Why You Should Not Feel Guilty When You Reach Your Breaking Point as A Parent

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You ever have that split second moment when you feel like you are ready to toss your kid into a trash can? Yep, that was me.

Luckily, my husband woke up from his day-sleep (he works a 12 hour night shift), and took my son before I lost the last ounce of sanity in my four-hours-of-sleep brain. After they headed towards the nursery, I stomped off towards the kitchen to grab something to eat (funny how you sometimes forget to eat on the days your infant is being particularly difficult).

After devouring the leftover rigatoni in the fridge and scarfing down chocolate-covered graham crackers, I felt my body reassemble like the smashing of a mirror in reverse. (Although, maybe it wasn’t the food, but the sweet, sweet sound of silence.)

Upon regaining my composure, any residual anger trickling down into a memory, I felt the way parents sometimes do when they lose their cool: guilty.

Why guilt? There are a couple reasons.

One way we may feel guilt is our overwhelming — and incorrect — feeling like a failure as a parent. (Why can I not console my crying child?)

This one can really feel like a punch to the stomach. But let me say that we are not typically the cause of our infants’ agonizing screams. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “crying—including prolonged bouts of inconsolable crying— is normal developmental behavior in babies. It helps to think of crying as one of the ways babies communicate. Research also shows that most babies who cry a great deal are healthy.” (It may not make you feel better about your circumstances, but it may alleviate feelings that it is your fault.)

Furthermore, The Journal of Pediatrics published an article stating out of “8690 infants….the mean fuss/cry duration across studies was stable at 117-133 minutes (SDs: 66-70) in the first 6 weeks and dropped to a mean of 68 minutes (SD: 46.2) by 10-12 weeks of age.”

And if your baby has colic, you might be looking at crying for longer than three hours a day. “Colic is not caused by another medical problem… One in five babies cry enough that people call them colicky. Colic usually starts when babies are about 3 weeks old. It gets worse when they are between 4 and 6 weeks old. Most of the time, colicky babies get better after they are 6 weeks old, and are completely fine by the time they are 12 weeks old” (US National Library of Medicine).

So parents, don’t let this one make you feel guilty. If your child isn’t sick and his or her basic needs are met (food, diaper, sleep), the crying is probably not your fault.

Another reason for our guilt may be the disappointment in ourselves for letting our children get the best of us. Why did I not stick to my individualized-sanity-plan!? (You know, the one that seems to constantly change alongside the tides of our child.)

The truth is, no matter how much we try to maintain our sanity, it doesn’t always happen. Sometimes, we go to that dark place (think Luke Skywalker entering the Degobah Cave) where we become someone we are not proud of, or develop thoughts that we dare not speak aloud (if you read my blog “Mantra for Mamas: Discovering Words to Support Your Search for Tranquility”, this is where my “speak gently” came into being). But it is important to know that sometimes having these dark thoughts does not mean that we would ever act on them.

Psychology Today posted an article pertaining to postpartum depression in which they explore this concept: “ Women who are concerned about the scary thoughts they are having do not hurt their babies... When scary thoughts feel inconsistent with your belief in who you essentially are, your character and personality, they are referred to as ego-dystonic thoughts. When a thought is ego-dystonic it is in conflict with whom you fundamentally believe yourself to be…this distress, as disturbing as it feels to you, actually provides reassurance that these thoughts are anxiety-driven and not psychotic.”

That should hopefully make you feel a bit better. (I know it did for me!)

Now, are there people who think scary thoughts and act on them? I would be lying if I said no. Kate Hope (she wrote the book Strong As a Mother: How to Stay Healthy, Happy, and Most Importantly Sane from Pregnancy to Parenthood: The Only Guide to Taking Care of YOU! which I highly recommend) discusses how sometimes those with postpartum psychosis can pose a threat to their children in her article “Why new moms have scary thoughts about their babies.”

She writes, “For women who experience postpartum psychosis, if they have thoughts about harming themselves or their children, the thoughts usually make sense to them and may feel like the right thing to do for the baby. For instance, a mom may believe she has harmed her child in some irreparable way and ending the child’s life may seem—in her psychotic state—like the only way to save him from this perceived harm.”

So, I must stop here for a moment to stress that if you do ever feel that may actually hurt your baby, first take the advice from the Nation Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome and “put your baby in a safe place and walk away.” Take a few breathes. Then, call someone to talk you through this. It can be someone you know or a parenting helpline. If you would like to learn more click here for further information.

Would I ever hurt my child? No. While I will sometimes feel like my rage is uncontrollable, I know I still would not be able to actually harm my son. And if you have ever felt pushed to that point as well, I want you to know that just because we feel like we’ve lost our sanity, it does not make us monsters.

We are not bad parents.

Anyone who has had to endure hours of a screaming infant would agree. (By the way, have you ever read Jane Mayer’s article “The Experiment” in the New Yorker? She at one point discusses the use of “noise stress” at Guantanamo. Can you guess what one of those sounds is? “One of the most stress-inducing tapes is a recording of babies crying inconsolably.” Yep, screaming baby sounds are literal torture.)

So, let us forget the guilt we felt for being ready to throw in the towel, and say to ourselves, “I am an amazing parent.” And let us remember that we are simply mothers and fathers who are trying to find our ways through the maze of parenting.

One slow, wobbly step at a time.