Friday, March 12, 2010

Don't Feel Guilty, Moms

Before I had my daughter, my entire family took great pains to inform me of all the ways in which it was HORRIFICALLY DIFFICULT to care for an infant. So I was prepared for motherhood to be a gauntlet of Herculean proportions. Then I actually had the baby. I spent two months waiting to feel overwhelmed, then decided my family had either been brilliantly using reverse psychology or just messing with my head, because while it has its low points, being a mom is actually pretty awesome.

You know what I wasn't prepared for, though? The guilt. I grew up Catholic, so I'm well aquainted with feeling bad about, well, everything. But mom-guilt is different from regular guilt in that it sneaks up on you. I'll be going along, feeling totally competent because I haven't forgotten to bathe her recently or dropped her on her head, and then suddenly I'll get whomped.

The two child development newsletters I get weekly are the worst culprits. I felt all pleased with myself for successfully breastfeeding my daughter until I came upon this one week: "Is it okay to nurse my baby with the TV on? Spending time with your baby nursing or feeding is precious one-on-one time. It's biologically designed to foster attachment and bonding because of your physical closeness, cooing, cuddling, and most of all, eye contact. I would discourage watching television because it dilutes this time by taking away your attention and eye contact."

Well crap, not only did I usually have the TV on while breastfeeding, I also generally checked my email and websurfed at the same time. Because I have ADD am a multitasker. Clearly I was ruining the baby.

Here's the thing: logically I knew that, in my case, that advice was bullshit. My daughter thinks eye contact while she's nursing is for pussies. In fact, whenever I try to lock eyes with her, she throws her arm up over her face to better concentrate on nothing but eating. Jeez kid, don't you know the experts say we're supposed to be bonding? Nevermind that I'm pretty sure the only way we could be any more bonded is if we could actually read each other's minds.

But there's nothing logical about mom-guilt, unfortunately, and I spent a day after reading that feeling like a complete failure. The same thing happened when I read that I wasn't supposed to leave her in her swing for more than a half an hour at a time (I'd been leaving her in for as long as she seemed happy) and when I gave up and finally let her watch television with me because I didn't want to miss the Olympic men's figure skating.

Then there's the free floating guilt that I'm doing something wrong that I don't even know about. As I told my mother in a fit of confessional insanity, I worry that I don't give her enough attention. I worry that I give her too much attention. I worry that I'm over-protective. I worry that I'm too lax. I worry that I'm not playing her enough classical music. I worry that I'll make her too much of a geek. I worry that I'm not patient enough with her. I worry that I spoil her. Deep breath. There's much more, but I'll spare you.

My mother, who is whatever is the opposite of introspective (outrospective?) said, "Look at her. She's healthy and happy. Why the heck are you wasting time worrying?"

And then, lord help me, I felt guilty for spending the precious moments of her babyhood feeling guilty. Luckily, my mother had another point, which was that she didn't get any of the crapload of advice that mothers today get, and somehow my siblings and I all ended up fully-functioning members of society. And we did all sorts of things that are considered verboten today: watched lots of TV, played with toys that were completely non-educational and probably pointy, were frequently out of my mother's sight, and did ridiculous things like eat mud and fall from dangerous heights. Heck, I fell down a set of stairs when I was two. My mom found me at the bottom of the staircase without a scratch on me. (She didn't have the baby gates up on the stairs yet because she didn't know I could climb them, thus setting up two reoccurring themes in my life: quick learning and falling on my ass.)

So, yeah, thinking about how the last generation managed to get us all to adulthood while of doing things "wrong" helps to alleviate the guilt some, but I've developed an even more extreme form of visualization. I imagine life as a hunter-gatherer mom or a pioneer mother, where success was making it through the day without the kid getting eaten by a mountain lion or catching consumption. And whenever I feel a guilt-attack coming on, I cut myself off and list things I'm thankful we have: vaccinations, a heated home, agriculture.

Does remembering that humanity made it through thousands of generations without worrying about screwing up their kids' development make me feel better? Not always, no. But it helps. So moms: the next time you're entering a shame spiral because you fed the kid non-organic applesauce, just stop, think about how blessed you are to even be able to worry about the type of applesauce your baby gets, and don't beat yourself up.

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