Guilt is described as an emotion we feel when we feel responsible for an error or mistake, yet many of the things parents feel guilty about are either totally beyond their control, or heavily influenced by factors that are.
In my opinion guilt as an emotion is only positive if it causes us to think through the situation and either feel remorse ie in a situation that was genuinely our fault, to prompt a different response in the future OR to establish actually we weren't responsible, who was and therefore again ultimately how can we help prompt a different response in the future. Otherwise the "beating oneself up" aspect of guilt is purely negative and of no benefit - nor is "working through the guilt" ie learning to live with it, without exploring why we feel guilty in the first place and resolving this with what could happen differently.
Health Professionals giving duff advice is a key example. With my first child, I was like many and at mercy of the HP's - I knew nothing, they knew it all (or so I believed) so when at four months my Health Visitor suggested formula would help my baby sleep longer, I - albeit a tad naively, assumed they knew best. My daughter who had always had slightly dry skin broke out in eczema and we were referred to a dermatologist. Do I think formula was the link? Probably. Do I feel guilty? Not any more. Did I make a different choice next time? Absolutely.
After a good ponder, what I came to feel was the only mistake I had made was to blindly follow someone else's advice, and regardless of the uniform this is never the best plan; so I decided next time I would look for evidence based information to verify what I was told (yeah I kinda ran with that one a bit ;)). I didn't know about why exclusive breastfeeding was recommended, and assumed the HP wouldn't suggest something that could potentially be harmful. Given that people such as Health Visitors are there solely to support parents - it's entirely reasonable to expect them to be knowledgeable. If I went to the bank for some financial support, I wouldn't beat myself up if they gave me the wrong facts and figures - I would expect them to do their job properly.
The fact was if formula indeed caused the problem, then the HP recommending the formula was ultimately responsible - and so I contacted the "Head of Health Visitors" for the area I then lived in. She was horrified to hear what I had been told and promised to immediately implement updated training to ensure other mothers weren't given such advice. Why should I carry the burden of responsibility for something an expert was paid to help me with?
nobody is the perfect parent, because nobody is a perfect person; every single last parent out there will have something they would do differently, something they have felt or still feel guilt over - it's part of what makes parenting generally such an emotive topic. Ultimately it's also part of what makes us better parents in the long term. Furthermore, there is no shame in admitting you are not the perfect parent!
The big battle of the anxious parenting race begins shortly after birth - can they roll? how are they sleeping? are they a "good baby" (clearly defined in Western terms as low maintenance, sleeps for long periods without needing contact) how often does he feed? is she doing well with solids? wow weaning already, how many ice cubes does she have? parents compare their baby, sometimes almost as a gauge as to how well they are parenting. Whether your baby is a good sleeper or not is at some parenting groups the badge of "a good parent", with these parents called upon to share their wisdom with those souls suffering a less than great sleeper. Sometimes parents say their baby is a great sleeper when they're actually not - because parents are often as nervous as being perceived as a "bad parent" as they are of being one.
A very real fact is all babies are different - some parenting books can make parents feel that their baby is unusual and if they only did xyz, they would have the perfect baby. I distinctly remember reading a book that specifically said if your baby does not sleep "well" (by current Western standards), it is always something the parent is doing wrong. After doing little else for nearly a year than trying to improve my daughters sleep; following numerous books, plans and techniques such as "pick up, put down" and "rapid return" (which was anything but rapid with my spirited bean - two hundred and odd returns before I figured that probably wasn't going to work) I accepted, you know what this is not my fault! No more than it was anything amazing I did that made my second child a typical "great sleeper". If it were true I wouldn't know as many people who have had one or more sleep loving children before delivering one who wasn't as keen to conform and preferred partying in the crib at 2am.
Some children will express their emotions loudly and passionately from a young age, others will have a more laid back outlook to life and lean towards discussion and negotiation. Some will naturally be more extrovert and dive to the front at events or group, loving being the focus of attention - others have a far more cautious outlook to life and will sit tight with mum until they are absolutely sure, and even then might decide to stick close or just go a few feet.
I've heard guilt from parents over all of the above - baby is too quiet, too extrovert, too "tantrummy", too snatchy, too clingy, too dependent. Whilst of course some aspects are down to nurture and can be worked with especially as they get older, it's also down to nature - my two were like chalk and cheese from day one, and continue to be so in every way. It's not about doing xyz to "create the perfect child", but accepting and working with what you have; it's not a case of if I only did xyz better my baby would sleep/become less emotional/not be so clingy - it really isn't. The minute I accepted my daughter was just one of those babies who thought life was far too interesting to be sleeping, and worked with that to maximise sleep all round, instead of trying to change her into a two naps per day plus twelve hours at night type, life became a hundred times easier.
I later discovered she had an underlying tongue tie, retained birth compression and a couple of other bits that I believe was supporting her maintaining a very switched on state and made it difficult for her to relax - but that's discussed more here.
A mum of many hit the nail on the head a few years ago when she said first babies are really a big experiment and you get a little more right with each one, but ya gotta feel sorry for the first because you know so little. This is so true because ultimately the more we know, the better we do - but we do the best we can with the information and support we have at the time.
Just like no parent is perfect, neither is any child and you know what that's ok too! Embrace what your child is and view their traits warts and all in the best light you can. It's hard to hear or read something negative about a parenting decision we have taken - be that sleep training, feeding, discipline or the thousand other things we parents find to beat ourselves around the head about. But the most productive thing we can do with any piece of information is probably the hardest, to explore why it provokes the feelings within us it does and if needs be, admit we weren't perfect, made a mistake and acknowledge we would make a different choice in future - most of all acknowledge that too is really ok! Then realise that doing this and striving to be a better parent is actually what makes a good parent an amazing one, that makes a real difference to themselves and their family - not whether they always hit the mark.
So give yourself a big hug this Christmas for being a good enough parent - and why not share this article with someone you think deserves a parenting hug :)