We 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 three in the morning. 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: apologize 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.