Sunday, July 10, 2011

Guilt As A Chimera (Written by Martha Neovard)

I’m a mother. My baby girl has been around 19 months now. She is boisterous, beautiful, funny, and healthy. I have made mistakes. I am not perfect. No mother is. What would a perfect mother look like anyways? Would she have bright red lipstick, a bright smile, a clean house, a perfect body, children whose noses are never snotty, who never go two days wearing washable marker on their cheek? Would her 6 month old never roll off the change table and plummet a foot and a half? Would her dishes always be done, her forks and spoons always polished, her dogs eternally unshedding? Would her kids eat all-organic free-range chicken, pork, and beef? Would formula ever touch her baby’s lips?

The problem is, the idea of a perfect mom is subjective. We know that. Part of being a mom is staving off annoying criticisms of well-meaning strangers, while simultaneously inwardly cussing all the helpful old ladies who are sure your baby would do better THIS way, because their baby did. When someone approaches me and assures me my child is slowly dying of frostbite because I did not sufficiently clothe her for a balmy 20 degrees Celsius June day, I thank them politely, chuckle inwardly, roll my eyes, and go on my merry way. 98% of the mothers I know react the same way. We’re mature, intelligent women, and we know how to raise our own kids, thanks. We can handle criticism and questioning, we handle it every day.
What I want to know then, is why can’t we feel the same way about infant feeding? Anytime an article expressing the merits of breastfeeding or the demerits of formula feeding arises, there is an almighty chorus of “Don’t make me feel guilty!” Huh? We can take the hard-of-hearing perfume-laden granny up in our faces yelling about whether or not our child is too fat or too skinny, but we can’t take a scientific article from some faceless guy in a white coat, telling us what our baby is consuming may or may not be good for them? Where did this guilt thing come from anyway? Because ladies, it is tripping us up on the road to successful breastfeeding. That’s right. Decrying breastfeeding information because of an onset of guilt is actually stalling the breastfeeding information. Moreover, it is increasingly leading doctors and other health providers to make decisions FOR us, while withholding information, in order to spare us from GASP! Guilt!

I don’t mean to undermine the emotional intensity that accompanies the decisions made about these precious beings in our lives. Our new lives with them are fraught with emotions, love, fear, anxiety, longing, joy, and yes, guilt. When we feel anxious, or fearful, or joyous, or loving, we dissect these feelings endlessly. We run them through in our minds again and again, trying to find the source of them, the reasoning behind them, the likelihood that they are truthful and will reappear in the near-future, whether they will help or cripple us. So, when did guilt become a bad word? It is another emotion; it has a source, a reason, and a truth. It has smaller underlying emotions that make it up. It is not the large, terrifying beast that it has become in the mothering and medical worlds. It is okay to feel guilty. It is a natural reaction, and the emotion will not cripple us. It is not dirty. It is not horrifying. It is not taboo. It is just an emotional reaction to an event or experience. Guilt is designed to make us deal with our feelings. It returns again and again in order to force our minds to dwell on an experience, to dissect it, and to accept it. That is the physiological purpose of guilt. It’s nature’s way of helping us evolve, of forcing us to do things differently next time, and of ensuring that we don’t cripple ourselves emotionally the next time a similar situation comes around, that we do not suffer post-traumatic recollections. It is an important and valid emotion, made from the roots of fear, anger, hurt, and pain. It is necessary, and we need to listen to our bodies and work through it.

The problem is that blocking guilt cripples us. It stops us from making level-headed decisions, because when the time comes to make the decision, if we have not examined, dissected, and accepted our guilt, it rears its ugly head once again and affects our ability to see clearly and to make our decisions based on logic and facts rather than overwhelming emotional intensities. That’s why whenever the choruses of “Don’t tell me this, it makes me feel guilty!” and “Mothers should not be MADE to feel guilty!” arises, whatever the source, I wince and then rage at the conceptions that guilt is an evil, terrible thing that should be avoided at all costs. I believe women should not feel guilty, but for different reasons. I believe they should not feel guilty because they should allow their feelings to come to the surface without holding or restraining them, then those emotions should be examined, explored, dissected and eventually accepted. Only through this process comes healing. This holds true to all aspects of life, and is something I learned at an early age when recovering from a traumatic childhood event. Our feelings, emotions, and reactions define us, and when we block them, we deny ourselves the chance to heal, and to release our anger, hurt, and guilt. As a mom who has formula-fed and breastfed both, I feel this healing is something we do not grant ourselves often enough.

I no longer feel guilty about formula-feeding my daughter early on, but I am still angry, and occasionally I fill up with rage so intense that I desperately want to scream at the next white-coated, stethoscope-touting, smug doctor that I see. I deplore my daughter’s hospital paediatrician, who denied me information essential to recovering our breastfeeding journey, and instead gave me sappy, cliché drivel about “not feeling guilty” because she felt that preventing the horror of guilt was more important than doing her damn job and GIVING ME THE INFORMATION I NEEDED. In her eyes I was no longer a mature, intelligent, capable woman and feminist, but instead a snivelling, emotional mess that needed decisions made for her. She undermined my rights, my capability, and my right to informed choice. She, an almost complete stranger, made a flash decision about me and my ability to handle myself, and took away almost all chance I had of doing something desperately important to me. She determined that I had an emotional fragility that was more important to protect than the health and wellbeing of myself and my baby. She stereotyped me, she prejudged me, she made me into something I am not, and was not. Her fear of guilt tripped up my breastfeeding journey. It is not right. We cannot and should not withhold information from women because we judge them incapable of handling guilt. It is decidedly chauvinist and misogynistic. It is anti-feminist. It is WRONG.

No, instead when a woman has an experience that alters her life, that hurts and sorrows her, we need to support her in her journey of mourning and healing. Don’t tell her not to feel guilty. Don’t assume she is incapable of handling emotion. Don’t shelter her from her own self. Guilt is a tool of sorrow and of mourning. It is an essential ingredient to healing. She needs support, not belittlement and judgements about her strength of character. She needs the tools and the support to examine her guilt, however raw and sore it may be, and to move on to a place of peace. We are crippling ourselves by making guilt into a mythical chimera, an all-encompassing hungry dragon, and a troll under the bridge, lurking to snatch us from our place of safety when we least expect it. Only by facing our fear, our hurt, our sorrow, our rage, and our guilt can we tame them and have peace. We need peace. Be peaceful. You are a woman, you are an incredible creation, a beautiful goddess, an earth mother, an equal being, and a strong vibrant person. Make peace with yourself, let yourself be.

28 comments:

  1. Wow, I am fairly sure this is one of the most powerful blog posts or any post for that matter that I have ever read. While reading this I felt the words to my very core! I think every mother on the Earth needs to read this article. It couldn't have been better said! I had *tears* the whole time (especially the end!)
    Mothers everywhere, doctors and all health professions ALSO need to see this! Time and time again I hear about healthcare people saying just offer formula to the mother as not to guilt her.. This has even happened to a few close friends of mine. This is taking away from their experiences and their choices. We NEED to examine our guilt and discover what is behind it and in this we grow as humans, as women, as partners AND as mothers! No one has the right to take this from us! Thank you SO much for this beautiful post!! This needs to be passed around and shared!

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  2. if as mothers, we don't feel guilt about some aspect of our parenting, we aren't paying attention.

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  3. YES! I was just talking about this with my sister in law. She lives with out internet and honestly didn't know there was a difference between formula and breast milk. She was so upset to learn how beneficial breast feeding is. She got mad and couldn't understand that if it truly was THAT good for her baby, why he doctor so easily said formula feeding was fine and many women choose it or why the WIC office to easily handed out cans of formula. Now the choice was made and she can't go back.
    It's true, I was under the same assumption when I got pregnant but I researched it a little and learned a lot!

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  4. In response to the comment by anonymous: I'm sorry to hear that your sister was led astray by the very people who are supposed to be committed to wanting the best health for her and her baby. It's very sad when health care providers are so ill informed or not giving mothers the info they need to make a good decision for their families.

    It may be possible for your sister to still consider breastfeeding if she has a baby or young child. There are many mothers who have developed a milk supply through putting in some time and energy. If she/you want(s) more info you can check out adoptive nursing, relactation or induced milk supply online. A good place to start is: http://www.asklenore.info/breastfeeding/induced_lactation/gn_protocols.shtml

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  5. Great post! Your honesty and ability to deal with your process is terrific. Your explanation of guilt, maternal loss, and of how to support mothers through mourning is wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing and helping others!!

    We can't make people feel guilt, happiness, distress or other emotions. People's responses are based on their personal experiences and interpretations. These personal scripts continue to help us interpret events. Information may trigger certain feelings for one person and very different emotions for someone else.

    Guilt is an emotion that one might feel from time to time. I support your explanation of guily as normal and would like to add that actions we take to repair guilty feelings not only make one feel better but may also contribute to enhanced well being. We may facilitate the emotional processing of guilt by looking at the inner source rather than blaming the messenger conveying information that apparently triggers the feeling.

    Your description of the pediatrician's actions as anti-feminist are quite accurate in my view. There seems to be a cultural propensity to name negative feelings associated with women focused events such as breastfeeding/birthing naturally/parenting as guilt. This patriarchal action implies that women are weak and vulnerable creatures unable to tolerate difficulties. Thus, withholding information, is indeed a belittling act, and as you say anti-feminist.

    The apparent guilt that one feels may in fact be a combination of other emotions. You(the author of this blog)pointed that out clearly here when you reframed your emotion as anger.

    Lastly, Winnicott was a very well respected child psychologist. He stated that mothers have to be good enough, not perfect. What a relief!!

    Applying the concept of normalcy to breastfeeding indicates that one wants to simply engage in a normal act rather than a superlative mothering behaviour. An understanding of physiology reinforces this thinking and indicates that breastfeeding is neither perfect nor magical. Nursing is simply part of a physiological process. When we veer from any normal physiological process we put ourselves at risk for health difficulties. The same goes for deviating from the normal physiological process of breastfeeding. Naturally, many mothers might feel angry when they discover that they veered from physiology and put themselves and their children at increaed risk for ill health in the present and future. The task is to help mothers name their emotions correctly and direct their anger towards the actions that hinder normalcy rather than the knowledge i.e. information that facilitates physiology.

    Thanks again for a GREAT POST!!

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  6. AMEN. Sing it sister! Guilt got me to quit smoking, eat better and keep on breastfeeding even after horrific engorgement, mastitis, yeast and everything else you can think of. 7 years and 3 kids under my belt now! All thanks to good old fashioned guilt. I knew it was the best for my baby and I wanted to do what was best, regardless of my own discomfort.
    GREAT article!

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  7. Incredible post. You hit the nail on the head. We shouldn't be deprived of the facts because it might make us feel guilty. Plain & simple. Thanks for bringing light to this.

    Lori

    http://ancientwinds1.blogspot.com/

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  8. Oh my gosh, I love this post! Not only because it so well said in the context, but it can be applied to any parenting struggles people are facing, and mistakes from the past. I have a 6 year old and a 1 year old, and during my pregnancy with my youngest I read so much and learned so much more about parenting. I went through a period of guilt after realizing how many mistakes, and wrong decisions I made with my oldest, and now I have moved past it and using that to make me a better parent and hopefully to help others as well!

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  9. Awesome post Martha. Very true, we can only go so long ignoring our guilt till it starts to really affect our perspective on ourselves.
    Thanks for posting.

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  10. Great post!I loved the post and cried while reading. I am mommy breastfeed my son until 18 months. Now I have problem to stop breastfeeding my daughter 13 months old. Breastfeeding is hard to start and hard to finish ...

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  11. Wow. Thank you for this; I'm so glad it showed up in my twitter feed this morning. I completely agree with you, but never knew how to put "it's okay to feel guilty" into words so eloquently.

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  12. Beautiful, thought-provoking post that supports women in a way we all need--thank you!

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  13. You are so right and im going to print this off and give it to my local weighing clinic. They are doing exactly what you talk about.
    Voices are lowered in my baby weighing clinic when breast feeding is spoked about eg; that it is sooo much better than bottle on sooo many levels.....done so to stop the formula feeding mothers feeling got at or from making them feel guilty ....Its ok to speak about practicalites such as latch, phases of feeding etc but Not the benefits over bottle...at that point people look round and lower their voice ...for fear of making the formula feeders feel guilty.

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  14. This is completely amazing! Thank you for sharing. I'm often angry at doctors, but didn't have the eloquent words to explain exactly what they were doing wrong, besides lying, which no one ever listens to.

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  15. Thank you for writing this!! You talk about something that we feel that we cannot, which is infuriating because we feel ashamed of our guilt and then guilty about talking about our guilt in a healthy way. Not anymore!!

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  16. This is fabulous. As mothers, we all feel guilty about something; guilt as a tool to recognize that there is something else below the surface to be dealt with is a great way to allow us to use it instead of abusing ourselves with it or avoiding feelings altogether. Thanks for sharing!

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  17. Well written but I think you lay too much on your Dr. If you don't like him/her switch. If he/she gives you advice you don't agree with our question then speak up- take some responsibility for your part in your choice to stop nursing (for whatever reason) rather than lay it all on your doctor. They aren't mind readers- he/she gave you one perfectly acceptable medical opinion- perhaps if you had said, "Formula is not an option- what can I do instead?" He/she would have been able to better meet your needs with another response.

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  18. Anonymous, thank you for your feedback. We are in fact still nursing, nearly 20 months now, and so thrilled to be here! I can see that the post is not entirely clear on that, but that's okay, I think the outcome of my situation is less important than how I came to deal with all the feelings that came with it. We supplemented for just over 3 months, at which point I was able to at last finish weaning from formula and build up my supply enough to sustain her on breast exclusively. I think the concern is that it's not just one doctor, one nurse, one relative, but rather the whole system of society that has come to see women as emotionally vulnerable and incapable of handling guilt, and so works to shelter us from our own feelings, rather than giving us the tools to heal and move forward, or to meet our goals, whether one week, one month, one year, or four years. I did indeed switch pediatricians, and ended up with a new one who told me mothers must quit breastfeeding at four months in order to start to get their sleep back, or else suffer terrible consequences like PPD, years off life, and wrinkles, of all things. Unfortunately, those were the only two pediatricians in town, so I was pretty stuck from there, but thankfully by that time I had learned to seek information elsewhere.

    Not all women are so lucky though, and we do need to hold our medical community accountable for giving us information, rather than pandering to social prejudices. As a poster on kellymom pointed out, if a lawyer withheld important information from us that might win our case, because they thought it would hurt our feelings, we might sue them for malpractice and sexual discrimination. Yet doctors are able to do this all the time. Most do it out of kindness, or ignorance, but that doesn't make it less harmful unfortunately. Most of us grow up learning to trust our doctors and nurses, and indeed, we do. Childbirth and parenthood ARE vulnerable states, and therefore it is even MORE important that the information we receive at that time is truthful, forthright, and without prejudice or assumption. It is the only way to break this cycle.

    Thank you again for your comments.

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  19. In response to nicol hick, voices may be lowered not out of a desire to make the "formula feeders" feel less guilty but out of basic respect and sensitivity for the choice thy have made. Lots of people choose to feed their babies formulanfor lots of reasons. Although their are tragedies like those mentioned by anonymous and the author, lots of people choose formula fully aware of the trade-offs and having considered thoughtfully. These folks wouldn't feel guilty even if normal-sized voices were used. However, they would be simply annoyed at other folks crowing and bragging about what a good choice they made (I.e. "soooo much better). Other folks have no choice but to feed their babies with formula, no matter their preference and, again basic common courtesy should keep us from telling them on what we perceive them to be missing out.

    Absolutely, parents should always be informed about health choices but once they have made their decisions, we should respect them. Thanks for thisngreat post about creating a culture that respects folks' ability to make their own choices and proces the emotions surrounding them.

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    1. I would respectfully disagree... I think that anyone who made a true informed choice to feed their child formula (whether because they were unable or unwilling to breastfeed) have the capacity to be happy to hear of others' success at breastfeeding, and would likely be interested to know if there was any new information that they weren't previously aware of. And, that "annoyance" at hearing others "crow" about their success is guilt. If you can't stand to hear that someone has done something you *chose* not to do, then you are not confident in your choice. And if you can't stand to hear about it because it hurts that you weren't physically able to do it, then you are still processing your grief/guilt about your body letting you down. It doesn't mean that we should not speak about something that is factual and natural for the sake of your feelings. I'm not going to refrain from saying "It's a good idea to look both ways before you cross the road" to my child at a cross-walk, because the mother next to me might have forgotten once and her child got hurt. The same applies here.

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  20. This post is fantastic, I couldn't agree more! thank you for writing this. :)

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  21. A wonderful article. Thank you.

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  22. This is so true, there is an ongoing theme whenever you bring up any sort of parenting discussion of people saying "We all just do our best and shouldn't be judged by others." Im not saying I am judging per say but people have actually said this to me for talking about attachment parenting on attachment parenting sites. Really? I am not even allowed to talk about it here because it makes you feel guilty? So weird. If you have acquired the knowledge and then make the decision to formula feed, cry it out, or do whatever, I can respect that. But to go into everything wholly misinformed and then get mad when you hear the other side is very foolish. Great blog post!

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  23. What wonderful writing! My daughters are all grown and mothers themselves but I remember having a discussion around guilt over 30 years ago that imperfectly mirrored exactly what you are saying. Those of us who work in the spiritual realm also know that blocking "negative" emotions can be disastrous to the soul, whatever the situation. I would also recommend to those interested the work of Brene Brown who speaks and writes on wholehearted living - the natural consequence of feeling your feelings. Thanks so much.

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  24. What a great, thought provoking post. Formula related guilt is such an issue, and I love the points you make about it. I breastfed all my children, and am knowledgeable about breastfeeding so it wasn't an issue for me. But if I was trying to breastfeed and I wasn't given the right information or enough information because someone thought I'd feel guilty about using breastmilk substitutes... well I'd be annoyed!

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