Not Guilty

It’s confession time. Sometimes I lied to my kids.

Once, the youngest told me he couldn’t go to school. He said he felt sick. I discovered he had been in trouble during sport the day before and had to write a ‘sorry’ letter to the teacher. I put one and one together but I didn’t let him see it added up to him feeling sick. ‘Have you done a poo?’ I asked. (This is a standard mother question. One of my sisters-in-law used it on her child once and felt really guilty when she took him to Emergency and was told he needed his appendix out. Urgently.) After we had gone through the details (‘Yes, I have had a poo!’, ‘No, it wasn’t runny.’) I showed real maternal empathy. ‘We’ll have to go to the doctor,’ I told him. ‘She has new medicine for tummy aches. It comes in a needle!’ He grinned at me, then raced and fetched his schoolbag.

And the guilt? I got over it.

Parent-blaming has become an industry. There are shelves of bestselling books devoted entirely to the sins of mothers and fathers – the sins that are screwing up our kids and defining our family lives as ‘dysfunctional’. If you are parents of a newborn, your greatest fear could be that you will screw up your child for life if you don’t get every single detail of nurturing absolutely perfect – any slip-up could either create bad habits or cause irreparable damage. There are therapists who caution us against becoming ‘Toxic Parents’ or ‘Parents Who Love Too Much’. We could be guilty of emotional incest or we could become enmeshed. We could be over-responsible or we could be neglecting our duty (a parent’s place is in the wrong!). But hey, it mightn’t all be our fault. We can blame our parents for the dodgy job they did bringing us up.

Most of this blame – particularly for children’s mental health – is laid on mothers (mothers have been blamed for disorders ranging from autism to anorexia). Mother-blaming has a long history: In the US, mothers of young men who refused to enlist as soldiers during World War II were blamed for having their sons ‘tied to their apron strings’. In the 1960s, police in the United States relied on an offender profile that suggested the Boston Strangler was a man with a pathological hatred of his mother. When a man in prison confessed to the killings, detectives initially refused to believe him because he had a warm relationship with his mother. It turned out he hated his violent father.

More than forty years on, it seems we’re still looking to the mother when things turn nasty. Just hours after actress Lindsay Lohan was arrested on charges of driving with a suspended license, driving under the influence, and a felony cocaine possession, posts on celebrity websites were quick to target Lindsay’s mother, Dinah – not her father, who has served time in prison, battled his own addictions and was mostly absent during Lindsay’s childhood.

Paula Caplan, author of The New Don’t Blame Mother says, ‘the less a group is valued or respected, the easier it is to target them for ills.’ Caplan says, ‘when Mum cannot fill the mandate of the following four myths, she is poised for blame:

  • The measure of a good mother is a ‘perfect’ child.
  • Mothers are endless founts of nurturance.
  • Mothers naturally know how to raise children.
  • Mothers don’t get angry.’

None of us sets out to be a bad parent. In fact it’s probably our desire to be ‘good’ parents that causes us to be so ridden by guilt (or guilt’s companions, shame and embarrassment) when we or our children muck up or if we simply can’t live up to our own or other’s high expectations.  If you are feeling overcome by guilt, it may help to tell yourself that it is probably your efforts to do the best you can for your children that contribute most to your feelings. It is also important to take responsibility for your feelings – nobody can make us feel guilty without our permission. However, we can’t afford to ignore our feelings just in case they are an early warning sign that all is not well with our choices.

We don’t have to be driven by guilt, but we do need to learn to differentiate between the guilt we feel for short-changing our child and the unfounded guilt of allowing unrealistic and limiting images of perfection push our buttons.  It doesn’t matter whether you lovingly puree organic vegetables every night or if you feed your toddler baked beans on toast and an apple for dinner occasionally (add a drink of milk and that’s three food groups!), but it will make a difference to your children’s self-esteem if they have a mother who feels utterly lousy about herself most of the time.

It might also make a difference to how you treat your child if you feel so guilty about being a rotten parent that to compensate you let them do whatever they please or keep buying them things. Perhaps the most negative thing about guilt is that dwelling on it can take you away from the present and stop you enjoying your child right now.

Pinky McKay, International Board certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), runs a private practice in Melbourne specializing in gentle parenting techniques. A sought after keynote speaker and best-selling author with 4 titles published by Penguin, including her recent book Parenting By Heart, she’s an expert source for media appearing regularly on major network TV and quoted in various publications. Pinky’s books, parenting resources and her free newsletter ‘Gentle Beginnings’ can be found on her website