The Guilt Switch

Last month we talked about the stunningly intense Worry Switch — the what-ifs and what-abouts that click into high gear with parenthood.

I conveniently left out the other switch, which is equally powerful, if ever-so-slightly more pronounced in female parents.

I’m talking about the Guilt Switch, well deserving of its own discussion.

Like worry and unconditional love, guilt levels rise when we become parents.

Guilt over eating non-organic foods. Guilt over the money we spend on organic foods. Guilt about not breastfeeding long enough. Guilt over weaning, or not weaning, soon enough. Guilt about looking at the smart phone and not the baby. Guilt that the smart phone might be held too close to the baby and … and … who knows what that will do? (That’s the Guilt Switch and Worry Switch working together in heart-racing syncopation.)

The influence of Mom Culture

Mothers, in particular, seem to fall victim to this self-flogging hyper-perfectionism. That’s not to say that fathers are exempt. It’s just that society makes a big deal about “The Mother” and The Mother tends to spend more time chatting with her peers. She and her “mom friends” are forthcoming in their thoughts on parenthood. Comparisons are made. Choices are fussed over and examined internally.

Perhaps the biggest mama guilt instigator is career choice. Stay at Home Mom, Work at Home Mom, Office Mom, Executive Mom. There are no winners in this long-raging Mommy War. Stay at Home Moms tend to get defensive about “what they do all day.” And Working Moms justify the life that works best for their family with statements such as, “Adult interaction and financial independence make me a BETTER mom.”

The truth is, the grass is always greener. The truth is, we’re all doing the best we can to make choices that are neither good nor bad, but rather hard and authentic.

And in my opinion, the authentic mom IS the perfect mom. Because babies and children are resilient. Because babies and children are BORN to love their parents, just as they are.

And let’s just take a moment to acknowledge that we KNOW that the Stay at Home Mom does A LOT all day; and likewise that the Working Mom is energized by her career, which does indeed make her a better mom to her kids.

To-may-toe, to-mah-toe: It’s what works for you.

Getting out of the spiral

When I worked as a postpartum doula, I talked many moms and dads out of guilt spirals.

As a parent myself? You know what they say. It’s hard to take your own advice. We all have that dang Guilt Switch.

What can help us in our deepest, darkest guilt-ridden moments? Here are two of my favorite nuggets:

  1. Think of your child as a bank account. You deposit endless savings in love, compassion, nourishment and health. You’re allowed to make a withdrawal once in a while. You’re allowed to make a mistake.
  2. Of the thousands of parenting decisions you make every single day, 99 percent of them are good. For whatever reason, the so-called “bad” decisions seem louder and more important than the rest. See the good!

I also like to think of the duality of every instance of parental guilt. The Stay at Home Mom sometimes feels guilt. The Working Mom sometimes feels guilt.

We perceive ourselves as too harsh … and as too lenient. During the holidays, we might mourn our small budget or feel sickened at the abundance and going overboard.

People wonder if they should co-sleep, people wonder if they should NOT co-sleep.

With parenting, you really are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. So love yourself. Worry over your decisions (because no matter what I say you will), but feel confident in your decisions as well. No decision is final and — as always — you ARE the most perfect, amazing, flawed, beautiful parent for YOUR baby.

Be easy on yourself. Enjoy. Laugh. Feel guilty. Snap out of it. 

You ARE a good parent.


Jen Wittes is a certified postpartum doula and writer who now works in marketing and communications. She lives in St. Paul with her two kids, two cats and husband. Write her at jwittes@mnparent.com.