“Guilt for mothers is like grapes to wine” Fay Weldon
I do not believe there is a mother in this world that has never felt guilty. We all have felt this knot in our stomach, this uneasiness, this sinking feeling. And it comes without warning, clouding our higher intellect, bringing self-doubt, self-blaming and hiding the possibility of relief. Returning to work after maternity leave is a major milestone for a new mother. Depending on the family situation and personal circumstances, it can be a much-anticipated return or a dreaded one.
Some women cherish their work and may be looking forward to going back. The return to work may be a way of feeling like themselves again, enjoying adult intellectual conversations, using their brain power, having a sense of freedom and independence again. But then a feeling of guilt may creep in:
Am I TOO happy to return to work?
Why do I enjoy being away from my baby?
Do I love my baby enough?
Am I a good mother?
Some women do not have a choice; they must go back to work to earn a living, whether they enjoy their career or not. This inevitability may ease the feeling of guilt, in the sense that “I don’t really have a choice”, but on the other hand it can put one in an impossible situation. Guilty for not being fully present at work and counting the minutes to go home, and guilty for never having enough time with their baby.
Am I really doing my best?
Am I doing what is right?
Am I a good mother?
If your return to work after maternity brings you anxiety, frustration, grief, and guilt, and you cannot imagine how you will do it all, then you are not alone!
Here are two exercises that will help you understand why you feel the way you do. Once you have awareness of what is driving the guilt, you will have more clarity on how you would like to engage with this challenging emotion.
First of all, let us start with the definition of guilt. You are guilty when you have made a mistake, a bad choice, something wrong or something against the law. And due to this misconduct, you may experience guilt, regret, and shame. So, if you feel guilty about something, it means that you recognize a mistake, an offence, and therefore you need to correct your conduct and align it with what is right.
N°1 – Understand the source of your guilt.
To understand where your guilt is coming from, firstly you need to understand what exactly you believe you are doing “wrong”. Let us use as an example that you are feeling guilty for leaving your baby at the day-care to go back to work. Then, ask yourself these questions:
If leaving my baby at the day-care to go back to work is “wrong”, then what would be “right”?
What do you believe that you “should” be doing instead?
Where are these “shoulds” coming from?
Are they coming from your environment, your culture, the way you were raised, or do they belong to your own core values?
For instance, you may have been raised by a stay-at-home mom and may feel short in comparison, that you are not raising your baby in the same way. Or, in your environment most of the moms may stop working or only work part-time, and you may feel pressure to do the same. If everyone is doing it, then it should be the “right” thing, right? Another underlying source may be expectations we internalize as we grow up. For example, the expectation that “good moms sacrifice themselves for their children”, therefore perhaps I should sacrifice my personal ambitions for a career too, like so many other moms I have witnessed as I was growing up.
Understanding the source of the guilt will give you the much-needed awareness to be able to make a conscious choice. Is this guilt showing up in my life because of external expectations that I choose not to follow and so I make peace with my own choices and do what feels “right” for me and my baby? Or is this guilt showing up because I am going against my own core values and I need to adjust my decision to truly thrive as a person and as a mother?
N°2 – Understand what you are afraid of.
Fear can lead to guilt. Let’s stay with the same example, of feeling guilty for leaving your baby at the day-care to go back to work. How is your guilt in this case fed by fears of the repercussions of leaving your baby may have? What are you afraid the damages or losses may be? Some common fears are:
The baby will not securely attach to me.
I will miss out on important milestones.
What if I’m causing a trauma to my baby?
So, here are the questions to ask yourself:
What am I afraid of?
And then again check where are these fears coming from?
And most of all, where are these fears founded?
Where is the evidence that these fears are likely to happen?
Understanding and embracing your fears will help you free yourself from the guilt trip. These exercises may not feel easy. So be kind to yourself, remain curious and non-judgmental. One thing is for sure, you are not alone. Even though every mother has her own personal story and journey, guilt is a universal emotion and goes hand in hand with motherhood.
I would also suggest that you ask yourself where else in your life does guilt show up? It would be super insightful to explore guilt in a holistic way, considering all the different areas in your life, such as your relationships (with family, friends, and yourself), your finances, your career, etc. Chances are you will uncover some patterns of behavior associated with guilt that run deeper.
Keep in mind that the goal is not to eradicate guilt. Guilt, like any other emotion, is not inherently “bad” or “good”. Emotions are data, trying to communicate to us a certain piece of information. We usually want to “manage” uncomfortable emotions – muscle them, silence them, sanitize them. But the truth is all emotions, no matter how unsettling, convey to us vital information.
Guilt is a conditioned emotion. Meaning that we have learned to feel guilty. And it acts as the compass of our conscience, keeping us out of trouble and able to socialize in a meaningful way. It also guides us into making wise decisions and staying true to our values. The problem arises when we believe that we deserve blame due to a false sense of inadequacy or imaginary "failures". Or when we cannot keep up with the cultural or societal expectations of motherhood.
A lot of moms ask me "how do I know when I need help?". The best way is to trust your instincts. If you find that you blame yourself too often, struggle with feelings of helplessness, guilt or shame, if you feel overwhelmed and can barely keep your head above water - all the while hoping for some guidance - then chances are you are right.
Are you ready to feel in control again and tackle feelings of stress and overwhelm? Are you ready to create new possibilities for you? Connect with me here ➡ schedule a discovery call. You can still reclaim yourself, raise a happy family, and pursue your dreams!