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.