Actually, guilt is a pointless emotion, although saying this out loud can make people feel anxious. It wears you out and doesn’t actually solve anything. Here are some thoughts about why people might feel guilty, why guilt is pointless, and what to do. Firstly, it’s often said that the mother’s place is in the wrong. Parents are criticised if their child has problems or misbehaves, but there is very little help for how you actually do the job of bringing up children and supporting child development. If your child has a tantrum in the supermarket, you don’t get people asking if they can help you. They either avoid you or tut at you. Being criticised usually makes people feel guilty.
The sources of parenting guilt
Then there are your children, who know just how to press your buttons! It’s hard to remember that they are supposed to be able to take your love and care for granted. When they complain about something you’ve done, or they want and can’t have, it’s based on their utter security with you. Insecure children in struggling families, don’t usually complain to their parents. They make excuses for them. So, in a healthy and functioning family, it’s the children’s job to put you in impossible situations. They need to see how you manage them, for a start. That’s how they learn about adult life and how to manage themselves.
When you really can’t win…
But it’s a hard line to hold. If your child wants something very badly that you know is not really good for them, you are going to be in the wrong somehow. Either they will blame you for being mean, or you will feel bad because you gave in when you knew it wasn’t really right for the child. Either you give in and feel guilty or you have to bear your beloved children’s’ heart-breaking sobs and reproachful little eyes. You really can’t win.
Also, looking after children is exhausting: child care, parenting responsibilities and being a mum or dad is very tiring. Children are ruthless, demanding and ungrateful. Even though they are meant to be like that, parents are only human and have horrible and negative thoughts about their children sometimes. These feelings are normal but can make you feel very guilty and ashamed. Actually, you can’t help how you feel, you can only help what you do. So, if you feel like being horrible and you aren’t, that’s a cause for congratulating yourself, not feeling guilty!
You can only be as happy as your least happy child
As well as being exhausting, having children is also the most rewarding thing. You love them so much it makes you feel vulnerable. They hold your heart in their pudgy hands and you would do anything to protect them. Most parents agree that you can only be as happy as your least happy child. So, if anything goes wrong for them, you feel awful, and that you should somehow have been able to stop it. This can make you feel guilty, you blame yourself for not being there, not being good enough, making a mistake, or whatever. This is a funny sort of guilt because it can often come right at you even when it’s obvious what went wrong was not your fault. This guilt is trying to protect you from the terror of knowing that something bad happened to your child and there was nothing you could have done to stop it. Most parents would say that they would much rather something bad happened to them than to their child; it hurts so much when you know your child is in pain. The guilt you feel then is partly about this. It’s sometimes better to feel guilty than to know you are helpless. You don’t ‘deserve’ it. But it’s difficult to put down.
The different sources of parenting guilt
Another source of guilt is the “you want to do…” or “you don’t want to let…” comments which are the start of someone’s advice which is probably going to make you feel guilty.
Someone is passing an opinion about what you should or shouldn’t do with your child. However, it’s not the sort of helpful support and encouragement you need, it’s a criticism pretending to be helpful.
What to do with other people’s advice…
There’s no shortage in the world of advice. The problem is getting useful help you can take. Parents are ‘sitting ducks’ for this kind of pretend advice (which is really a judgement) because they are already liable to feel inadequate. No-one, by definition, can be an experienced parent.
You might have four children but it’s the first time you have been the parent of the last one! Children are all different. Having a new baby means getting to know each other; how you are together is unique. This is another reason why the advice given in this way is useless. No-one else has been the parent of your baby or child, either. What worked for them might not work for you, and that’s fine. But the whole thing can make you feel guilty.
We imagine that feeling guilty ourselves or making someone else feel guilty will control us or them. Thing is, it doesn’t work. You can make someone feel guilty afterwards about what they’ve done, but it probably won’t stop them doing it again. That’s because we are not machines, so we respond emotionally and most of what we do comes from that, not from thinking it out beforehand.
What to do about mum guilt
The first thing to do with this guilt is to name what you feel guilty about. Maybe find someone to talk it over with who hasn’t got an axe to grind. Then, if you have done something wrong, accidentally or on purpose, apologise properly and do whatever you can to make amends. You don’t have to crawl, and you don’t have to pay for the rest of your life. If someone can’t ‘guilt trip’ you, you won’t feel so bad. The passage of time will help you feel better.
If someone seems to keep piling the guilt on, you can say you don’t do guilt… you do genuine sorry and then you move on. This takes practice but it’s worth it.
Dr Jan McGregor Hepburn is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and part of the team at nscience.uk. Her new book, Shame & Guilt, is published by nscience Publishing.