Here’s something few people will tell you when you’re pregnant and about to become a new mom. Among the many new emotions you’ll experience as a parent, guilt is likely to be right up there at the top.
The stakes for parents these days are higher than ever. “We live in an age of high expectations that everything is a Kodak, or nowadays a Facebook, moment,” says Alan Manevitz, MD, a psychiatrist with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. “It’s very easy for mothers of newborns out of love and concern to feel traumatized quickly over all sorts of things.”
Here are five of the most common reasons why new moms feel guilty and even more reasons why they should learn to cut themselves a break.
1. Not feeling it.
“One of the more shameful feelings women come to see me for is they don’t feel the instantaneous unconditional mother’s love they were expecting. They feel like that’s what they are supposed to have and feel shame about it,” Manevitz says.
Although most women do feel an immediate bond upon giving birth to their baby, many don’t. Contrary to popular belief, it’s quite understandable, Manevitz says. “Pregnancy and giving birth is a great trauma to the body.”
Think about it: In most cases after surgery or other physical challenges or injuries, we rest, care for ourselves, and perhaps have others tend to our needs until we’re back on our feet. Not the case upon becoming a new mom. Giving birth to a baby sometimes comes with many uncomfortable and even downright painful side effects -- an episiotomy, perhaps a C-section delivery, and the pain and soreness that can come with breastfeeding.
But instead of resting, you face sleepless nights and the physical and emotional demands that come with caring for a newborn baby.
“Many families don’t have the financial means to pay for baby nurses or nannies and may not have extended family support to help care for the newborn. So after going through this unbelievable thing with your body and mind you’re then supposed to be super happy and performing things when you’re exhausted and tired. Not everybody has the means to do this and all of this adds to the stress,” Manevitz says.
To relieve some of the pressure, take a clue from dads. “Sometimes it’s more common that a father doesn’t become emotionally connected until the baby becomes more interactive, but they don’t have the same expectations that women have for themselves,” Manevitz says. For that reason, many don’t struggle with the same level of guilt that new moms often feel.
2. Not breastfeeding every time.
The American Academy of Pediatrics highly recommends that healthy women breastfeed their babies for the first six to 12 months of life. There is ample evidence that breastfeeding has health benefits both for babies and mothers.
For that reason, new moms face a tremendous amount of pressure to breastfeed. If you’ve recently given birth, there’s a good chance you were paid a visit in the hospital by a lactation consultant extolling the benefits of breastfeeding, or were bombarded with literature on the topic.
“Because of all that there is an increased level of guilt among mothers who don’t think they can pull it off,” says Roya Samuels, MD, a pediatrician at Cohen Children's Medical Center, a division of the North Shore Long Island Jewish Health System.
The fact is, however, that nursing simply doesn’t work well for all families for a range of reasons, which unfortunately, can leave many new moms feeling horrible about the health benefits they think they are denying their new bundle of joy.
“Breast is best but formula is a wonderful alternative if it doesn’t make sense for your lifestyle or is not possible for any reason,” Samuels says. “There’s nothing wrong with formula. Babies will get the optimal nutrition they need.”
“The most important issue is you being a content mother,” Manevitz says. “Being an unhappy nursing mom is not better than a happy mom feeding your baby joyfully with formula.”
3. Returning to work.
Returning to work is one of the biggest guilt inducers a new mom can face. And though it’s understandable to want to be at home with your baby, experts say children are remarkably resilient and can adapt and thrive in many different types of family arrangements.
The reality is that over the past decade -- and especially today, given the economy -- many families have come to rely on the income of both partners. “I tell mothers that they need to do what’s right for themselves in their family life,” Samuels says.
Doing what’s right often means earning enough money to keep a family clothed, sheltered, and fed, but it also means making sure that as a parent that you are personally fulfilled. “Some moms are better mothers working part or full time,” Samuels says. For many women, having an outlet and sense of purpose both inside and outside of the home helps them to feel whole. Wholeness makes for a better parent, Samuels says.
Even the best of circumstances, however, can leave working moms feeling pulled between home and work, which can lead to feelings of guilt. The key to combating that, Manevitz says, is planning.
“Be organized so when you get home from work you can share time with your baby and partner. You don’t want to get home and find you have no diapers.”
Working out a division of labor between you and your partner, if you have one, or asking for help from friends and family, can make it easier for you to relax and enjoy being a parent.
4. Leaving your child in day care.
Going back to work usually means leaving your child in the care of someone else. Shouldn’t you feel guilty about that?
“As long as you have reliable and trustworthy child care and find meaning in the work you do and it completes you and you’re able to maintain and strike a balance, it’s a healthy thing to do,” Samuels says.
Both Samuels and Manevitz say that children actually benefit from being in the care of another loving adult. “The fact is they are providing stimulation and teaching kids to socialize and accept other people, which are all helpful things,” Manevitz says.
And as a pediatrician, many of the new moms Samuels sees report having found babysitters with skills different than their own and that contribute to their child’s life in wonderful ways. “They can bring in a different dimension and encourage different talents in your children,” Samuels says.
The bottom line, she says: “I like to emphasize to parents that it’s the quality rather than quantity of time you spend with your kids.”
5. Taking time for yourself.
As difficult as it can be to find the time, making sure you continue to exercise, spend time with friends -- without your baby -- not to mention work in a date night from time-to-time with your partner is important. And drop the guilt because taking time for yourself, experts say, can be a benefit to both you and your child.
“It’s important for each person to have an outlet and a way of recharging and reenergizing to be the best parent they can be,” Samuels says.
Release the guilt.
With so much information available in books and online about how to raise children, many new moms are left with the sense that they could always be doing more for their child.
“We’re always falling short of our sense of self,” Manevitz says.
The truth is that a mom who knows how to relax with their child and enjoy the process is likely to be happier within themselves, and therefore, a better mom.
“The key is to deal with your perfectionism. It’s important to be realistic,” Manevitz says.