Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Are Parents Built for Guilt?

"So full of artless jealousy is guilt,
It spills itself in fearing to be spilt."
~ William Shakespeare (Hamlet)

In a few short months, my son will turn one year old. Watching him grow, getting stronger and more aware each day, it's hard to believe that, nearly a year ago, just hours after he was born, he was placed in Neonatal Intensive Care (NICU) for low blood sugar, or neonatal hypoglycemia. He made a full recovery - as most full-term babies with hypoglycemia do - but in the days, weeks, and even months that followed, I found myself wondering, "Was there something I could have done differently? Some knowledge I could have had that might have prevented such an outcome?" I definitely dealt with some guilt after his birth, which I know now is common among parents who have had the NICU experience. But what I've since come to understand is that my experience of guilt is not so unique when it comes to parenting in general. 

It's been said that women become mothers the moment they learn they learn they are pregnant, but men become fathers the moment their child is born. I've found that guilt tends to be the same. For some women, it happens almost the moment they find out they are pregnant. Suddenly, every decision, every action has new meaning, new purpose. Now she is taking into account the potential impact on the growing life inside of her. Is she doing what's best for her baby? 

For fathers, it comes with the realization that their child is here in a strange, new world, and the responsibility to care and provide for him/her rests on his shoulders. Is he where he should be financially? Can he offer the direction and guidance that his father was able (or unable) to offer him as a child?

Guilt is such a common experience among parents - mothers and fathers alike - it almost seems like a rite of passage. We feel guilt for what we do, guilt for what we don't do, and guilt for what we feel we should have done. We second-guess our decisions, and constantly question whether what we are doing is "right" for our children.    

Lately, I've been wondering: Why do we feel guilt at all? If I am not alone in this experience of "parenting guilt," could it - within reason - serve some purpose for us as humans? And if guilt IS simply a part of our basic being, is it possible for us to shift our perspective? To come to an understanding of sorts with our guilt, and view it as something necessary, or even beneficial to us as parents?

Built for Guilt?
It is hypothesized that guilt has served a variety of purposes throughout our evolutionary history. The ability to experience guilt may prevent us from repeating negative behaviors. It can also help us to keep our behaviors in line with social and cultural norms. We can even say with reasonable confidence that guilt is closely tied to feelings of empathy, an emotion that is crucial to the formation of strong, rewarding personal relationships (Tangney and Dearing, 2002). A natural extension of this reasoning might be that the more empathy one feels, the more guilt they are capable of experiencing. Are parents just, by nature, deeply empathetic toward their children and, therefore, more prone to feelings of guilt?

Perhaps. But I have seen in my own personal experience working in the child welfare system that this is not always the case. Parents can do horrible things to their children, oftentimes without seeming to feel any remorse or guilt at all. Of course, drugs, alcohol and mental illness often play a role in such cases. Overall, though, I think it could be said that guilt, and the feelings of empathy that make it possible to experience guilt, have been generally advantageous to us as humans. As parents, we typically seek to protect our children and give them our best. Speaking in purely evolutionary terms, this arrangement is very beneficial for our children - a loving, empathetic parent can ensure their very survival. 

But what about in modern-day America, where day-to-day survival is no longer as much of a concern? If guilt is no longer needed for our basic survival, then why do we still have it? 

Paging June Cleaver...
Perhaps the reason is social and/or cultural in nature. For example, just ask someone - anyone - what makes a great mother or a good father. There are so many variables involved with each of these questions, I could not even begin to explore them here but, to a great extent, the answers are culturally determined. In the U.S., there are some very basic cultural ideals of what a parent "should" be, and these ideals are closely linked with traditional American gender roles.

The mother: she's flawlessly loving and selfless, always looks "pulled together" (note the pearls), and has an answer for every problem. She never raises her voice, keeps a spotless home, and has dinner on the table promptly at 6. She is what we are taught to be as mothers - the "female superhero."

And the father? He's the breadwinner, the provider. The morale compass, and the disciplinarian.

Much has been written about how the cultural ideals of the 50s have shaped our culture, our gender roles - maybe I'll explore that in another post sometime in the future. Suffice it to say that idealism can be a powerful driving force but, taken to an extreme, it could also be a source of our undoing. We can never live up to it, no matter how we try. So what happens when we try to be the Cleavers...and can't?     

When Mommy's Away...
The first day I went back to work after the birth of my son, I had a wealth of supportive friends and family checking up on me, letting me know they were thinking of me. I felt a twinge of guilt that morning as I walked my son into the daycare building. I wondered, "Am I doing the right thing? Am I a good mother if I leave my son with strangers for nine hours a day?"

Me being me, I attempted to battle ignorance with knowledge, to use research to put my misgivings (i.e. guilt) to rest. Of course, much has been written about daycare and the affect it has on children: it has been called less than ideal, stress-inducing, and the cause of long-term behavioral problems. Articles like these were, to my horror, what I found first. Then, as I delved deeper, I saw that the picture wasn't all bad. In some cases, the very same studies that at first glance appeared to be all doom and gloom ultimately showed that quality of daycare, along with a positive parent-child relationship, seemed to be a much better indicator of whether children would be happy, healthy, and mentally fit as adults. This information showed me that, perhaps, I should not feel so guilty. But, as GI Joe says, knowing is only half the battle (yes, I went there). This was just one battle with parenting guilt. What happens if I can't reason my way out of it next time? 

Guilt is Here to Stay
Maybe the answer to that question is that I don't need to. Maybe, instead, I need to come to terms with guilt. Maybe I need to accept it as a crucial part of my parenting experience. After all, guilt - as mentioned above - has a probable evolutionary basis, and has definite functions in society and culture at large. Although sometimes it is so deeply rooted in us that it can defy reason and logic, it seems that it is fundamentally necessary to us as parents. Do we simply need to shift our perspective and learn to see guilt - within reason, of course - as something positive?

My own experience with parenting guilt has been such that I never could have imagined - the frustration, the helplessness, the roller-coaster emotions. But it is also, however slowly, leading me to a greater level of self-awareness, one in which I am able to see clearly for the first time what I stand for, the kind of life I want for my family, and the ability to know that I won't settle for any less. Because of my experiences with parenting guilt, I know now in no uncertain terms what I DON'T want for my child, for my family, for myself. And I believe that is a 'gift' to be taken away from my guilt. Moreover, doing the research for this - my first blog post - has helped me to see that the roots of my own guilt lie in something very positive: my unwavering desire to be a good mother to my son. If I didn't care, I would never feel guilt to begin with.

Some days I have a "less than" mommy day. I yell, or lose my patience. In some way, I fail to be the mother I want to be to my son. I feel that twinge of guilt coming over me, and I realize with a sinking feeling that I will never be June Cleaver. But that is not because I'm not a good mom - it's because June Cleaver, perfect parent, doesn't exist.

So, to all the parents out there reading this, I say - embrace your guilt. It's what makes you the parent you are, the person you are - beautifully imperfect, with your child's best interests always in mind. June Cleaver, be damned.

1 comment:

  1. I love your reframing of guilt as a gift. Changing the way we think about something is often the key.