I took in deep breaths as I sat at my kitchen table, preparing to inject a one-inch needle into my abdomen. It was not my first choice but it was the only lifesaving medication that was safe for breastfeeding. I had given birth three weeks prior to my fourth child and spent more than half of that time in the hospital battling preeclampsia, postpartum cardiomyopathy and a pulmonary embolism. Despite those illnesses and the painful lumps developing at my injection sites, I was determined to breastfeed my baby. It was partially because of the current formula shortage in the area, but mostly because I thought this is what a good mom should do.
As advised by the lactation nurse, I pumped three times per day in the hospital to save my milk supply. I had just given myself the painful shot when my newborn began to cry. She was ready to latch on for feeding. However, my 5-year-old son was tugging at my robe and insisting I watch him color his drawing. My 10-year-old daughter was sick and requesting tea for her sore throat while her twin sister stayed tucked away in her room. She was still adjusting to having another addition to the family. My partner was not home to help manage the chaos ensuing because he was out searching for formula. Despite my attempts to naturally feed my newborn, I could not produce enough milk. I wanted to feed my baby until she was full, give my son the attention he was seeking, comfort my sick daughter and check in with my other daughter to make sure she felt seen. I also wanted to curl into a ball and cry from all the physical pain I was experiencing from my C-section, enlarged heart and blood clot in my lungs.
I cried that night when all of my children were finally asleep. I had a near-death experience but instead of embracing my healing journey, I found myself frustrated with my progress. As a mental health therapist, I felt I should have been more prepared. I knew all the techniques to get me through this. The morning meditation helped ground me but the stress would slowly build up throughout the day. Practicing acceptance allowed me to understand that this situation was temporary but did not make the physical pain and ailments go away. I tried to set boundaries but my young children didn’t understand the concept of mommy needing a time out. They could only be patient for so long. Communicating my needs to my partner was beneficial but he had to process this experience, too. Some things he could carry with me but some things I knew I had to carry alone. After breaking down that night with him, he hugged me and said, “It’s ok, you’re not a superhero.”
That statement resonated with me and, in that moment, I knew what I needed to do. It was not about accepting this unexpected season, but accepting who I was in this season and how I needed to show up for myself. I was battling what I know many of my patients have encountered as new or seasoned moms. It was mom guilt.
Guilt complex is not a mental disorder but is a very common symptom displayed throughout many disorders and can become excessive. For many mothers battling anxiety or depression, guilt presents when it becomes difficult to manage the stress and mood swings while balancing every day activities. Mom guilt develops when you want to show up for your family but you mentally, physically or emotionally cannot.
My mom guilt went into overdrive after my traumatic, postpartum experience. I’m still learning how to heal and process my experience while being present for my family. Here’s what I discovered along my journey:
Your perfect image of motherhood never leaves room for mistakes, but mistakes are going to happen.
We all struggle to be the best version of ourselves. Yet, many of us forget that the best version does not mean the perfect version. Being our best means being able to process and manage our emotions. Our best version understands that we will make mistakes along the way. Instead of feeling guilt for making these mistakes, we should instead feel encouraged to make better choices next time. Learning a role that did not come with a one-size-fits-all manual is not easy. It’s a role that requires trial and error. The qualities that makes us great mothers will look different for everyone. Perfection is not attainable, yet as mothers we often take on each challenge with the mindset that we have to give the best response according to what society expects of us. Our best response should reflect what’s best for us and our current situation. Our responses should be unique, complex and sometimes complicated because our lives are both messy and beautiful. Our image of motherhood should look no different.
It’s ok to have negative emotions towards motherhood and your children. Rejecting negative emotions is a form of self-denial.
It’s more acceptable by society for us to define womanhood by what we will and will not accept. Embracing our negative emotions when declaring our boundaries and rights as women can be considered an act of bravery and confidence. Yet, when we think of motherhood, society tends to not allow the same grace. We often embrace the positive aspects but fail to acknowledge the negative ones that impact our lives. Acknowledging our negative aspects means we have to accept that there are things about motherhood we do not like. And sometimes admitting that can cause mom guilt. For many it is easier to ignore a part of who we are than to embrace and deal with the guilt of feeling that way. But ignoring the guilt means ignoring a part of our existence and minimizing our experiences as a mom. It’s reinforcing an inner voice to say this part of us does not matter and does not need to be seen. We can never grow or fully embrace who we are as mothers if we are not acknowledging all the parts of us, good or bad.
You cannot save anyone and you are not required to do so.
Guilt is an emotional reaction we experience when we feel like we’ve done something wrong. Feeling guilt for being unable to solve all the problems in our household means that we believe we have the ability to fix them all. We cannot fix our children’s issues. We can only help guide them to fix their own. We have to allow them the opportunity to mess up, feel pain, and figure out their own emotions in order to solve them. We have to give them grace to figure things out. This means we have to also allow ourselves the same grace. We cannot teach what we do not know.
Flexibility is not an option. It’s a necessity.
When we envision motherhood, we not only develop the perfect image of what a mother does but also the image of the life she leads. We may see images of baking with our children, attending all the sports events with snacks for the team, being involved in their school fundraisers and going on hikes and family trips. We never account for illness or injuries, financial hardship, or other life events that may derail our future plans. When the unexpected happens, we must learn to adapt and adjust. Some things may be placed on hold while some things may never happen. That does not mean we cannot create a new vision for our families. We can mourn the loss of one idea while celebrating the opportunity for new beginnings.
Your needs are just as important as your family’s needs.
Guilt can make us feel like putting everyone’s needs before our own will somehow make things better. In fact, it does the opposite. Prioritizing everyone’s needs before our own is detrimental to our self-care. If we cannot give our mind, body and soul what it needs, we cannot give our best to others. Being deprived makes us show up less for our children, leading to more mom guilt. Denying help when offered will also not make the guilt go away. When people ask how you are, it’s almost a natural reflex to respond, “I’m ok.” Responding with “ok” means we are in a state of satisfaction, agreeance or acceptance. Saying we are ok when we’re not does not make us heroic for carrying burdens alone. It is not fair to us or the people who care for us. It does not give them the opportunity to help and it does not give us the opportunity to meet a need.
I am still emotionally and physically healing from my postpartum experience. While I am practicing to meet my children where they are, I now understand it’s ok for them to meet me where I am as well. I can give them the attention they need while also modeling that self-care and alone time is important for everyone. I’m embracing that there are certain things about parenting that I do not enjoy. Incorporating more teamwork with my partner to do more of the things I like and less of the things I do not does not make me a bad mom. I’m learning that there will always be opportunities for growth but that does not mean there’s always a void that needs to be filled. Voids imply that there is nothing there when there should be. I’m accepting that I have no voids, just parts of me that will continue to expand as I grow as a mom. I’m also becoming more flexible to change. I’m currently mourning the loss of breastfeeding but excited to learn new ways to bond with my newborn. I may not be able to bounce back to my career and physical activities as planned, but I’m embracing the chance to heal properly and spend more time with my family.
The positive side of mom guilt is that it only exists in our minds and does not live outside of it. It is merely a perception of ourselves that we project onto our lifestyle choices. This means we have full control of it and can destroy it if we choose to do so. May we all choose to celebrate our individuality and imperfections that make us the mothers we are to our children who are watching.