There is so much for us to feel guilty about.
I feel guilty that I had a glass of champagne on that New Year’s Eve before I knew I was pregnant. I feel guilty that I got impatient (really ugly-impatient, not just mildly irritable, more along the spectrum to dementedly pre-murderous) with my infant child when he wouldn’t sleep or feed according to whichever baby expert’s scheduling system I had just read or been told about.
I feel guilty that I couldn’t simply be that relaxed, serene mother you see in adverts, with her child calm and chilling in an ergodynamically designed body sling
At least I am not alone.
Mothers I see in my practice tell me they feel guilty about about what they ate during pregnancy, how they fed their baby with bottle or breast, where their baby slept or not, whether they did sleep training or not, which discipline strategies or lack of strategies they used, or how they delivered their baby – a Caesarean section that medically speaking may not have been strictly necessary, or not.
Recently I bumped into an old friend and we chatted about sun block and how hard it is to get your children to put it on every day, not to mention trusting they will reapply it later in the day for sport when you’re not there.
She said what I had been feeling, but it felt too heretical to say: “I feel relieved that the recent fuss in our press showed how inaccurately sunblocks are labelled and how some of them don’t really make much difference. It cured some of my guilt about being a sloppy mother straight away.”
I regret I’ve been a grumpy mom, a tired mom, an intrusive mom, a clingy, anxious mom. I even feel guilty about feeling guilty because, as I tell my clients, guilt that is undeserved can be self-indulgent and even destructive.
But there is at least a place guilty people can go to pretend they’re being productive while actually just maintaining a proud personal tradition of work avoidance and procrastination. I’m sure you’ve been there many times yourself – the internet.
And it was there that I came across a short blog on the Huffington Post website by a man called Dr Kris Jamsa, titled Learning and Development Starts at Age Zero.
“From the moment of conception,” he says, “a child’s wellbeing and development is dependent upon the mother’s actions and behaviors.” No pressure, then.
He goes on to say that between birth and the first year of formal schooling a child’s future success largely depends on the mother’s ability to inculcate 400 child-development skills in the child.
Now Dr Jamsa has written “over 110 books on computing and education“ and I am still struggling to get my first book written. He has an impressive six college degrees, I on the other hand only need one or two to have decided that this kind of advice should be strongly resisted. Parenthood is hard enough without experts (and yes, I’m one of them) turning parenting into mission impossible.
Dr Jamsa emphasises the importance of teaching mothers to improve their child’s early learning development, and of course I agree with him. Parents need to engage with and interact with their babies, hold their babies, talk with them and play with them and yes, also give them space just to be. And certainly this is vital in developing countries and is something that parents should take extremely seriously.
But what I take issue with is his all-or-nothing tone in sweeping statements like “Every action a mother takes (or fails to take) with respect to developing her child’s learning skills, directly affect the child’s ability to succeed in the future.”
It’s this kind of prescriptive comment, with it’s erroneous implication that there is no room at all for mistakes or lapses by mothers in particular (he interestingly makes no mention at all of fathers in his short piece) which is monumentally unhelpful to us mothers (and fathers.)
As an aside it also reads to me like an unconscious extension of the mother blaming of the past – remember the “schizophrenogenic mothers who where thought to have induce schizophrenia in their children, or the “refrigerator mothers” who were blamed for making their children autistic? Both guilt-inducing theories that have been thoroughly disproved and discredited.
My thinking is that you need not be concerned about the single wasted learning opportunity that may make the difference between your daughter being a high school drop-out or Nobel prize winning economist.
Child development and learning, like parenting, is a process that necessarily and inevitably involves making mistakes, getting it wrong and failing. Ordinary, good-enough parents help their children deal with these mistakes and failures and through these experiences we all learn that we can learn, that we are adaptable, resilient and can tolerate frustration and delay gratification.
While we should feel less guilt, we really do still need to keep on applying that sunblock.