The guilt you feel as a mother is indescribable. It’s almost as though they hit a reset button on you as they’re pulling the baby out that reprogrammes you so that you’re incapable of feeling carefree ever again.
From how you feed your baby, to how many layers of clothes to put him in, to the things you do or don’t do together, you’re not only second guessing every decision but also beating yourself up, sometimes on an hourly basis. I’m only a few months in but can imagine that this is only going to get worse as we move onto bigger life events such as going back to work, choosing schools and setting boundaries.
While I was pregnant, I bought into the myth that this pressure on Mums comes from the outside – from health professionals, other competitive Mums, society generally, overbearing husbands, pushy mother-in-laws – and vowed, in my typical stubborn, head-strong, independent manner that I would not take any notice of the outside voices. I thought I’d do it my way – I’d hold it together and be calm in the face of adversity and cool and collected.
A few days before I made the decision to cut back on breastfeeding, I was with friends talking about the ongoing problems I’d had and I told them that I might be on the verge of giving up. This was a decision that was a real battle for me, despite being whole-heartedly supported (and actually encouraged) by my husband, family and just about everyone I had spoken to about it (including my health visitor who described me as being a superhero for carrying on as long as I did under the circumstances). All of those people could see the negative affect it was having on both my baby and me and that 10 weeks of persistence in the face of adversity was enough, but still I pushed myself to carry on.
One of my friends asked me why I was beating myself up so much and I just didn’t know how to describe the guilt. The two friends were both pregnant with their first babies and couldn’t understand why I felt so guilty. I realised I didn’t need to try to describe it because they would know themselves soon enough.
Like any Mum, from the moment they put my baby into my arms, I just wanted the very best for him. But unlike every Mum, I also had to contend with my own high standards, perfectionism and competitive nature (competitive with myself – I’m not one of those twatty Mums bragging that my three month old can speak French and play the violin). I’m used to being calm and collected – confident and in control. And it turned out that this is a real problem when you’re a Mum.
You have to let your standards slip. It’s just a fact. The house is like a war zone, your clothes are covered in bodily fluids and your body will never quite be the same again. You don’t have time to apply eyeliner let alone fret about whether the line is perfect. You stop matching up jewellery to your outfit because you can’t wear jewellery anymore unless you’re happy to see cascades of pearls across the floor (that would seriously make me cry).
Don’t even get me started on my hair which has gone from freshly cut, coloured and well conditioned to a mangled scrag heap with so many breakages from my baby’s oh so tiny and cute but lethal iron rod fists (it seems comfort for my son comes in the form of hanging onto my hair either side like a baby chimpanzee).
Things can’t be perfect. Life with a newborn is unpredictable in a way I could never have imagined. He lures me into thinking we have a routine and then a few days later mixes it all up again just to keep me on my toes. Getting out of the house is a military scale mission that in the early days I thought I’d never master but has now become second nature. He sleeps when I don’t want him to and doesn’t when I do want him to. He wakes up at a different time every morning and so feeds at different times every day.
Moreover, I’ve learnt there is no perfect way of doing things – everyone is just getting by and doing things by trial and error. Even though I know this, it doesn’t stop me from persevering in my quest to do things ‘the right way’.
As for the competitiveness, any of my work colleagues will laugh at this as it’s a bit of a running joke, but I’m actually mostly competitive with myself – pushing myself to do better – the worst type of competitiveness for a new Mum.
In fact, I can never win because this leads me down the road of never being good enough. So when I sat trying to describe to my friends why I felt so guilty, it was this: I was terrified of failing him. Of giving up breastfeeding leading to my baby becoming a juvenile delinquent. Of my son not having the best and of me not doing everything I can to make sure he is happy, healthy and a good person.
I’d love to say I had an epiphany and turned things around, but the realisation of this fact does not make you able to stop the guilt, change your personality and chill the hell out, even if you know deep down that your baby is happy and healthy and that it is largely down to what you’re already doing and have done since you found out you were pregnant.
Now that our feeding problems are behind us, though, I can look back and make peace with the decisions I made and know I did the right thing, at the right time and for the right reasons. As for the new challenges we are facing (reflux, illnesses, early teething – this is literally like someone up there is just taking the piss now), I am trying to keep reassuring myself I’m doing a good job and that I will look back on how I’m handling this the way I look back at the breastfeeding (it might be time to bring back the mantras from my hypno-birthing books).
I know in my sane mind that if I try to chill out a bit and stop beating myself up, my boy will benefit from having a Mum who is slightly closer to that calm and collected ideal I had in my head. Yet, my crazy guilt ridden Mum mind does the driving and doesn’t listen to the voice of reason.
Hopefully feeling guilty is actually something that will make me a better Mum in the long run (probably even better than the Stepford wife version), because as long as I feel guilty I will always try to do better for him and I’ll never let him settle for less than the best.