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Fight That Mommy Guilt

Posted: June 9, 2010

Guilt Free Motherhood – possible?! Here, one Indian mom discusses how she learnt to combat mommy guilt and worry less. 

By Nita Deb

Ten years ago, I discovered guilt. Newly pregnant, I was breaking the happy news to a friend when, abruptly, she turned silent. Then… “You know those cups of coffee you keep drinking all day?” she asked. “Maybe you shouldn’t…”

Help! How was I going to get through life without caffeine? No caffeine, no coffee, confirmed my mom, boss of this project since she had ‘been there done that’. And it got worse. No celebrating my new status with a glass of wine. No scary movies. No sad books. No spicy food while breastfeeding. No walks in the forest with a baby. No life.

Guilt is drummed into you the moment you (and others around you) realise you are pregnant. At the time you need them the most, you are made to feel guilty for the tiniest of indulgences. Almost every person and every situation is designed to judge you as a mom, and therefore, inspire more than a little guilt in the process.

Once I had to attend a dinner hosted by the husband’s boss. Surrounded by corporate wives (all groomed to the hilt, all DOING something and BEING somebody), I cowered behind my baby. “So, what do YOU do, Nita?”, one lady asked, her eyes roaming over my unstyled hair and dowdy salwar kameez. Do? I seethed. Change nappies. Feel like a dairy cow. Endure tantrums. Housework. Shopping. Meal planning and executing. Domestic personnel management. Home accounting….

Smiling pathetically, I  mumbled, “oh, nothing really” wishing I was Sita and the earth would swallow me up.

In early motherhood, we’re so raw, so insecure that we don’t need help from anybody to blame ourselves. Everything around us seems to point to our guilt.

That lady was a stranger. But loving family and friends may also willy-nilly cause you to feel guilty. In early motherhood, we’re so raw, so insecure that we don’t need help from anybody to blame ourselves. Everything around us seems to point to our guilt.

Working mothers have it even worse. As Harriet Lerner, whose books have been and continue to be my solace and guide through my mothering days, says in The Mother Dance, “One thing you will learn on the job is guilt. You may feel guilty about leaving your children for your work and guilty about leaving your work for your children. You will no doubt also feel guilty about feeling guilty…” 

Stop comparisons with other mothers (and their children)

My son, taking after his father, was (and is) slim-and-trim, but since he didn’t fit my family’s lard standards, he was compared (unfavourably) with his cousins and tut-tutted over at every meal. Feed him! Give him some tonic! Advice poured in. The fact that he was agile, nimble and active didn’t appease the family. They wanted “healthy”, i.e. fat. My baby’s genes didn’t understand. I felt guilty, and tried to force feed him, which led to years and years of miserable mealtimes. All for nothing – he’s still slim.

Worry less about the small stuff

Did I do right? That’s probably the No.1 guilt-inducing question we ask ourselves. Yes, we should, but only to learn from; not to shrivel under its judgemental gaze. If it’s for something small, just let it go. Didn’t make the perfect school lunch? Served up instant noodles two meals in a row? Don’t let guilt eat you up – the kids enjoyed it, didn’t they? Too tired to take baby to the park? Plonk her under her baby gym and lie down happily with her while she plays. She’s happy, you’re happy.

The Perfect Mother doesn’t exist

As baby grew, the mess around the house grew and I’d end up feeling guilty even when I didn’t need to. When husband came home, he’d quietly begin picking up the scattered toys, books, diaper bag, snack bowls… and I’d bark, “Are you trying to point out how bad a housekeeper I am?” when actually he was just trying to help.

The anger was nothing but a mask for my guilt. I hadn’t managed to be perfect.

That’s perhaps it for most of us. We have this perfect vision in our minds, nurtured by society, of ourselves as Superperfectmums –  of having a perfect figure draped in a chiffon saree, perfectly groomed nails and hair, holding a perfectly clean and well-fed baby who’s already mastered flash cards and is more than halfway to perfect potty manners. When that doesn’t happen (and it won’t), we get upset with ourselves.

Find the doctor you can trust

Most guilt-inducing situations can be solved by seeking advice from a reliable source. Voluntary vaccines, weaning foods, fevers and potties – why get opinions, when you can get facts? Find one pediatrician who doesn’t judge you, and whose advice you trust, so you won’t need to hunt around for vital info from mom, friends, or websites (wink).

When is guilt useful?

There was that one time when a little guilt actually helped me a lot. I was at the sabzi market, one hand sifting through parval and the other arm cradling my son on my hip, when I bumped into my English teacher from school. She’d always thought very highly of my verbal abilities. After the usual “ooh, such a sweet baby, how old is he” etc, she looked at me. And in that one look I could see she knew I had given up, that I wasn’t using my one big skill — I wasn’t writing. She didn’t say anything. But I could see a tiny flicker of disappointment in her eyes, almost as if she was saying, “all those years I taught you, honed your skills….” 

I felt a big twinge of guilt in my gut. Went home and, that night, thought about my life. And, as you may have guessed, I acted on it. I began writing again. The guilt, need I add, disappeared.

Now, it doesn’t matter so much. The house is a happy mess of crayons, Lego bits, books and comics, keyboard, guitar and drums, badminton racket and football festooned over floor and sofa. Visitors are welcome to revel in it, and I never apologise. Mealtimes are peaceful and my son’s still slim and active. We’ve found what suits us, and we don’t feel guilty about it.

 I© Nita Deb
Update: If you liked this article, consider participating in our Mommy Guilt contest, open from June 17th to June 28th, 2010. Cool prizes on offer!

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