Getting Rid of the Guilt After Postpartum Depression

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guiltWe have all felt it at one time or another: Guilt.  It is a word that you will find everywhere in almost anything that is written to, for, or about motherhood.  “Mommy-guilt” they call it.  “It is just part of the game,” I have heard people say.  Bloggers, journalists, TV writers say all the time that motherhood simply comes with guilt. Moms feel guilty that they can’t give enough, do enough, and be enough to everyone who needs them all of the time.

Okay, so if moms who are functioning to capacity feel guilt, what about the mom who has struggled with a postpartum mood disorder like postpartum depression?  Sure, these moms feel guilty about not having the energy to play as they imagined.  They feel guilty for being irritable towards their spouse, partner, baby, or children.  They feel guilty that they haven’t done the laundry in weeks and the house is a mess.  They feel guilty that they have not returned phone calls and emails, or sent thank you notes. They feel guilty that they are serving frozen pizza and mac-n-cheese instead of the home cooked meals that they imagined.  They feel guilty for getting an epidural, or not breastfeeding, nor not enjoying teeny tiny diapers at 3am.  They feel guilty for wanting to go back to work.  Or for wanting to stay at home.  They feel guilty for not wanting to have sex.  For wanting to take breaks. For taking breaks.  And for wanting and needing childcare support.  But on top of all of these “shortcomings” moms with postpartum depression feel guilty that they aren’t meeting societal norms about motherhood. In their deepest and darkest places they feel guilt about being so miserable at a time when moms are told that they “should” feel unmatched joy, bonding, and enlightenment in motherhood.  And for moms with PPD, guilt is a symptom that is often the last to be remedied.

That’s a lot of guilt.

Guilt is both a curious and also devastatingly destructive emotion. It lingers. It takes up space.  So often it creeps in with such force that it begins to define us. We feel inadequate, flawed, unworthy and damaged.  Our guilt crushes us.  And, with that, it creates an invisible but VERY visceral wall between us and the people we love.

If you have ever worked with me in my practice, you will have heard me talk extensively about emotions, their role and their importance in our lives.  As difficult as feeling emotion can be, it does actually serve purpose.  And, so if this is true, what on earth is the purpose of a not-so-friendly emotion like guilt?  On a good day, guilt lets us know that we have done something wrong, and propels us to make amends, fix our mistakes and do better next time.  Guilt helps us gain a better sense of who we want to be and invites us to reexamine our choices and our behavior so that we don’t make the same mistake twice.  When it is serving its purpose, guilt can lead us to repair the mistakes that we make which, according to Donald Winnicott, actually make us better mothers.  But on a bad day, guilt can be unhealthy and inappropriate.  On these days, we are frozen by our guilt and we neither move to repair nor are we satisfied when we do.  On these days, guilt lingers and steals our attention away from the things that we want to be doing and the people (namely our babies) who we want so desperately to love.  It is in these instances that we believe we are punishing ourselves (because, well, so many of us believe that we should).  But, instead, we are continuing to punish those around us by making ourselves unavailable to the moment.

So, what can we do about this?  What can we do if that lingering guilt just won’t get off our backs?  What can we do if our postpartum depression has exited the center stage but it leaves its sidekick guilt in the picture?

First, I invite you to ask yourself this question: Is there something within my control that I can do to alleviate this feeling of guilt?  And if there is, do it: apologies to your spouse, your toddler, or your newborn.  Decide whether or not it is important for you to disclose information about your illness to family, friends, coworkers, and neighbors so that they understand why you have been distant, unavailable, less than productive, or less than friendly.  Write a group email and thank your support team and community for being there.  And then, forgive yourself.

Yes, I know, easier said than done.

And, for this challenge, I ask you this: Is what you are feeling actually guilt?  Is it directed at you?  Are you feeling this way because you have committed a wrong? Are you, indeed, guilty as charged?

Or is what you are feeling more likely regret?

I ask because the word makes a difference.  The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines guilt as the fact of having committed a breach of conduct especially violating law and involving a penalty.  And it defines regret as to mourn the loss of and to be very sorry for.  My guess is that if you really explore this question, you will find that what you are feeling is not guilt, but rather regret.  You regret that you were not able to breast feed (you mourn the loss of this experience).  You regret that you did not enjoy the early weeks or months of parenting (you mourn the loss of expectation). You regret that you were irritable with the people you love (you feel sorry about this).  And when you exchange the word “guilt” for “regret” its definition takes the need for punishment away.  Instead of insisting that you must be locked up and condemned for something, you simply allow yourself to be sad about an event, time, or situation that was missed.  And believe it or not, sadness is often a much more manageable emotion to tolerate.

Moms, you are certainly allowed to regret having struggled during pregnancy or postpartum.  And, instead of being harmful, allowing yourself to be sad about this might actually also help you to move on.

Photo credit: © Kheng Guan Toh – Fotolia.com

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  1. There's a really good book called The Language of Emotions and the author Karla McLaren explains all of the emotions and defines them just the way you do Kate. The benefit of every emotion is important to understand. I like the way you substitute regret for guilt. I work as a social worker with new moms whose babies are in the NICU and this will be really helpful as a lot of them talk about feeling guilt.

    Thanks so much!!

  2. I still struggle with guilt in many forms. What has helped me most is to talk about my feelings of guilt in relation to my struggles with PPD and PPA. I had been carrying around a lot of guilt. When I shared my story of guilt with my mom, I found out that it had been fear underneath that guilt. I felt so much better after talking to her.

    • That load of guilt can become really, really heavy, can't it? I am so glad that you are able to talk about this, Jenny. And you are absolutely right, so often that an emotion like guilt can be a response to an entirely different emotion that exists underneath.

  3. I was hit with a wave of emotions today while taking out some 3T clothes out of storage for my 2.5 yo. He is no longer a baby. That stage passed me by. I will never get that time back.

    I am also trying to deal with a fractured friendship. I had a relapse and isolated myself again for a couple months. I had previously disclosed to my friend that I have PPD so I though she would understand. Instead she got angry, thinking I had shut her out (when in reality I had shut EVERYONE out) and now she won't talk to me. I feel guilt (regret?) that this happened and that PPD becomes my excuse. If I want to heal this relationship, I have to be the one to reach out to hear and it just feels wrong. I was the one who was hurting and she should have reached out to me.

    • Deb – your friend is NO friend if thats the reaction you got. I am sorry you feel guilty over the loss of the friendship – but if anything she should have been supportive and caring and maybe even reached out and asked "hey you okay, havent heard from you in a while". I am guilty of hiding and shutting myself out from the world when my PPD demons strike. But i am blessed to have friends that understand and are supportive (even the girls that never suffered from PPD). I found awesome support on some FB sites and met and connected with awesome girls fighting the same fight as us. add of email me if you need a real friend or someone to just listen / understand. Hugs Dee (dee_gemme@yahoo.ca)

      • Thank you Dee. I was really caught off guard by her reaction. Instead of reaching out to me and seeing if I was okay, she accused me of shutting her out and got really angry. This was after my husband had talked to her and asked her to be persistent with us. My therapist says I need to call her and make things right again and I have therapy tomorrow night, so I better make that call in the morning! LOL!

    • Deb- Feeling that you have "missed" a large part of your baby's infancy and toddler-hood due to PPD can be a hard realization to work though… and it makes sense to me that you are looking back at this time with sadness. My hope is that you will give yourself permission to empathize with how difficult that must be rather than to feel that you need to punish yourself for this (or have you already realized that?) As for friendships, I am certain that you are not the only one who feels that friendships were lost during PPD or recurring illnesses- sadly, some people just won't be able to understand and when that happens, this is usually due to something entirely apart from you and not something that is within your control. This doesn't make that loss easier, of course, but perhaps shares a perspective that is helpful.

      All my best to you.

      • Thank you Kate! I am trying to enjoy this new stage–feeling more "alive" and enjoying my little guy instead of punishing myself. It was a really really hard time, compounded by some issues my DH was facing so he wasn't able to fully be there for me either. I was on Zoloft for 1.5 years and while it helped with the PPD symptoms, it made me numb and fuzzy, so I think that contributed to the lost time as well (if that makes sense). I changed meds when he weaned and of course have now been in therapy for a good chunk of time, so that helps too.

  4. Thank you for this post. I was just saying to my husband last night how guilty i felt for not enjoying Savannah as a baby (newborn). Its taken me 18 months for me to actually enjoy being a mum (also thanks to an awesome dr and PPD meds) I often wish i could have felt this well and alive while she was little. Thank you for helping us all heal, accept and move on from our regret (formally known as guilt).

      • For me feelings of guilt have also been coupled strongly with feelings of shame. In my darkest moments those feelings drove me to the edge and ending my life was the only solution I could see to end the pain I felt from the memories of what my family and I went through in the past two years. What my therapist pointed out to me was that I was carying the shame and guilt that was placed on me by profesionals who poorly understood my postpartum illnesses. I initially recieved inadequet psychiatric treatment and care then had doctors and social workers who did not know the difference between intrusive thoughts and true suicidal/homicidal idiation. This led to a nightmarish situation on top of the ppd/ppa and ptsd. The shaming that I experienced from a "system" that was supposed to help my family and I was devistating. It hindered my recovery as the consequenses for me added so much more stress and anxiety to our daily lives. In my good moments I am able to differenciate between what I am mourning due to this experience and what guilt and shame I can let go of since I don't have to claim or own other peoples hurtful reactions to me and my children. Knowing this and accepting it down to the very core of my being has carried we through to a place where healing and recovery are possible. Thank You so much for your post. I hope that it helps more mamas to be at peace with themselves no matter what circumstances they find themselves in.

  5. This article had me in tears. After my daughter's birth 9 years ago I strongly believe I suffered with PPD that went undiagnosed. This led to years of off and on depression that I only really came out of in the past couple of years. My memories of my daughter's first year are not good. All I remember is crying and more crying. She was a very difficult baby, but looking at pictures of her from that time made me realize that she was also a very happy baby. I started feeling guilty that I had no memories of that, in fact my memories were just the opposite. I am now expecting twin boys in the next few weeks and even tough I have set up a support system and have an OB monitoring my mental well being, I have been terrified that the same thing is going to happen. Renaming my feelings as regret really resonated with me and I hope will allow me to move past it as I welcome two new babies into our family.

  6. This has been interesting. I had to take the MMPI-2 some 4 years ago as part of a custody evaluation. Everything I responded to regarding my "guilt factor" was solely and exclusively related to motherhood and not being and doing good enough for my children, and how my experience in the spectrum of perinatal mood disorders factored into it. How I puzzled and baffled I was when the evaluator who analyzed and scored the test attributed this to having a slight "sadistic" personality tendency. Wow! So, there you have it: We as mothers and women have "mommy-guilt" because we enjoy inflicting emotional pain upon ourselves. Of course, this was a man, who upon admittance, had very limited knowledge off perinatal mood disorders. He mentioned this "charming" side note (referring to sadism) in his report (not mentioning the source – i.e. motherhood/perinatal mood disorders), which was used in court. How much I had wanted to &*!%!@ this evaluator…but then that would also validate and magnify my generalized anger issues.

  7. I'm also in the throes of guilt. I've made it through the PPD but now I realize how much I missed out on. As spring sprung this weekend I realized that I have very few recollections of this time last year when I was in the worst of my PPD. I missed out on so much but I do focus on what I have in the here and now, but the lingering guilt about not having had that canonical blissful motherhood experienced that I craved so badly after struggling through infertility and IVF, about still wondering if I do enough for my amazing child, and wondering if we connect fully and sufficiently plagues my less brilliant moments.

    • What you describe is so so difficult Lucy, and I believe interferes for many women who have suffered from PPD. It is a challenging boulder to move past, but the truth is that every moment you spend wishing that you could go back and redo really does take away from your time in the present from your sweet babe. I can tell from your post how much you adore your baby and how hard you worked to get her/him here… he/she is lucky to have a mom who cares so much. I encourage you to do what you can to stay present on what is within your control now- breath, choice, the fact that you and your baby are here together at this moment. YES- so much easier said and written than done, but also so hugely important. Therapeutic support can be very helpful in this if you do not have it already…

  8. As a possible comfort to those women on here that say the first year is a blur, or that they can't remember things…I have had three babies now. With the first, no issues, with the second I had quite bad PPD that went untreated for a year, with the 3rd well managed PPD. I too have struggled with guilt, but one thing I do know is that ill or well, those memories of early babyhood are almost impossible to hold on to. I am trying to embrace the changes in my children as they come, try to hold on to one or two little memories (I write things down once a month, it really helps rid me of anxious or guilty feelings about 'missing' their childhood) and believe that SOMEHOW, all the confused feelings of loss (loss of babyhood, dependance on you, whatever it is) and the joy of watching your child grow and mature are made right in the end. After becoming a mother, I liked to imagine part of heaven being a place where you can see your child in their completeness. The baby they were, the little toddler, teenager, a man (hard to imagine, but the day is coming). To be not constrained by chronological time, and biology…but to just see the whole person. Sounds cheesy, but it fills me with hope, and happiness. And that's good enough for me! :)

  9. Thank you so much for this. It was recommended to me by a mom on my PPD facebook group. It made me feel a little better!

  10. I was hospitalized twice with PPD after the birth of my first. She was three months old the first time I admitted I needed help and went to the ER, 4 months old when I ended up back at the hospital for the second time needing my medication adjusted. She'll be three years old next month. With my second, I did not have PPD and the difference between the two experiences has been like night and day. I still to this day, almost 3 years later, sometimes feel guilt/shame/regret. For having to stop breastfeeding so I could take the medication I needed to be able to take care of both of us, for everything I dealt with. I feel it a lot right now because I spent so much of her first year in a haze and this time I enjoy my baby and the time I spend with her and I REMEMBER it. I feel bad for not remembering and for spending so much time sitting around just staring into space or being so short-tempered or whatever. Even though I know it was all out of my control, those emotions still pop up sometimes and they're hard to cope with.

    Thank you for this post, it makes the coping a little easier.

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