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Mom University: Debra Gilbert Rosenberg on Mother Guilt

Friday, April 28, 2006
If there's one emotion that we moms excel at (other than love, of course), it's guilt. On any given day, we can think of a dozen things to feel guilty about. So when fellow author Debra Gilbert Rosenberg dropped me an email to tell me about her book Motherhood Without Guilt, I knew we had to do an interview on the topic. It's taken me forever to post this interview (which, of course, I feel terribly guilty about). Luckily, Debra sent me a review copy of her book, so maybe there's hope for me yet. Anyway, on to the interview....

Ann: Do moms feel guiltier than Dads?

Debra: I think they do; Dads feel guilty, sometimes, too, but not as often. Women's expectations of themselves, and society's expectations of them, have gotten out of hand. Mothers expect themselves to be beautiful, fit, trim, sexy, loving, intelligent, successful, friendly, organized, neat, tidy, creative, and accomplished at every aspect of their lives. We expect ourselves, and think others expect us, to be fantastic daughters, wives, friends, workers, and mothers. And our culture teaches us that when something goes wrong with the kids, it is usually the mom who is usually at fault. No one expects that dads will be as multifaceted. When a dad takes care of the kids, people compliment him and think he's adorable, when he's doing exactly what the mom does every day. Moms, sadly, believe all of this, too. We believe that we should do everything, and do it all well, and when we don't meet these extremely high expectations, we feel guilty. Dads may feel guilty, too, but in general, they are much more self accepting in this regard.

Ann: Is guilt hard-wired into moms?

Debra: I do think moms are hard-wired to feel guilt. Women are taught early on to be nurturers as well as achievers, and to take responsibility for the happiness of others. While this is not reasonable, or achievable, women really take it to heart. That sense that they should be superwomen causes them to feel guilty even when they have done their best.

Ann: Do you "catch" guilt from other women?

Debra: I don't know if you "catch" guilt, but women certainly can be competitive with each other about their parenting and other accomplishments, and that can lead one to feel guilty for not measuring up to such high standards. While this happens a lot, fortunately, women can also be each other's best supports. After all, women understand what it feels like to try to be wonderful and loving and perfect all the time, and sharing that understanding, knowing that it's not just you who get frustrated and feel incompetent or inadequate at times, can really help erase any sense of guilt.

Ann: Can you "inherit" guilt from your family -- and from female relatives in particular?

Debra We learn from the people who raise us, and we model our own behavior most on our same-sex relatives. If your mother, grandmother, aunts and all their women friends, all worked non-stop to care for their families, and felt guilty when anything went wrong, or whenever any loved one was hurt or upset, then you probably learned that feeling guilty is the appropriate response to any problems. Unfortunately, for generations, women have been the primary caretakers of kids and families, and they have also been held responsible for their emotional, intellectual, and physical well-being. When they can't keep up with all the demands, and when bad things happen which are beyond their control, they feel guilty. And we learn that guilt is the appropriate reaction, even when it is not.

Ann: Is guilt good, bad, or ugly? Or all of the above?

Debra: Guilt can have a purpose. Guilt is good when the person who feels guilty recognizes that she feels guilty for a reason, because she has done or said something that she knows she shouldn't have. Then that unpleasant feeling, guilt, can help her learn to do things differently the next time. That kind of appropriate guilt informs and teaches the guilty party, and if she learns, she won't have to feel guilty next time. Guilt is bad when it is misdirected. No one needs to feel guilty just because something goes wrong. If you did the best you could, if something bad happened that is not in your power to control, let go of that guilt. It's unproductive and inappropriate. We cannot predict or prevent every unpleasant or bad thing, nor should we try. We have to accept that, and not let guilt tear us up over the uncontrollable.

Ann: Does guilt ebb and flow during various stages of motherhood? If so, how?

Debra: When moms feel confident and at peace with themselves, they are unlikely to make choices or act in ways that cause them to feel guilty. When they feel insecure, exhausted or overwhelmed, they may do things or make decisions that they later regret, or act in haste or anger, all of which lead to guilt. I think guilt is more related to the mom's state of mind than the stages her kids are in; every mom has ages and stages that are easier or harder for her, because of her unique qualities and life situation. When things are going well inside a mother's life, she generally behaves in ways that cause very little guilt.

Ann: Are some women more naturally prone to guilt than others?

Debra: Of course. Some women assume responsibility for everything in their lives, while others delegate much more. Some women expect more of themselves than others. Women who have realistic expectations of themselves and others are less likely to feel conflicted and guilty.

Ann: What advice would you give to women who beat themselves up over everything? (And we all know a mom like that. Maybe it's ourselves.)

Debra: First, lower your expectations. Keep in mind that if you and your kids and mate are all alive at the end of each day, that's an accomplishment! Reassess your priorities. Do you really care if every meal is worth a spot in Gourmet magazine? Would you rather play with your kids, teach them to skip rope, or iron the curtains? Take care of yourself. Spend time with friends and loved ones, do things you enjoy, with your kids, friends, family, mate, and by yourself, and remember that the laundry is not as important as your emotional well-being.

Ann: That certainly seems like sensible advice to me, Debra -- especially the part about letting your membership in the International Order of Perfectionists lapse. That, to me, seems to be the first step in letting go of the guilt. Thanks for dropping by The Mother of All Blogs.

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Not sure if you're doing this guilt thing right? Check out this tongue-in-cheek guilt guide for moms-to-be, written by your resident guilt goddess.

| posted by Ann D @ 8:02 PM