Why Do I
Feel So Guilty?
Verdict Is . . .
Michael, our first child, was three months old. I had successfully maneuvered the initial months of motherhood and now felt like an expert at changing diapers without getting squirted, bathing him, relieving his gas pain, buckling him into a car seat and singing lullabies. One week, I began to notice a dramatic decrease in the number of messy diapers my son was making. Not that I missed cleaning the mustard diapers, but I called the pediatrician to make sure everything was okay. My son had gone four days without a BM. Was that normal? The doctor reassured me that breast-fed babies often produce little waste. The days of poop-free diapers extended to twelve. I became very concerned and took my bundle of joy into the doctor's office. When they put him on the scale, the nurse informed me that Michael had lost a significant amount of weight since his last visit. 'Your body doesn't seem to be producing enough milk for him. Your baby has been undernourished for the past month.'
As a young mother I panicked. I burst into tears on the way home, begging my little Michael for forgiveness. 'I am so sorry. I have been starving you!' All of my perceived victories as a new mom evaporated into one big failure. I felt so inadequate! This was my first vivid encounter with what I then knew would be my constant tormentor as a mother: guilt.
As I walk through daily life as the mother of three young children, I am constantly reminded of endless opportunities to feel guilty. It seems that everywhere I turn, my shortcomings are evident. I cannot do everything perfectly. I often feel overwhelmed. I lose my temper. I am embarrassed by my children's behavior, and I am baffled by my own inconsistency.
As I talk with other mothers, both socially and in my practice as a psychologist, I see that they, too, battle the ever-present shadow of guilt:
- --Your child's friends can all recite the alphabet, but not your little girl. What are you doing wrong?
- --You read an article reminding you that kids need at least four to five servings of fruit and veggies a day. The only ones your child will go near are ketchup and French fries. Are you setting your children up for future health problems?
- --At a parent-teacher conference, you learn that your ten-year-old daughter is goofing off and not completing homework assignments. The teachers suggest that maybe she has attention deficit disorder and you should consider giving her medication. Did you let your daughter watch too much television as a child, and why didn't you notice her problems earlier?
- --You pick up your son from Sunday school to learn that he has punched a fellow classmate. Where is his self-control?
- --You arrive home from having dinner with a friend to find your son with an enormous bandage on his head and scrapes on several other body parts. He had fallen out of a tree while you were painting the town. Would he have been hurt if you were home to protect him?
Moms with young children are not the only ones to feel guilty. Many mothers don't even feel a reprieve from guilt when their children turn into adults. It may seem that everywhere a mother looks she can see how her faults have damaged her children. I have met with many mothers of adult children who regularly agonize over how their mistakes may have set their children up for pain and failure.
'Maggie just won't stand up for herself. She's been walked over and taken advantage of her whole life. I should have been a stronger role model or encouraged her to be more assertive. I feel so responsible for the abusive relationships she gets into. And now it's hurting my grandchildren!'
Why do mothers struggle with such guilt? Although fathers may have some regrets and fears for their children, mothers seem to be consumed by them.
When she is handed that precious child, every mother is struck with the reality of how much this fragile life depends upon her. I can't believe they are letting me take this baby home! she thinks as she and her baby are escorted from the hospital. She must feed, clothe, bathe, comfort and love this little one, or no one will. Even if she has been around infants before, her first moments of motherhood are filled with a new appreciation for how enormous this responsibility is.
As infants grow into children, children into teens and teens into adults, a mother's understanding of her responsibility only becomes greater. A seven-year-old doesn't need her diapers changed, but she needs direction and comfort in dealing with relationships and rejection. A fourteen-year-old boy may be capable of basic self-care, but he needs his mother's loving direction to navigate through the fears and challenges of adolescence. Suddenly the memories of changing diapers and midnight feedings seem simple compared to the challenges of parenting this developing child. If only his problems were that simple again, moms lament.
With each new stage of development come a handful of opportunities to experience failure. For example, when my oldest son started school, I certainly didn't anticipate a battle with guilt. Having spent twenty-four years of my life in school, I didn't think twice about the transition. Boy, was I in for a rude awakening! Being a student is much easier than being the mother of a student. I was forever forgetting which day was show-and-tell, losing field-trip forms and sending him to school out of dress code. The worst of it was that school presented the opportunity for my mothering to be compared with all of the other mothers. While some moms brought in homemade cookies formed in the shapes of the alphabet, I sent in Oreos. I could hardly manage to keep carpooling days straight while it seemed that other moms knew the names of all the kids in the class.
The culmination of my 'kindergarten guilt' came when Michael's class was putting on a teddy-bear play for the school. Each mom was told to make a bear costume for her child to wear in the play. I can't even sew a button on right! The night before the costumes were due, I scrounged through the closet and found an old Winnie the Pooh costume. Unfortunately, it was two sizes too small. 'Wait! There is also a Tigger costume just Michael's size. This looks sort of like a bear.' I sent it to school with him. When I picked Michael up, he had his Tigger costume with him. 'Michael, why are you taking your costume home when the play is tomorrow?' Michael informed me, 'My teacher said I can't wear it. She asked another mom to make me a bear costume.'
Since that day, I have had nightmares that my son will fail kindergarten because of something I forgot. Sure, I could get a doctorate, but I can't get my kids out of preschool. As inconsequential as my teddy-bear failure was, it struck a chord with the deep fears of my inadequacies and the effects they may have on my kids.
While many of the mistakes we make end up being innocuous, what mother doesn't worry that her failures and shortcomings will harm her kids? One mother told me that she is not only saving for her children's college but also for their therapy. 'I don't know how I am messing them up, but I know I am. The least I can do is help them pay for professional help!' she joked.
The decisions that mothers make—from the eating habits they teach their kids to how they respond to misbehavior and how they communicate love—greatly affect their children. As moms, we know this. Our past only confirms this fact. It doesn't take much reflection to conjure up realities of how your mother's strengths and weaknesses have affected you. Many among us continue to deal with scars from our own mothers' failures. This makes us acutely aware and fearful of how our imperfections may be magnified in the lives of our children.
Both deliberate and incidental mistakes that mothers make have the potential to substantially alter the course of their children's lives. I recently met with a young mother who was feeding her child on her lap at a restaurant. Along with the food, the mother ordered coffee. While arranging the food on the table, the toddler pulled the coffee off the table onto his lap. The hot liquid absorbed into his clothes causing third-degree burns. The boy required several months of hospitalization and surgery to recover. Even so, he will bear the scars of this accident for the rest of his life.
Stories such as this drive fear into the hearts of mothers. It only takes one minute of lapse or one seemingly harmless decision to cause tragedy in the lives of our children. Accidents, mishaps, poor decisions and those seeking to harm our children seem to lurk in every corner, reminding us of how important it is that we be perfect. At countless times in my own parenting, a close call could have been a tragedy.
What about the little choices that we make every day? Isn't it the daily interactions that result in the values and decisions our children ultimately choose? The mother of a pregnant fifteen-year-old searches memories of her daughter's childhood to discover what misleading messages she may have given or mistakes she made that have led to this misfortune. A teenage son is kicked out of school for involvement with drugs. How might parenting failures have contributed to these mistakes?
The combination of a mother's influence and her imperfections create guilt. Every mother knows that she will fail to influence her children perfectly. She will, therefore, wonder if weaknesses or struggles in her child's life are the result of her failure.
Why We Feel Guilty
Although guilt is no stranger to the average mother, we usually do not think about our guilt and understand its significance in our lives. Like a pesky bee that buzzes and threatens to sting at any time, we try to swat away guilt or dodge its path. Rarely do we tackle it head on.
Feelings of guilt result when you believe that you have failed at something. When you do ...