Butler County Times Gazette
  • Dr. Elaine Heffner: Mothers and guilt

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  • Guilt - is there any word that pops up more readily in any conversation about motherhood? “I feel guilty that … .” Anyone can fill in the blanks based on her own experience. It most often comes up in relation to something one did or said – or didn’t do or say. It almost always goes along with the worry that one’s actions as a parent had – or will have – dire consequences for one’s child.
    A mother asked me if it is good or bad to apologize to your child for something you did that you think was wrong and now regret. That question is based on a common assumption that needs to be challenged. The implication is that there are things we do with our children that are inherently good or bad in an absolute sense - without reference to the child, the parent, the situation and most of all, the relationship they have with each other.
    I asked the mother what would make the apology to her child “bad.” As we talked about this it became clear that what she “felt guilty” about was the original incident in which she said something to her child she thinks was “terrible.” In asking whether the apology was good or bad, she was really asking if the apology could redeem her and undo the bad effect of her behavior on her child.
    Asking further what the “bad effect” might be, she replied that it might damage her child in a way that would interfere with his functioning in the future. Wow! Imagine how powerful a mother must feel she is to be able to damage her child in the future by something she says. The other assumption here is that children are so fragile that one wrong word from Mom can do irreparable damage.
    Beyond mothers feeling they are so powerful they can do so much damage to their children is the anxiety they have about the significance of negative experiences. Feeling responsible for creating such experiences is a major source of guilt. This suggests that it is possible to go through life without having such experiences, and that mothers are responsible for making that happen – for creating a perfect life for one’s child.
    Such feelings are fostered by a flood of material saying what is good or bad for children and what is the right or wrong way to raise them. Moreover, our culture surrounds us with an emphasis on pleasure, on feeling good, with pills we can take to avoid painful or bad feelings – physical or emotional.
    We know that unfortunately there are too many children who grow up in far from optimal environments both economically and socially. The larger point, though, is no matter under what circumstances children are raised, life itself requires the ability to withstand hurts and obstacles. As parents, we wish we could protect our children from pain, but that is a totally unrealistic goal.
    Page 2 of 2 - Our children gain strength from facing such experiences and finding they can master them. We hope they will not face more than they can handle at particular stages of development, and if they do, we can provide the support they may need. Every experience we have in life has an effect on shaping us into who we are or may become.Every individual makes use of these experiences in different ways as part of his or her personality and temperament.
    Feeling guilty is not about the children. It is about us. It is about our unrealistic demands of ourselves as parents, and about a lack of belief in our children’s resilience.
    Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: the Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: the Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at www.goodenoughmothering.com.
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