Mom Guilt

Mom Guilt

by | Sep 25, 2020 | Parenting | 0 comments

Getting there.

Hi guys — Dr. Waipa here … this has been such a surreal time. Being in the midst of a global pandemic that’s turned our daily lives and many other things upside down, for one. For me, being technically unemployed as I work on opening up my practice has been a totally different experience. I’ve been working since I was 16 years old through 80-100 hour work weeks during residency. When I came home from the mainland, I worked 60 hours a week between the hospital and office and commuted out to Waianae 4 times a week. I mean, I really like to work, and thankfully I really love my job. So this unique time has been a (forced) opportunity for me to slow down and reflect. The most recurring theme in my mind lately has been Mom Guilt … so I’d like to share my thoughts with you, because I suspect it might resonate.

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There’s really so much pressure.

A big part of my job as a Pediatrician (best job in the world, IMO) is being a cheerleader for parents. It’s such a cosmic trip after you birth a tiny human (which is an epic feat, by the way), the hospital sends you home with very little training. Your baby’s entirely dependent on you to be loved and cared for, kept safe and whole, and be educated and nurtured to grow into a well-adjusted big human. Whaaaatt?!? It’s easy to feel like you’re doing everything wrong. I happen to have a LOT of training, and I still felt very unprepared when I had my daughter Wren.

By comparing ourselves to others on social media, paying attention to media or stories that tell us how we “should” be as parents, and the rest of the time dealing with self-judgment, we add even more pressure to ourselves. Below I’ll outline some of the common things that can trigger guilt in parents and that I’ve experienced myself as a new mom (aside: am I still a new mom now that she’s 2 years old? Oh yes, yes I am).

Becoming a parent.

The day I became a mom was a day I thought would never come, and we were so happy! Besides having a perfect little munchkin, I was finally getting the chance to practice what I preached and test all the advice I’ve given over the years, and I was very quickly humbled.

Case in point: Breastfeeding was so hard, and the second night in the hospital I thought my baby was starving because I couldn’t get her to latch or stop crying. By the day we were leaving the hospital, we offered her formula. I felt guilty for not being able to nurse her easily and for giving her formula. I’m a certified lactation consultant, by the way.

A lot of moms have similar experiences, and I tell them first and foremost that the best baby is a fed baby. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves thinking things should instantly and naturally click, but more often than not it doesn’t, and there’s a lot of work that goes into learning the skill. In addition, there are some medical reasons why breastfeeding is just not possible; and you can’t blame yourself for any of it.

Guilt Solution #1 – Breastfeeding: I recommend committing to a deadline of 6 weeks. Let me explain: commit to doing everything you can possibly do to be a successful breastfeeder for 6 weeks. Do ALL the things: see the lactation consultant, do what she says, pump when she says, take the supplements she recommends and give it 100%. By the end of 6 weeks, you’ll know you did absolutely everything you possibly could to be a breastfeeding mom, no matter where you actually end up. We followed this plan and ended up exclusively breastfeeding after a whole lot of work/pumping; it was hard but by 6 weeks it clicked. Giving yourself a timeline makes it more manageable for your mind, since you can work hard for a sprint rather than feeling like it’s going to drag on forever. Promise yourself to be at peace with wherever you land, knowing you gave your maximum effort.

When we went home from the hospital with our newborn, the only place she would settle was on my chest or in my husband’s arms. We were so exhausted and just needed a few minutes of sleep, even if that meant taking turns holding her. I hear from many parents that they just don’t know what to do when their baby is crying and don’t want to do the wrong thing. Thankfully, if you’re approaching every situation with love, there really is NO wrong thing. Trusting your instincts as a parent is a really valuable skill, so it’s worth working to build that trust with yourself.

I have a lot of parents sheepishly tell me that they co-sleep with their child, and most probably don’t tell me that’s what they do because they’re afraid of being judged (aside: our office is a judgement-free zone. Always. Period).

Guilt Solution #2 – Co-sleeping: As a pediatrician, I cannot recommend co-sleeping as there are many associated risks, including death. As a mom, I’ve done it. So, do the best that you can and assess the risk and benefits of any decision you make. Again, I’m not telling you to do it, and I highly recommend against it, but if baby is in bed with you, it would be safer if there are no extra linens, blankets, pillows, or bodies in the bed with you. If you decide to do something, just accept that you’ve made the best decision you could at the time and you’ve made yourself aware of all of the risks or downsides of that decision. No sense feeling guilty if you’re going to do it anyway.

Things eventually got better after the shock of being new parents wore off, but I felt guilty when I had to return to work to take care of other people’s babies and leave mine with a babysitter (although we actually got lucky and found the best babysitter in the world). Pumping three times a day at work or whenever I could during night shifts at the hospital amplified the fact that I was away from her some days more than I was with her.

Guilt Solution #3 – Working Parents: Being a working parent is hard, but I love my job and I love working. I feel proud to be an example to my daughter of a woman that works hard, cares for others, and cares and provides for her family. Again, it’s my choice to work, and I need to stand behind that choice or make a different choice. No sense feeling guilty about something that actually brings me joy. It does motivate me to make the time I do have with my daughter of high quality. I try really hard not to bring work home. As you can see below, it doesn’t always happen. When you think about work, career, family, and self, “balance” may not be the most achievable goal. Some aspects of our lives get less attention sometimes, and that’s sort of the way life goes. BUT, I recommend having a handful of things that you deem non-negotiables, top priority no matter what, like meaningful time with your kid (even if it’s just 20 minutes a day … I initially had a hard time squeezing this in when she was an infant and slept so early, but now it’s easier), 10 minutes of mediation or journaling, or sitting together having a meal as a family at least once a day. Just pick what’s important to you and make it happen.

We got through infancy and toddlerhood ok, but now she’s a preschool-aged. I feel guilty when sometimes she falls asleep in the bed and all I want to do is snuggle her instead of putting her in her crib because she’s growing up so fast. I feel guilty when my face is buried in my laptop doing work and I buy myself a few minutes of quiet time by giving her my phone to entertain herself. I definitely feel guilty when I lose track of time and she’s been on the phone for more than a few minutes. I feel guilty when my patience wears thin and I’m not as calm as I should be. Or that I’m not reading enough books with her or spending enough quality time with her.

Guilt Solution #4 – Not doing enough: I’m still working on this part, but I think it helps to set limits with yourself. For example, once my office opens, I am going to make it a rule that I don’t bring work home. It will be a challenge (and yes, I’ll still respond to text messages until 8 pm :)), and it might mean some later nights at the office, but it will help me keep things separate so I’m better able to dedicate and focus my time in each role. Another thing I’m trying to do is schedule time on my calendar and commit to making that time “Wren time.” During that time, my phone is in sleep mode and I give her my undivided attention. Finally, I like setting goals for myself too since I’m a bit of a goal-oriented person. I set a goal to read 3 books a day with my daughter and also make it so that screen time is “earned” by her doing something else like helping me clean up or reading more books. This method gives me a concrete measurement of how I’m doing based on the goals I set for myself.

The funny thing is I know exactly what to do. I read the books, I’ve trained on all of these topics, I keep learning and training myself on these topics, because it’s important to me as a parent and a Pediatrician to help myself and other parents navigate all these challenges. So I know I know the things and I know we’re actually doing a really good job 90% of the time … it’s just a wonder my brain highlights the 10% of things that could be better and makes me feel bad about it.

What helps me now.

Understanding that my brain is an evolutionary marvel that is geared toward protecting me, I see why it points out the things that I should work on and ignores the things I’m awesome at. However, I also know that the feeling of guilt comes completely from the thoughts I have first. The guilt wouldn’t exist if I didn’t think something first that makes me feel guilty (ie, “I should’ve paid more attention,” “I’m no good at this,” “I should be better at this”, “I should make more time”).

These thoughts are pervasive in parents’ brains, but I’m learning that these thoughts are optional. There are indeed a million thoughts available to me in the world, and I can choose thoughts that serve me and help me feel more confident as a parent. Thoughts that might serve us all better look like, “I’m learning how to be more patient,” “Every day I’m committed to being a better parent,” “I’m approaching today with love and an open mind,” and my favorite, “I’m doing the best I can right now.”

Reach out to other moms and dads and you’ll see that you’re not alone in any feelings of inadequacy and worry and guilt as a parent. What can work is being open, leaning on each other, and being very aware of any toxic thoughts that aren’t serving you or your parenting journey at all (there are many). With that awareness, you can really question your brain … is it true that you’re a terrible parent? No way!

One of the most telltale signs that a thought probably isn’t on your side is the word “should.” Who says you should do anything? Why “should” you do this or be that? That word immediately makes you feel obligated and inadequate. Let’s ditch shoulds for good. One correct and perfect way of parenting DOES NOT exist.

Another question I ask myself when I’m stuck in guilt and/or beating myself up is “would I talk to my best friend this way?” A lot of times we’re our own worst enemy and talk to ourselves and about ourselves like a jerk. Being your own best friend and having your own back would be so much more helpful. Maybe if we handle ourselves with the same care that we handle our children, parenting wouldn’t have to feel so hard.

Thank you for reading about my evolution as a new parent; we’re all still growing up, just like our kids. I hope we’ll all take the guilt and shame out of parenthood so we can enjoy the amazing journey it is … because, honestly, isn’t it just going by way too fast?

We’re here for you, so if you ever want to talk about your anxieties or worries or need coaching on how to get past a particularly tough thought, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Remember: Judgement-free zone!