Why Parenting Guilt is Dangerous – Instinct vs Logic

Every day we make dozens of decisions that will affect our children. What they eat. What they wear. Where they sleep. What their bed time is. Who they play with. What toys they play with. And that is a meagre tip of a giant, all-consuming ice berg.

The pressure on parents to get every decision right is immense and is starts right from the time you announce you are pregnant. With so many decisions resting on our shoulders on a day to day basis, there are bound to be different paradigms, different parenting philosophies, and differences of opinion.

At some point in the last century the art of learning to be a parent has evolved from a time when we gradually absorbed tried and true methods passed down from generations, to a process of deciphering conflicting information from a number of sources, all claiming to be backed by scientific study, and all claiming to be the one correct practice. And the source of the information has changed too, from close friends and relatives to scientists and self-anointed ‘experts’.

With so many varying viewpoints thrust at parents on a daily basis, it’s no surprise that the modern way of learning to parent exposes some significant differences in the way we practice our parenting skills.

It seems, however, we crossed the line from absorbing and processing new information about parenting practice into taking on the role of expert. And subsequently, we started to feel that it was okay to judge other parents for their own parenting choices, simply because they don’t match our own. Perhaps parents in generations gone by felt judgement too. Maybe the lack of choice and the lower exposure to information and ideas meant that more people followed the same parenting philosophy, so there was less need for judgement. Maybe, without the constancy of mass and social media as a juxtaposing influence against their own thought processes, they never wondered if they were getting it right in the first place.

(For the record, I am a c-section birthing, breast milk expressing, bottle feeding, routine following, non-circumcising, separate room sleeping mum. I am sure there are support groups for me and my children – but in reality, I’m also sure that in ten years very little of the above confessional will enter their ever expanding minds. I have no idea what my own mother’s support group title would be, which leads me to believe that it won’t be important to my kids either.)

The problem with judgement is that it leads to guilt, warranted or otherwise. Questioning another mother’s, (or father’s), parenting choices is akin to putting a little angel on one shoulder and a little devil on the other and lying in wait for the inevitable clash. And while one parent’s choices are invariably irrelevant when applied to a child that is not their own, it can still hurt. Even when confident their method is right, parents will inwardly second guess themselves if challenged on an idea because the stakes are so high. They just don’t always admit it.

My own parenting experience has never followed the norm. I wanted a natural birth – I didn’t get it. I assumed I would take to breastfeeding easily. I didn’t. I hoped my child would hit developmental milestones on time, but he was miles ahead of the expected age for each milestone and I was barely ready for the commotion that comes with having an incredibly active, fast talking, lightning quick crawler – at six months. I watched wistfully as other children played harmoniously at the park while my amazingly cheeky, incredibly spirited and too big for his age son created havoc wherever he went. The one thing I know is that nothing – nothing – went to plan. Nothing was as I expected. So having an overriding philosophy or paradigm was useless. I had to, (literally sometimes), fly by the seat of my pants. Often, despite planning and considering and researching, I had to react to whatever was thrown at me, so any choices I made were relevant only to my child. Anyone else’s unsolicited advice was out of context.

And that was all before I had a premature daughter. Boy did that throw a spanner in the parenting works, and not just for me, but for her and her brother and father as well. It completely altered my view on being a parent instantly and definitively. And it helped me to understand why judgement from outsiders can be so devastating.

When I was on bed rest awaiting my daughter’s birth there were many times we were told she would not survive the night. In a moment of extreme vulnerability I broke down in front of a doctor, who had just given me some very bad news. I had been hammered with bad news over and over again, and eventually, with no one else around to be brave in front of I sobbed. The doctor, trying to comfort me, said something I will never forget. A harmless comment at the time, which I have since dwelled on and struggled to understand.

“Please don’t blame yourself. It’s just one of these things. We can’t explain it. But it’s not your fault.”

In my despair, I ignored him. I had heard it before and it just didn’t resonate. Of course it was my fault! My body is built to carry a child to term and its failing. In doing so it is killing her. At this moment right now, I thought, she is perfect and healthy and full of potential. The minute she is out in this world all of that vanishes because my body can’t protect her. It’s not like I made any bad choices, but it was my responsibility to keep her safe all the same.

Since that moment I have had plenty of time to stew on the doctor’s words. If I was in that room comforting someone in exactly my situation, I would probably have said the same thing. I definitely would have thought it. Looking at a distraught mother to be I would think, “I wish I could make you believe you did nothing to make this happen. It just did. You made no bad choices that brought you to this. It’s not your fault. It’s really, really not.”

Intellectually and without a personal connection to that particular moment I know that these things do just happen, regardless of the decisions we make as parents. But when you are in that situation something overrides all sensibility and reason. As Einstein said, ‘Instinct and emotion will always overwhelm logic and reason.’

And with the benefit of hindsight and a fair serve of perspective, it now makes perfect sense. Our deepest instinct is to protect our children fiercely and without hesitation. And we can no more ignore those feelings, (guilty or otherwise), than we can ignore the instinct to pull our toddler back from a busy road. Or the instinct to tell them to be careful when climbing a tree. Or riding a bike. Or remind them not to talk to strangers. It’s the same reason my parents laid awake at night when I first got my license.

A switch is flicked when we become parents. We are suddenly aware of how precarious life is and how intense the task of raising children is. And before we have even begun, we are terrified of making mistakes.

For strangers and well-meaning relatives that give well intended advice – we’ve probably thought it through. In fact, we’ve probably analysed and dissected many of the parenting decisions we will make today. We may even have researched it. And we’ve made a choice which fits with our set of circumstances, which the likelihood is you don’t fully understand. And to parents who put forward their own parenting choices as if they are relevant to other parents – you are slowly eroding the confidence of another parent, and the confidence to follow our instincts is something we rely on. And analysing every parenting decision made in finite detail with a generalised comment makes no sense anyway. It’s kind of like trying to paint a very detailed picture with a very broad stroked brush. So instead of exposing the inbuilt vulnerabilities of other parents, remember that your decision may not be relevant to those of other parents. In the end, anyone who judges a parent is hopeful that their perspective will outweigh another parent’s deepest instincts. It won’t. But it will likely cause upset.

If we are to rid mothers and fathers of the world of parenting guilt we must accept our differing opinions as a response to our own parenting instincts. Beyond that, there’s not much need for discussion…or judgement. In the end the only opinion that matters is that of our children, and the adults they will grow up to be.

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