20 September 2012

Mother Guilt: To Be Or Not To Be

Hello Everyone

Sometimes I think we confuse guilt and regret. I know I have and still do. As adults, I don't think anyone makes us feel anything we feel, including guilt. I think we listen to our conscience, weigh things up and then feel what we feel.

Here in Australia it seems most TV coverage about mothering and/or choice of infant-feeding disintegrates quickly into a conflict of 'Us vs Them' - breastfeeders vs bottlefeeders. Comments like "Just one more thing to make us feel guilty" or "As if we haven't already got enough to feel guilty about" tend to become the focus of the reporting, and especially when it's about new research into breastfeeding.

More often than not this snowballs into a kind of generalised rear-guard action by the various TV commentators; defending those who are not, could not or chose not to breastfeed. The original 'news' gets hijacked and becomes another insignificant sound byte; another irrelevant snippet of information amidst the many of that day. Like others, my perceptions of this situation are influenced by the beliefs and values formed by my life experience. I feel mostly sadness when I see this happen. I also feel anguish and frustration.

Does it have to be like this? I suspect there are many reasons, most of which are well-intentioned at heart. I tend to think it's mainly an attempt to avoid hurting the feelings of mothers who intended to breastfeed their babies but for whatever reason, either ended up weaning before they were ready or felt pressured to keep going when they really didn't want to.

A week or so ago I attended a one-day workshop in Sydney where this topic was mentioned briefly by one of the speakers. Her main point was about the subtle difference between 'guilt' and 'regret'. Hearing this reminded me of my experience of trying to breastfeed my first baby in 1982. I started feeling guilty about one year later and couldn't work out why - that took another couple of years. I had been learning about breastfeeding and began to think that I should have known better - hence the guilt. After a while I was able to integrate that knowledge into the context of my circumstance and the guilt gradually dissolved.

There are two things I now regret about that time. The first is being separated from my daughter for about four hours immediately after birth. No reason was given and I didn't ask; simply because neither the hospital staff nor I knew then what is known now about the importance of skin-to-skin contact. The second is for following the advice of the mother in the bed next to mine; a lovely lady who was also a midwife and had just given birth to her third child. When my daughter wanted to feed, out came her stopwatch to make sure I was changing sides every 10 minutes. I ended up with engorged breasts, cracked nipples and then mastitis when I got home. Again, neither of us knew any different but we both believed then that timing feeds was the 'right' thing to do.

Doing what we believe to be right at a particular time and within a particular circumstance is all any of us can do. Our perception of what is right and our capacity and/or willingness to carry that out will always be different to everybody else's. For me, the seeking of knowledge and passing of time transformed my guilt into regret, and that sits well enough.

Every mother has her own story, her own set of circumstances; all unique. I agree wholeheartedly with Sydney-based Psychologist Robin Grille when he said in a recent blog post:
"...none of us should bear the blame for things we did not know. Besides, there are plenty of parents who do not breastfeed at all yet have amazing gifts to give their children. Meanwhile I know many fullterm breastfeeders who have all kinds of other major difficulties with parenting. All parents have a mix of strengths and weaknesses...There are no 'good' or 'bad' parents. We are each as good as the support we have and the information that we have been fortunate enough to receive."
I would love to hear your thoughts.

Take care of you.

Cheers, Julieanne


  1. Enjoyed your comments, Julieanne. I often say that in fact guilt is the opposite of remorse or regret. Because guilt is self-centered (the fear that I will be punished), and so with guilt we feel diminished. Remorse and regret are other-centered, not narcissistic. They are about a positive desire to repair a hurt relationship, and in this we feel enhanced and open-hearted. THe greatest error made by health professionals is that in order to deflect guilt they hold back a difficult truth (such as: controlled crying is bad for the baby - or: artificial feeding of a baby is a health risk). I think this is a huge breach of professional obligations, and it also patronises and belittles parents.

    1. Hi Robin. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. This kind of wisdom gives me joy. Your words 'hit the spot' and have given me a deeper insight. I felt the 'clunk' in my stomach; a true sign for me of realization...wonderful!


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