way.  We should still share information, we should still read information and we hopefully do this in a safe community where processing the information can happen through trusting and supportive dialogue.  I hope that by keeping in mind the fact that we do not know everything there is to a person’s back story and why they make the choices they do we can remember to be more sensitive in how we share information.  I hope that by keeping in mind the fact that we all bring our own baggage to any topic we can remember to try not to take information sharing as personal jabs.  It is through these steps that we can support one another and make a difference for others.