The Skinny on Mommy Guilt


Everyone loves Roosevelt’s motivational mantra: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”. It adorns fridge magnets and keychains the world over. But it seems, there is one group of people who don’t appreciate this sentiment. In fact, they argue exemption from it. Yup, I’m talking about mothers.
For a group of people who celebrate so passionately their prerogative of choice, it is bitterly ironic that mothers are keen to dispose of this belief when their emotions are involved. “Stop being judgemental, I should not be made to feel guilty” is their mating call. It’s so common that almost everyone takes heed, lest they be seen as a kind of evil Morton Downey Jr.
Yet contrary to what some mothers and stand-up comedians may claim, women are not fragile simpering wallflowers at the mercy of iron-tongued tormentors. They are not passive pawns pushed around by the force of others’ words. The image of the female as a boiling pot of feelings, a puppet to her emotions, easily triggered and unable to control herself is a misogynistic invention of a culture that’s still riding on patriarchal coattails. Sadly, many women continue to lap up this rhetoric, and when they become mothers, it becomes enshrined in their self-entitled, self-serving psyche. In this post, I’m going to demonstrate why ‘Mommy Guilt’ is the biggest farce since Nestle donned a nurse’s outfit.

Guilt: The Narcissist of Emotions

Let me tell you a thing or two about guilt. Guilt is the quintessential self-conscious emotion. At its heart, guilt is a self-involved, egocentric experience. In parenting, it is a moral emotion that arises when a mom experiences discrepancies between her standards and her behaviour. As Dr Helen Lewis explains in her book “Shame and Guilt in Neurosis”:
“In the experience of guilt, the self is doing the judging; the experience is thus self-contained and self-propelled. Guilt is about something specific about which the self is critical”
In fact, mommy guilt has strategic functionality rather than being a mere reaction. The mother absorbed in her own guilt may discover, for example, that ‘punishing herself’ allows her to be irresponsible or unsociable. Or perhaps she views the feeling of guilt as neutralising the ‘wrong’ she believes she has committed.
When a mother feels guilty it means she can talk about herself and how she feels for hours. Because that’s what guilt is about: you. It’s a way of focusing on yourself that doesn’t feel self-indulgent because you’re shining a light in the shameful, dark parts of your psyche. It’s sort of a back-handed compliment to yourself because the fact you feel guilty means you have morals, so you’re basically a decent person.
When we understand that mommy guilt, like many emotions, has utility, we can begin to understand that…

Mommy Guilt is Self-Imposed

Picture the scene: I write a blog post about the risks of formula feeding/circumcision/whatever, which ‘makes’ you feel guilty. Let’s try thinking of it in purely logical terms: I posted something and you felt guilty.
Now take it further: I posted something. You felt guilty.
Now for the next step: I did what I did. You did guilt.
Why should me doing whatever it is I did have control over your feelings? Ahhhh, now we’re getting somewhere..
The reason why guilt is so pervasive in motherhood is precisely because it is self-imposed. Psychologists Dr June Tangney and Dr Ronda Dearing In their book, ‘Shame and Guilt’, define guilt as “a private experience arising from self-generated pangs of conscience” (2002, p14). One can to a considerable extent shrug off other people’s criticism and even their contempt, but one cannot shrug off one’s own. Guilt is blame of the self by the self.By its very nature, guilt assumes a wrong doing that one has committed. So in order to feel guilt, two components must be present: 1. A wrongdoing. 2. Personal blame. Now let’s apply this to an obvious example: failure to breastfeed. If the mother believed that breast milk and formula were equivalent, #1 would be absent in her view. Thus, she wouldn’t feel guilty for not breastfeeding. If on the other hand, #1 is present but #2 is not, the result is merely shame not guilt.
Guilt is a personal judgement of culpability that is expressed in the attitudes the individual holds towards herself. When motivational speaker Chip Conley announced “Guilt is an emotional bouillabaisse. Its stock is your sense of choice and responsibility” (Conley 2012) he was maintaining that personal acceptance of blame is essential to the experience of guilt. You see, emotions are very much tied up with belief systems and thought structures, and cannot be separated from them. When a formula feeding mother personally believes that breastfeeding is optimum, guilt is aroused. If a formula feeding mother believes that formula is on par with breast milk, she won’t feel guilt, and no amount of ‘bullying’ from a lactivist blog post will arouse that guilt.
If you’re feeling guilty right now (heck, you’re a parent), look at your guilt with the idea that you are, or might be, responsible and ask yourself these probing questions: “What am I doing this for?” “What am I getting out of this?” If you do this, you can often see aspects of your strategic behaviour that would otherwise escape you. By contrast, if you look at your guilt with the idea that it is a force beyond your control, something inflicted on you by someone else, you’ll be prone to make excuses for yourself. Sound familiar? Victimhood calling!
To believe that others can make us feel guilt is to adopt victim mentality (see my previous post: “How to Spot a Defensive Formula Feeder”). Yet we are not victims. We are not toddlers unable to regulate our emotions. We are active agents, we are parents for hells sake!, and we have responsibilities. How will you ever be free of guilt if you attribute its existence to the control of others? As long as mothers blame others for their guilt, they effectively rob themselves of their own emotional integrity and consequent empowerment. If you are not responsible, then you are not empowered to make changes. Being responsible means taking responsibility for your parenting decisions. That does not mean that you’re in charge of your environment and in control of all the stimuli you encounter. It does mean that you’re in charge of your own inner environment.

The Blame Game

The experience of being guilt-stricken is so uncomfortable and threatening to a mother’s self-esteem that, more often than not, she experiences an inclination to shift that hostility and blame outward (Lewis 1987). A mother’s guilt can feel extremely painful and devastating. When she feels it, she is berating herself. To make matters even worse, with many maternal misdemeanours, there are very few options for remedying the failure. So there Mom is – hopelessly mired in an agonizing, ego-threatening state of guilt, with no obvious way out.
How do moms, in the midst of guilt, attempt to cope or contain this hateful emotion? One strategy that is likely to be effective, at least in the short term, is to turn the tables and shift the blame. A lot of formula feeders for example, come to resent themselves for the vast discrepancy between how they wish they fed their child and how they actually fed their child. A lot of this self-condemnation is dealt with through a process of externalization: it is directed outward, against life, fate, institutions, or people, or it is directed against the self but is perceived or experienced as coming from the outside. Blaming others (instead of the self) can serve an ego-protective function. Breastfeeding advocates are ideal targets. As Tracey Cassels over at Evolutionary Parenting, has observed:
“I have to ask myself – why are you so offended?  Why are you saying I’m trying to guilt you?  That I’m a breastfeeding nazi or some other ridiculous moniker?  Why do you need to mount a campaign claiming you’ve been “made” to feel like a bad parent because I simply tell it like it is?  What you forget is that only you can allow yourself to feel guilt, and if you know in your heart of hearts that what you’re doing is good, then the guilt won’t follow.”
By externalising blame, guilt-stricken formula feeders attempt to defend and preserve their self-esteem. Their anger is pushed towards others, but it is anger which results from one’s own feeling of helplessness.

Furthermore, by attacking her ‘accuser’ (“You’re a dick for judging my lack of breastfeeding”), the mother can divert the audience’s attention away from the original fault (“I’m a dick for not breastfeeding”). This sort of guilt-induced defensive externalisation is fairly irrational, even from the perspective of the guilt-stricken mother. However it is compelling to her as it allows her to enjoy many benefits – externalising blame in this way serves to reduce painful self-awareness, and, as a further bonus, the accompanying feelings of self-righteous anger can help the guilt-stricken mother to regain some sense of agency and control as well as solidarity with other butthurt mothers. Anger is an emotion of potency and authority. In contrast, guilt is an emotion of the worthless, the paralysed, the ineffective. Thus, by redirecting hostility, by turning their bitterness outward, guilt-stricken mothers become angry instead, reactivating and bolstering the self, which was previously so impaired by the guilt experience.

Rightyo! That’s your lot for this week. In my next post, I’ll be discussing how to overcome Mommy Guilt (yes, it’s not a deadly disease, recovery is possible). Linky.
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