Got Mothering Guilt?

You should never feel guilty about epidurals, C-sections or formula feeding

Posted Mar 31, 2016

markp73/iStock
Source: markp73/iStock

Many new mothers who don’t have the unmedicated vaginal delivery they planned mourn the loss of their ideal birth. Some are traumatized by a C-section. Other women feel terribly guilty if they don't or can't breastfeeding.

Should they feel bad, or is birth and infant feeding like idealizing a specific weight or size, a cultural stereotype that we should question, not a universal standard?

Many American women are deeply distressed by being unable to meet an idealized weight and dress size. We live in a society that venerates women who wear a size 2, looks down on a woman who is a size 12, and despises and feels sorry for women who are a size 22.

But women’s feelings about weight are not objectively “true.” They are a product of cultural stereotypes, and as such, should be questioned. Similarly, women’s feelings of disappointment over an epidural are not objectively “true,” either. They are also a product of cultural stereotypes.

Women who are a size 2 aren’t inherently better or superior in any way to women who are not. While the individual woman may have bought into the cultural stereotype of what a woman “should” look like, and while she may diet obsessively to get there and stay that way, and while she may feel “empowered” and happy because she is a size 2, that does not mean the rest of us should agree with her. It also does not mean that the rest of us should aim to be a size 2, should feel empowered by being a size 2 or should sympathize with her over the disappointment of having to wear a size 4.

If a woman sought psychotherapy for being a size 4 or 6 or 8, should the therapist counsel her that the disappointment of being size 6 instead of size 2 is a reasonable response, that her sense of self worth should be dependent on her weight and that the best thing to do would be to make determined efforts to become a size 2 in the future?

Or might the therapist suggest instead exploring what being thin “means” to this woman? Might the therapist suggest questioning the cultural stereotype that thin=good woman? Might the therapist might suggest that the depression over being a size 4 or 6 or 8 is actually not about weight, but about feelings of low self esteem that affect the woman’s entire life, but are currently expressed through disappointment about weight?

What is the difference between being traumatized about not matching the cultural ideal of being a size 2 vs. not matching the cultural ideal of having a unmedicated vaginal birth? The woman who is depressed about being a size 4 has “chosen” to adopt the value of being thin every bit as much as the woman who has chosen to adopt the value of venerating unmedicated childbirth. It is based on what she has seen, what she has read, what she believes is important.

When it comes to body image, most of us now understand that the culturally constructed ideal is corrosive to women’s view of themselves. It leads to shame, anger and self-loathing. Hopefully, we encourage our daughters (and ourselves) to love our bodies regardless of whether or not they meet an externally imposed standard. We encourage or should be encouraging our daughters to subvert externally imposed standards by rejecting them. They, and we, should recognize that beauty comes in many different shapes and sizes.

When it comes to childbirth, the cultural constructed ideal of unmedicated vaginal birth is corrosive to women’s view of themselves. It leads to shame, anger and self-loathing. The relentless pressure to breastfeed can lead to the same feelings.

The beauty of birth resides in the arrival of a new life and the inauguration of the extraordinarily powerful mother-infant bond, which may take weeks or months to develop, but lasts a lifetime. It has nothing to do with how the baby was born; it has nothing to do with forgoing pain medication; it has nothing to do with how you feed your infant.

Say no to the fashion industry that wants you to feel bad about your body. Say no to the natural childbirth industry that wants you to feel bad about epidurals and shamed by C-sections, as well as the breastfeeding industry that wants you to be consumed by guilt if you can't or simply don't want to breastfeed.

Be subversive: love your body as it is.

Be subversive: love your mothering as it is, the best choice for you and your baby..

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