GUILT AND SHAME ROBBED ME OF MY MOTHERHOOD JOY
My husband and I are newly married, we have just moved to Brisbane to be closer to family because we want to start a family. It’s the new year and I book into the GP to get myself checked out. My doctor feels a lump in my breast. I go for a scan and I am given the news that I have breast cancer. It was a diagnosis that shocked me. It was also a wake up call to the true beauty of life and the start of my wellness journey. Thankfully I was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer and it was treatable. I had surgery and treatment and a year post diagnosis, we were told we could finally start to try for a baby. But after 12 months of trying, nothing happened so we booked into the fertility doctor who told us we had less than a 5% chance of conceiving naturally.
A year later and after 3 rounds of treatment, we were blessed with the news that we were pregnant.
I knew that this pregnancy was such a gift. After my cancer diagnosis and the struggles to fall pregnant, I promised myself that I would be the best mother I could be and I would love every moment and never take any of it for granted.
I came into motherhood with all the expectations a new mother has. The beautiful birth, the blissful baby bubble and all the warm and fuzzy feelings of being a new mother.
Stepping into motherhood, or in my case, crashing headfirst into motherhood without a helmet, has been one of the most confusing, alienating, and lonely experiences of my life.
I had a traumatic labour and my son’s entry into this world was not the perfect birthing story I had hoped it would be.
Then came the disappointment of not being able to breastfeed.
My inability to breast feed sent me into a spiral of anxiety and OCD and my blissful baby bubble had burst. I went from this confident, in control woman to a vulnerable, uncertain shell of my former self. I remember the child health nurse telling me that I was overfeeding him with formula every 1-2 hours and that I needed to “stretch him out” to 3 hours. I remember feeling so anxious hearing her words and thinking that every time I fed him, I thought I was doing him harm. The anxiety and overwhelming feelings of guilt and shame took hold of me and some days, I could barely leave the house.
Guilt arises when we think we’ve done something wrong, and shame arises when we think we’re a bad person.
In the pain of my guilt and shame, my joy was depleted. That constant nagging feeling of not doing enough, not making the right decisions and not being the perfect mother. Instead of focusing on the present moment and enjoying this precious time with my baby boy, my mind was endlessly searching for answers outside of me. Finding validation outside of myself that I was good enough.
Everyone around me had babies that were breastfed, I seemed to be the only mother that had failed to provide for her baby the way I should have. The one job I had as a mother was to feed my baby and I couldn’t even do that. Not to mention all the societal messages of “breast is best”. I felt like such a failure. I was broken. I just wasn’t good enough as a mother.
I also felt intense feelings of guilt for feeling this way because I knew there were many women who couldn’t have children. So why wasn’t I able to feel deeply grateful for this experience? I couldn’t answer that question so what did I do? I got busy. I went back to work and pretended that everything was fine. The more the intense feelings emerged, the busier I got. And on the outside, everything looked fine. But I was in denial. I was grieving. I felt like a part of me had died.
Time passed and so did my negative emotions and feelings. My son grew, he was thriving, and I was grateful that I had managed to “survive” the first year of his life.
Fast forward 5 years and we were blessed with the news that we were pregnant again. This pregnancy caught us by surprise, as we thought we couldn’t have any more children, so I saw this pregnancy as a gift. A chance to find more joy from this experience.
I had a beautiful hypnobirth and I managed to breastfeed my baby for the first couple of weeks, but it was a challenge. I started to feel those anxious feelings return. I was so desperate to breastfeed my baby that I perservered. It was not until I decided to go to a lactation consultant that she took one look at me and sent me to hospital. I ended up in hospital on IV antibiotics for a week. It was only when my obstetrician said to me that it was in both in our best interests that I give up breastfeeding and exclusively bottle feed, that I realised I had failed again. That week in hospital was the longest week of my life. Not only dealing with a newborn who was now being bottle fed, but also fighting an infection which left me shivering uncontrollably with high temps for days.
After coming home from hospital I knew I had to make some changes. A few months later I told my work I wouldn’t be returning from maternity leave and we sold our house and moved out of the city and bought a house on acreage. I set up a business working from home. It was time to redefine my addiction to busyness, to slow down, enjoy the precious moments with my boys, to bring back the joy and to do things differently.
My motherhood experience the second time around was different. I conected with my values and aligned my life around what was important to me. I found peace in the present moment and found joy with my boys. I found rituals each day to support my big feelings and emotions. I found solace in journaling and my daily meditation practice. My work was a source of inspiration for me. I was living my life on purpose and life was beautiful.
And then the most unexpected thing happened. In July 2021, I went for a routine scan, and I was given the news that I had breast cancer again. The cancer I had in my breast 11 years ago had come back in my other breast.
My cancer diagnosis was the catalyst for some intense emotions to surface. The trauma of not being able to breastfeed my boys was significant and little did I realise that the intense feelings of guilt, shame and grief had been supressed for years. It was no surprise then, that these supressed emotions had now manifested physically in my breast. I knew that this was a sign that I needed to deal with this trauma and allow myself to heal from those first few years of my motherhood journey.
I had these intense feelings of sadness emerge. I was grieving the loss of my breastfeeding experience. When we grieve, we go through a process. The 5 stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I had gone through all the stages but not the last one – Acceptance.
It was time to acknowledge and accept myself and to shower the greatest amount of love on myself that I could. I thought to myself, what would I do if someone else was grieving? I would support them, love them and hold space for them. So, I decided I would do the same for me.
” We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honour the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection” Brene Brown
Brene Brown is a professor, lecturer and author and she has spent her life researching courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. She has been a source of inspiration for me at a time that I needed it most. It was time to trust and respect myself, to show myself kindness and affection. In order to do that I had to get vulnerable. I had to give myself space to feel my feelings, to forgive myself for setting such high expectations for myself and for the way I treated myself for all those years. It was time to heal those deep wounds.
It was time to let love in, to let it permeate every cell of my body.
It’s time we stop pretending that everything is fine when it’s not. To let go of this idea of perfectionism. Letting go of all the expectations that society places on us as well as the expectations we place on ourselves. To let go of this idea of a good mother and a perfect motherhood journey.
What does good and perfect actually mean anyway?
The definition of good “to be desired or approved of.”
The definition of perfect is “having all the required or desirable elements, qualities, or characteristics as good as it is possible to be”.
Desired and approved by who? Good and perfect by whose standard? Who is the judge of the good and perfect mother?
When I realised that I was the judge of my own life, that’s when things changed. No one was judging me. I was telling myself a story about how I thought it “should” be.
I had to stop punishing myself.
The word “should” is very damaging. We use it in conversations daily and for me I was using it to express a myriad of feelings, including frustration, guilt, and regret. As I’ve become more interested in my internal dialogue and how it affects the way I feel about myself, show up in the world, and live my life, I’ve started to realise just how terrible the word “should” can be. It was time to accept life as it is, rather than what I thought it “should” be.
I never want to live with regret so I’m showering myself with kindness and self-compassion and reminding myself that I am a great mum. I gave my boys the best start to life and when I look at them now, I am so thankful for all that I did for them.
Hindsight is a beautiful thing. I wish I knew then, what I know now. Motherhood broke me and then it cracked me open. Motherhood wasn’t the end of me, it was actually the birth of me. It was my greatest spiritual awakening.
8 years into my motherhood journey, I can safely say that I’m grateful for it all. I’m grateful for the pain, the messiness, the grief, the suffering as well as the beauty, love and joy that has been born from that experience. I’m grateful that through all the anxiety, guilt and shame, I found joy and I’ve been able to redefine myself as the strong, empowered woman I am.
Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think this journey would be one of the most painful yet most beautiful journeys of my life.
I’m grateful for my children, who are my greatest source of inspiration and allowed me to find strength from within. I’m also grateful that I found strength from receiving love and support from those around me, my friendship circle as well as my husband who continued to love me when I had no love to give. I found self-compassion and kindness for myself, and I let go of all my expectations and surrendered to the now. I found peace in the present moment, rather than ruminating on the past or worrying about the future. I think and act towards myself with love and kindness in my heart rather than from fears based on past experience.
Through this whole process, I found myself and for that I am the most grateful of all.
If this story resonates and you are looking for a way to process your own feelings of guilt. You can check out my guide to transforming your mum guilt here