As part of our #BREAKFREE campaign, Anna Mansell writes a letter to her daughter about why guilt doesn't have to be part of her life...
When I was pregnant with your brother, I read so many books and articles. I talked to other parents and other women who were pregnant. I listened hard to everything everyone had to say. I was certain that by doing so, I’d nail this parenting thing.
Not only is that ridiculous (parenting is rock hard and the goal posts frequently move). But also, I hadn’t anticipated two key things.
Number one: no matter how much you tell yourself (and anyone who’ll listen) that women were built for childbirth; when your firstborn is over 9lb, back to back and induced: scented candles and whale song will not secure a euphoric birthing experience.
Number two: the second your first born arrives, along with sleepless nights and torpedo boobs comes levels of guilt never before seen. Guilt if you choose not to employ the torpedo boobs. Guilt if you do but your best friend can’t. Guilt if you plug the whining with a dummy. Guilt if you advocate control crying in favour of the chance to sleep in your own bed. On your own terms. With your husband, not your child.
Guilt if you make someone else feel guilty for their choice to parent differently.
Should you choose to have children (and I have to tell you it is not a pre-requisite. It is the most beautiful, brilliant thing for me and your Dad, but that doesn’t automatically mean you have to do it.) you should know that getting your head around how to deal with guilt beforehand, will be a distinct advantage. In fact, I’d go as far as to argue that understanding guilt, and how to #Breakfree from its grasp, is essential.
Because the problem with guilt, is that it sneaks up on you. It eats away at you. It can undermine your sense of self and logic. It’s needy, and it demands attention – much like the tiny baby causing the feeling in the first place. But it is not your friend.
So perhaps it’s right I confess to the thing I feel most guilty about. It’s something I think about often.
I feel guilty about my lack of guilt.
Don’t worry, I recognize the irony, but trust me: it is a thing. As much as guilt is destructive, it can also be your moral compass. If used as a moment to reflect, or an opportunity to learn. It can teach you to forgive. Forgive the things we say. (Oh, the things we sometimes say!) Forgive the things we’ve done… (again, the many, many things.) Because guilt is not useful unless it comes hand in hand with self-awareness, understanding; a bit of kindness.
That’s why I no longer feel guilty for going back to work when your brother was six weeks old. I needed to. It made me happy, and that meant I was in a better place to deal with the very real challenges of being a brand new mother.
I don’t feel guilty for then giving up that career, on a flight of fancy to become a writer. Yes, it means your Dad shoulders the financial responsibilities whilst I faff around on my laptop like an unpublished, poor man’s Barbara Cartland. I feel a responsibility, and forever indebted to his generosity of support, but I can’t feel guilt. It’s not helpful.
Do these things make me selfish? Possibly. Do I feel guilty about that? Again, sorry, but no. Maybe sometimes being selfish is good. Care for ourselves and we can care better for others.
I don’t feel guilty for writing someone a letter that told them exactly how I felt. Or throwing a strop about a work decision I didn’t agree with. Or forgetting to ask after someone’s wellbeing. Or not returning a call that perhaps I should have. Not because I am a bad person who doesn’t care, but because the choices we make from day to day, are based on where we are at; who we are, and what we feel at any given time. We can’t always control those things, we can just control the way we deal with the fall out of our behavior, our choices. And sometimes, forgiving ourselves our human frailties, is the very kindest thing we can do. Perhaps then, our next choice will be different.
Honest guilt is a self-infliction. By that I mean, we’ve realized we made a mistake and we feel bad about it. So use it to your advantage, learn, grow, apologise, accept. Then, for your own sanity, which will in turn help those around you – whoever they may be – break free. Guilt holds back our happiness, and we all have a right to that. Even when we get things wrong.
Follow Anna on Twitter: @annamansell