Female Guilt and Motherhood

It started before Jude was even born. I’m well-versed in female guilt and shame, but I thought I had mom guilt’s number.

Then, somewhere around 34 weeks, JD and I found ourselves sitting in a “supportive” circle with five other couples also in the panicked twilight weeks of their pregnancies. “Let’s go around and share what kind of birth you plan on having,” the facilitator cooed. Couple after couple uttered words like “natural,” “tub birth,” and “doula.” I’d like to report that when it was our turn I proudly said, “Epidural, please!” or “A birth where baby and I are both healthy!” But I did not.

I let our turn pass and the group moved on to an equally uncomfortable hour practicing supportive labor positions — an exercise consisting of more grunting and quad work than even the crossfitter next to me was comfortable with.

For the rest of the seminar, however, I found myself looking at these other mothers and judging. Not judging them for being proud of the births they had chosen — that’s every woman’s right. I judged myself.

I wondered why I wasn’t strong enough to attempt a natural birth. How was it so easy for them? And why had it been such an easy decision for me?

From that day on, I soaked up guilt like a newly unpackaged, super-absorbant sponge. My plans to be the picture of #self-care and #health dwindled to a once-a-week walk JD scraped me off the sofa to complete and an ever-present pan of brownies I carried around like my true firstborn. And my goal to greet childbirth calmly and rationally was replaced by raging hormones that gave me the emotional range of Pennywise the Dancing Clown.

I’m sorry to say guilt doesn’t lessen when your bundle of joy arrives. From the moment he or she exits your body, you’ll hear “breast is best” as least three times a day (more if a well-meaning lactation consultant is within a one-mile radius of you or your child). Even the security guard at my neighborhood Walgreens yelled after me, “Are you going to breastfeed?” as I was making a quick getaway with more Halloween candy and hemorrhoid cream than one self-respecting pregnant woman should ever need.

And then there’s the entirely self-manufactured guilt of wondering if your child is eating enough, growing enough, happy enough. All questions that lead back to the one that really keeps you up at night: “Am I enough?

I also watched other mothers “snap back” immediately as I still spilled over my maternity jeans while pushing a shopping cart heavy with cookie butter through Trader Joe’s — a look that doesn’t elicit quite as many charmed smiles once your baby is actually here.

Finally, there’s the guilt about feeling guilty. Because not everyone who wishes to carry a child in their belly is able to. And guilt, while certainly not reserved for privileged white women, is something women like me have the time and resources to indulge (and write angsty blog posts about).

But perhaps my greatest moment of guilt came approximately a half-hour before Jude was born.

On my third day of labor and my third hour of pushing, the doctor told me it was time for a C-section. And for the first time in three days, I cried. I wept because I felt like a failure. I wept for having already fallen short as a mother.

The nurses wheeled me into an achingly bright room. Blue note jazz played from some unseen corner. And the beautiful blue eyes I married peeked out from behind full scrubs. Some 10 minutes later, a new set of bright blue eyes was laid on my chest. And I didn’t feel guilty.

I mostly felt tired … but I also felt profound love, accomplishment, and completeness.

There will likely be thousands of hours of guilt ahead of me. But I know there will also be those sturdy moments of love and hope. The decisions I make, and the mistakes that will certainly follow, are enough. I’m enough. And even in the broken moments, you are too.

P.S. I’ve never experienced something more painful, emotional, or difficult than breastfeeding. I’d write a whole post about it, but a dear friend shared this one and I loved it. It’s nice to be reminded that if I hadn’t been able to breastfeed or *gasp* suddenly chose not to, my child wouldn’t sprout a third eye and still has a pretty fair shot at a decent life.