Letting Go Of The Guilt

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shameI suffered from postpartum depression and anxiety with a side of OCD for two years after my first child was born.  And though I sought treatment and began my path to wellness after my baby had her 5 month birthday, it took every last day of that additional 19 months for me to feel like I wasn’t waiting for the other shoe to drop.  If you asked my husband, he’d tell you now that I’ve completely recovered from my PPD and from the antenatal depression that hit when my second child was still baking.  But he’d also tell you that I still suffer.

I know now that I suffered from anxiety and OCD symptoms for years before having children.  My anxiety diagnosis is not going anywhere – and I’ve made peace with that.  I see my doctors regularly, take my medications daily, and make a point to be mindful of my emotional health.  When I have a bad day – a panic attack, a  moment of anxiety, or a day of feeling like I want to just stay in bed – I have the tools and the support now to reach out and ask for help.  I can identify the anxiety and often stop it in its tracks.  My mental illness may always be there, but it’s managed.  And in the last 5 years, the most important thing I’ve learned is that I don’t have to wait to be perfectly healthy to be happy.  So though I still struggle with anxiety, that’s not why my husband would tell you I suffer.  He would tell you of the guilt.

No matter how hard I try, that guilt monster rears its ugly face.  I say “monster,” because that’s what it is – an ugly, twisted creature that deserves no place in my life or my thoughts.  It’s clandestine and voracious and likes to hide until just the right moments.  And though my rational mind knows that I did absolutely nothing to deserve or cause my PPD, I still find myself fighting to let go of the past.

The guilt was amplified when my second daughter was born and I experienced joy.  Unadulterated, life-affirming joy.  I was fortunate to work with an amazing doctor early in my pregnancy and not only was her delivery a happy time, but my pregnancy was too.  Postpartum, I found myself enamored with my new baby.  Bonding came quickly and easily and she brought me a sense of completion.  It was everything that was missing with my first baby, and the shame hit me in waves.  With each gentle nursing session and snuggly late-night feeding, I was reminded of the screaming and the detachment those early days and nights brought with my eldest.

Most recently, the guilt resurfaced while I was struggling with the idea of taking my 5 year old daughter to therapy for her violent outbursts and non-compliant behavior.  It was more than a feeling that I had caused her problems by failing as a parent – it suddenly hit me that she must be this way because of how I treated her as an infant.  I found myself sobbing and asking trusted friends, “how can this not be my fault?  Those early days were so, so ugly.”  And they were.  I have vivid memories of screaming at my 10-day old baby, “what the fuck do you want from me?”  Even now, typing those words is hard.

And then a good friend wrote me a letter and said this:

“I know right now you are worried about E.  Of course you are.  Your sweet, imperfect, first baby.  But you worry that it’s your fault.  It is.  It’s your fault she’s smart, emotional, a touch socially awkward, and painfully self-aware.  Let’s just own that for a minute because really, it’s wonderful.  But that lucky, lucky girl, she has the gift of a mom who sees her, who accepts imperfection, who asks for help.  You don’t know how much I longed for that. I bet you did, too.”

As the hot tears rolled down my face, I knew she was right.  I did not ruin my daughter.

I did nothing to deserve or cause my PPD.  The guilt monster will not own me with its lies.  If my daughter suffered because of my PPD, it was not my fault.  But the triumphant, sensitive, wonderfully imperfect little girl she’s growing into?  That’s all me.  I still regret that it took me so long to get help – but regret is not guilt.  There is no shame in regret… only a wish for the past to be a bit different.

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I think coping with the guilt that accompanies antenatal and postpartum mood and anxiety disorders is a common experience for many warrior moms.  I want you to know that, like me, you did nothing to deserve or cause your PPD.  You are exactly the mother your child needs and wants.  You deserve to be happy and healthy.

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About Susan Petcher

Susan is an elementary teacher-turned stay-at-home-mom who has her hands in a little bit of everything. When she's not parenting or teaching piano lessons, you can find her blogging about mental health or crocheting her anxiety away. She writes at http://learned-happiness.com, pimps her wares for yarn money at http://etsy.com/shop/learnedhappiness, and tweets @learndhappiness.

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  1. Thank you once again, Susan. Thank you thank you. I am still fighting. My son is 2 years and 2 months. It is all so complicated and I am so frustrated. I don’t want to miss another precious second with him. Thank you for being a voice for all! I check in here daily. Hugs and love to you and your family. xo

  2. This is such a great article and such an important topic for all of us to grasp and internalize. You wrote this SO well. <3

  3. I am SO eternally grateful for people like you who are willing to graciously bare it!!! I, too, have screamed at my children – recently – and feel horrible about it. The shame is just suffocating. Not that I walk in it daily, but in the off-chance I have an opportunity to share honestly with someone, I don’t. I am relieved to know I am not alone in things like using the F word toward my poor children in that moment of despair. It gives me a bit of hope that I CAN share, at least somewhere, with someone who understands.

    • Sarah,
      You are absolutely not alone. It gets easier to share the more you practice doing it, but it is *so* scary to put out there. I have good friends who always remind me that I am a good mom. That support makes it easier to let go of the shame. Sending you so much love and understanding.

  4. I love this article It has enlighten and reenforced so many things and my first is almost 40. I had often wished when he was growing into an adult that I could do the first over so I could correct all my mistakes, except that I loved him so. Then when he was an adult he hurtfully said that he liked who he was and I needed to stop saying I made mistakes, cause he wasn’t. He was so right. For him to have that believe meant I had done things right, even still it has been hard to let the guilt go, it almost be comes too familiar.

    Those first babies are so precious and so strong and need to be celebrated as well as the Moms who love them and give us the gift of their being.