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  • Writer's pictureBryna Sampey, IBCLC

Shame Vs. Guilt

Is Mom Guilt really a thing?

In today’s News of the Obvious, “Mom Guilt” is a thing. When I typed it into the omniscient google-machine, it spat back about 26,300,000 results in 0.33 seconds. I just copy-pasted that from google, I didn’t count or anything.

Weirder still, most of those results (okay, the first ten pages. Let’s be real, I’m not going to page through 26 million and change webpages) are articles, blogs, photos, pinterest boards, facebook groups, and cafemom opinion pieces aimed at reducing guilt. “5 easy steps!” shouts one title. ” United Against Mom Guilt is a thing. So is Working Moms Against Guilt and Stay At Home Mom Guilt. Writer’s Mom Guilt is apparently a thing, too. Or a sub-thing. There are celebrity tips on tackling mommy guilt… So why am I even still writing?

Well, partly because all the better ideas haven’t been thought up in my brain yet, but also because I want to say something controversial. It’s not mom guilt. It’s not a thing. No such thing.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. What?

Whoa, whoa. Sit back down. Put that pitchfork back in the pen-cup, please. I’m not saying guilt doesn’t exist, but I spent a great deal of the last couple of days on every research outlet I know of looking for studies that specify types of guilt. There aren’t any. One thing I did find that was very interesting, though was that what I think of as mom guilt is actually shame.

Sidebar: I also found some interesting research about parents’ shame and guilt as related to the perceived wrongdoings of their children.

A perusal of abstracts led down the rabbit-hole, of course. But the authors that rose to the top were June Price Tangney and her book Shame and Guilt, as well as her research on the emotions. I admit I haven’t yet read the book in its entirety, but from what I’ve gleaned from Tangney’s research and others’, they’re distinct emotions. And what’s more, the feelings we attribute to “mom guilt” are actually just shame.

Even further, it seems we do most of the shaming to ourselves. In everything I’ve read this past week on the subject, respondents to the qualitative studies were their own harshest critics. When imagining how others perceived them, whether 17 or 64, people generally rated themselves much more harshly than others actually rated them. Quoting J Lindsay-Hartz’s work: “Shame supports ideals of what people want to be and maintains their commitment to a social determination of who they are. Guilt highlights moral standards concerning what ought to be, supports the sense that there is order and meaning in the world, and supports the values of reconciling with others and being forgiven.”

How do I know what is shame and what is guilt? Label them.

So I’ve been picking through my own mommy-feelings of inadequacy, shame, and guilt and re-labeling them. Not feeding my kid enough veggies? Shame. Ignoring my kid for 20 minutes to look at the knitting subreddit? Shame. Saying “That’s why we don’t run in the house!” when my kid faceplants into the cabinet instead of “Are you ok?” Guilt. Making a snarky comment about another mom behind her back? Guilt.

I feel guilt when I’ve done something I know is wrong, and it’s something I don’t usually do. or something I didn’t really intend to do. I usually want to apologize afterward. Unless that other mom is a total B (Just kidding!). I don’t feel guilt about choices I’ve consciously, carefully made, or things I tried unsuccessfully to do.

When my choices don’t line up with another mom, or blogger, or opinion piece on HuffPo parenting, I feel shame. “Shame supports ideals of what people want to be…” I remember reading this little gem about keeping pictures of your kid off the internet on HuffPo Parents after it got shared by a lot of pro-privacy friends on social media. There was a huge hullabaloo about it, and I gleefully clicked “like” on all the rebuttal articles (no matter how well done or who wrote them) because…it reduced my shame to know others felt the same way I did. Which is to say I felt shame in the first place.

Why? I felt shame about the fact that this person who is clearly together enough to write popular articles for HuffPo and a with-it parent enough to have made all these careful plans for her kids’ future before they were even born was doing something very differently than I was. Am, is. Whatever. My point is that this person held a respected position in my brain (real or imagined) and I was deviating from their advice and knowledge. The defining thing for me is that I felt shame because I thought that maybe that was a good idea. I did it to myself. I decided that this person had a good idea and I didn’t do the same thing. What’s more, I don’t really want to keep my kids off the internet (because they’re obviously too cute not to be overshared with you all…), but I felt shame in being perceived as obviously different than this article which was being shared by my friends, whom I presumed agreed with it and therefore judged me a lesser parent for it. Ouch, brain! Did I need to worry about it? I don’t know. I don’t care anymore. Probably not.

Now for the Mother of is all

So it’s been established that we all make different choices as parents (because we aren’t robots yet and we're NOT all just "Mommies" we're parents. Women, Men, and Other!) and when we share those choices (which is a compulsion of humans that goes back a long, long time) others who respect us will feel shame. Should we stop sharing our parental experiences? I will if you will. Which is to say, probably not.

Uh, Breastfeeding?

So why this long winded blog about shame v. guilt and I haven’t even mentioned breastfeeding even one time? I don’t think I need to mention breastfeeding directly here. Oops, already did. So the breastfeeding battles and mommy wars, and whatever other monikers have been coined by brighter bloggers than I, are built on the FOUNDATIONS of mom guilt (shame) and being guilted (shamed) by other mothers. Guilt (shame) surrounding our mothering might come from within, but how do you know which is which? How do you get rid of it?

I’m not a psychologist, so I can’t help you get rid of mom guilt (shame); I am a human with two hands and internet access so I can help you identify which one you’re feeling via this kitschy graphic:


Shame vs Guilt

As much as I know about parenting, which isn’t much, I know I’m a better mom when I’m not busy overthinking some choice I made last year about purchasing plastic toys at last or allowing Barbies into the house. I’m able to be more present when I let it go, which happens faster when I name what I’m feeling and why I’m feeling it. Weird, right?

As much as I know about breastfeeding, which is considerably more than I know about parenting but I still have loads to learn, I know that it can be tough. That’s why I have a job! Breastfeeding can be hard and getting through it when it’s really hard feels like a million bucks! A mom who succeeds is going to crow from the flippin’ rooftops! A mom who doesn’t succeed is going to feel pretty much the opposite of that. She isn’t going to crow from the rooftops. It makes sense when she gleefully clicks “like” on that study or article (no matter how well done or who wrote it) debunking the benefits of breastmilk and showing it’s just not that great, anyway. Then it follows that breastfeeding mom who just went through Hades’ privy to breastfeed because she believes fervently in those debunked benefits will argue with that same article. Inside each mom is that roiling pot of mom guilt (shame).

Anyway- if it’s mom guilt (shame) you have about breastfeeding, or anything else, know I’m going through it too. As is every other mom. I think we’re not at war with one another here, even though 26 million other articles seem to think we are. I think we’re at war with ourselves. Weird, though, because when I googled “How to give myself a break?” only 1.4 million articles came up. Most of them suggested baths, deep breathing, naps, meditation, and booze. Can you think of the things most moms don’t get often? Those five things are at the top of my list of “wants-but-can’t-have-right-now” pretty much always. And chocolate.

I think I’ve made my point. Chocolate.

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