I once read somewhere long ago, long before having children of my own, a story of a woman who had just had her first baby. She was still in the hospital when one of her best, albeit cynical friends came to congratulate her. She held up a glass of champagne and said something along the lines of, "Well, it's all worry and guilt from here on out. Cheers."
I remember thinking about what a terrible mentality that was, and assuring myself that someday when I finally had kids that I would never, ever let worry and guilt rule my life. I would make all the right choices, I told myself, and would have nothing to feel guilty about ever. (Along with a long list of other things I would do/never do when I became a parent.)
This is the part where, if you have kids, you are laughing hysterically at my naivety.
It turns out all the right choices aren't so easy to decipher. What might be right today might be horribly wrong tomorrow, or even a few minutes from now. What is wrong for your kid might be right for mine. Even what is right for one of my boys might not work out for the other. But that's ok. We do the very best we can and at the end of the day that's all that matters. Right?
Then why are we as new parents constantly plagued with guilt?
We are bombarded with information about how to best raise our children, from all angles and all sources. We are newborns ourselves, figuring out how to do the basics in this helping-a-new-human-thrive business and it is scary. We are vulnerable. We are often skeptical, but we are sleep deprived and haven't eaten because we were feeding our babies and haven't held our partner in our arms in weeks (see: months) because we were holding our babies close and so when someone tells us that they don't need naps or they do need naps every x hours or that they will get polio if they don't get vaccinated or that they will have grand mal seizures if they do, we listen. We listen because our children need our help and we don't have all the answers.
Before becoming a parent I was so sure of myself. I didn't care much what other people thought of my lifestyle and was confident that every choice I made was the right one. If I made mistakes along the way I knew that they were opportunities for growth and I would do my best not to repeat them. But taking care of a new little person, knowing that your choices don't affect just you anymore, but that every decision you make is quite literally influencing the rest of someone's entire life... It's a whole different story, and it leads to a lot of second guessing.
Maybe I'm being a tad over-dramatic. Today I bought my first container of formula. I haven't used it yet. I don't want to use it. It took me days of research to figure out what kind to buy, and that was after days of researching whether it would be better to start my boys on solids a little earlier than we'd liked or give in and start supplementing with formula. Now instead of praising myself for having made it almost five months exclusively breastfeeding two babies, I am sitting here with a tub of soy ice cream and cookies mourning my recent purchase because it feels like a little part of me has died. Instead of celebrating my accomplishments thus far, why do I feel like such a failure?
Because of guilt. Because I want to do the very best for my babies, even when it is impossible, and when it turns out in the end that I can't, I feel guilty. I feel inadequate. I feel like I can't even nourish my own babies by myself. I want to be the happy lady in the perfect picture of how to tandem feed twins, smiling like she's not worried they both will get enough milk. I want to be the mom who knows 100% that her decision was the right one.
The thing is we can never know 100%. There is always a chance our decisions won't work out in the end. But that's ok. It's up to us as new parents to weigh the risks and take the chances. Let's be honest. None of us really know what we are doing. We all spend most of our time in the dark, fumbling around bumping our way along towards hopefully figuring it out. We are bound to stumble from time to time. It's how we learn and grow as parents and as people.
So why do I feel so guilty?
Because I am a good parent and a good person. Because I am aware that my lifestyle influences the lives of other little people. Because I am aware that, like Newton said, to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction (usually from naive childless people like my old self) but I act anyway. Because I am aware that my decisions have consequences. Because I am worried about the future, when my babies are no longer babies but grown-up people, responsible for their own actions.
A little worry and guilt every now and then is healthy; it keeps us in check, keeps us asking questions about the decisions we make - and we should be asking questions. We should be looking for second opinions. We should be second guessing, and sometimes third guessing. We're taking care of someone else's life for goodness sake! It means we love our babies enough to ensure they are truly thriving.
And that is why at the end of the day, I will still welcome those cumbersome old cynical best friends of parenthood - worry and guilt, into my room to help celebrate whatever milestone comes next. In fact, if I wasn't hooked up to the breast pump as I write this, I'd raise up a glass of champagne and toast the old broads right now for always keeping me on my toes.