Do you feel guilty? Try this.

Do you feel guilty? Try this.

We’d circled up, second or third babies in our arms, ready to share our hearts and hear what was in everyone else’s. It was my turn and I was hot and flustered from being late and walking too far with the car seat containing a 10-pound-plus babe.

I hadn’t planned what I was going to say, and I found my voice cracking and tears streaming as guilt-soaked words escaped. The ease with which I let them flow told me how long they’d been there, waiting at the door, ready for their chance to get out.

I’d become a mother for the second time. A combination of soul contracts, experience, karma, and luck gave me a birth and postpartum experience that I’m still surprised to find myself describing as easy.

No, pushing an 8lb. 10oz. baby girl with a 100th percentile head size out my first-time-pushing-vagina drug-free was not easy. But everything is relative, and compared to my first run-in with birth and newbornland, it’s all been as smooth as adjusting to having two kids still in diapers could be expected to be.

I felt guilty for how well things were going. Because they were soooo hard the first time. So my first daughter got an anxious, controlling, hanging-on-by-a-thread, sometimes not-hanging-on-at-all mama. And my second was getting the mama I’d always expected to be and was shocked to not be able to locate the first time around.

Calm. Chill. Lots of milk. Instantly connected and in love. Not concerned that every decision I was making was going to permanently damage her wellbeing. Happy. Enjoying every minute the way everyone tells you to. (Which is so irritating when you’re experiencing the hardest days of your life, BTW.)

I felt guilty for how much time I was spending with our brand-new daughter and how I wasn’t able to spend as much time with our first because of being in pain or nursing or needing to rest.

I felt guilty for how much help I’d needed during pregnancy with our second because it was not an easy gestation. And I felt guilty for how much help I’d needed from my husband with our first because I struggled so much every step of the way.

I did my share, cried about feeling like a bad mom, and let the guilt out. Then I had a conversation with my husband that I needed to have about those dark, early days with our first daughter, and we both made amends to one another: me for the ways I couldn’t show up; him for the ways he’d contributed to my feeling bad about it.

I know that guilt isn’t a particularly productive emotion, but that doesn’t really help when I’m in the throes of it. As Arianna Huffington says, “Sometimes I think they take the baby out and put the guilt in!”

But what do we do with it when it shows up, as it inevitably will if we care how our actions impact others?

I’m not a guilt expert, but I’ll tell you what I did:

  • I let it have a voice. Emotions that get stuffed fester. Then they turn into things that are harder to move through than an emotion like disease or destructive behaviors.
  • I had a conversation about it. I talked with my therapist and my husband. I made amends where I could.
  • I forgave myself. The truth is I really did the best I could when our first daughter was born. I was as present and calm as I could have been, given the circumstances. Going back in time and giving the woman I was 2.5 years ago a fist bump while telling her she was doing a damn great job was really helpful.
  • I gave myself permission to blow it. I never really thought I was a perfectionist until I had a conversation about mom guilt with my therapist. She helped me see how I’ve never given myself space to actually be human and blow it. Super painful to realize. So I’m opening myself to the possibility of blowing it as a mom, as a wife, and as a woman in general. I don’t want my girls to think they have to be perfect. I want them to know you can blow it and repair. So they have to see me do that, as painful as that feels to admit.
  • I decided to act from a different place. I know that if I spend time with our first daughter from a place of guilt, the time spent is meaningless. Instead, I approach being with her from a place of the pure enjoyment of being with her, even if it’s only 5 minutes of connection before the baby cries and needs me. If she can get all of me for 5 minutes instead of a distracted, guilty version of me for an hour, I know she’ll be better off.

Guilt can be productive as long as we let it transform us instead of eat us. 

Do you feel guilty? Try this.

None of us can be great every day. There are days when we suck. There are days when we blow it as mothers, as wives, as sisters, as daughters, as leaders, and as citizens.

Then comes the guilt. And if we’re smart, we let the guilt give way to repair.

Work with your guilt so it can dissolve and make way for redemption. Let it help you course correct, not become a barricade to showing up with your true heart.

OVER TO YOU:

Where can you let go of guilt in your life? What would dissolving guilt do for your well being and what would that new “guilt release” space make way for in your life?  I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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14 comments

  • Christiane

    I think you did an amazing job with your firstborn given all that went down. I have just realized how deeply within me I have felt that havinf basic needs is a sign of weakness!! Woah! So instead of embracing sacred vulnerability and my essential humanity, I became super woman. No WONDER you’ve had some issues with feeling the need to be perfect. I bow deeply to your humanity and vulnerability. And YOURS.

    • Kate Northrup

      Thank you Mom! Yes – that’s really powerful to realize that feeling that having a basic need is a sign of weakness. We come by it honestly in the Northrup lineage of heartiness, but it’s time to lay that burden down. So help me God I do not want to pass that burden onto Penelope and Ruby. Thank you for witnessing me and thanks for being an amazing mother. Love you.

  • Angie Willerton

    I just wanted to say you are totally utterly normal, everyone i know thinks they were the worlds worst with number one, we learn and with two or even more our body’s know more, i minds know more it just is that way. Not simple, being a mother is the hardest job anyone can do but knowing that you are doing your best and your daughters will not suffer is enough. My son is 31 and daughter 27 later this year so it is a while since these emotions hit but you don’t forget. Just think of all the chances you will have to share mother/daughter wisdom with them. You are doing great Kate.

  • Laura Kaiser

    I was a PK. Pastors kid. Raised in a church where the discipline book was an inch thick, small print. Someone once asked me, “What can you do?”
    My reply was, “Not much without guilt!”
    I suffered for years with guilt in so many ways and raising my 7 children. Many years too late I read ‘guilt keeps you stuck. You can’t move forward with guilt.’ So since that time I have refused all guilt. I don’t accept it from family, friends or enemies or myself. I have experienced that guilt keeps truth hidden and I am enjoying the freedom of truth so much! I am moving forward. I am being true to myself. I am able to look at situations that show me a change is needed. I can see clearly to make those changes without the guilt.
    Love you, Kate!

  • Oh how the tears rolled out with this one, Kate! Thank you for putting this into words, and especially for actionable steps to get there. I needed this, so badly and in every area of my life. I can see now how this guilt builds up and soaks my body – showing up as dis-ease in all the ways. I feel the guilt in motherhood, yes. But also in the marriage, the business(es), my health, my desires, our food, our community, our extended family, our finances… I currently feel guilty for the dishes in the sink – how silly is that!? (but oh-so-real) Dissolving this guilt would make space in my life for ME. I can tell I need this space, but I haven’t figured out how to get over the guilty feelings that surround that need. It’s almost like the guilt is there to protect, but all it’s doing is getting in the way and making it complicated! Similar to the way Elizabeth Gilbert described fear in Big Magic – you can invite it along for the ride, but she doesn’t get to pick the music or read the map. I love the way you’re suggesting to give it a voice and let it transform into a new way of existing where it doesn’t torture our minds and lives. Make space for all the amazing things we can do! Thank you for this today, the timing is perfect. I hear your struggles and am inspired by your ability to witness them for yourself and then grow in positive ways… and then share with us so that we can learn too!

    • Kate Northrup

      I’m so glad this resonated with you! So well said quoting Elizabeth Gilbert. Yes – the guilt can be useful, but cannot be our guide. Blessings on your journey of letting it go!

  • I think guilt is a self regulatory thing we do to ourselves to try and make us do better / be good / be better. A lot of us think that this self- regulation is necessary or otherwise we would be lazy / do the wrong thing. It’s a little bit like self-punishment. It got imposed from the outside when we were little, and now that we are grown up we impose the same on ourselves. This is especially true when we find ourselves the primary caregiver for another human being with whom we have bonded with love, and who is too small and powerless to take care of him/herself. We don’t want ourselves going off the rails at this time. I think this is why it is so difficult for some of us to “release” the guilt. Especially when we’re moms. Couple this with how difficult mothering is. And Yeah.

  • Once again, oh so wise. And brave for sharing. WE appreciate you and all of your work Kate. I am so happy for you that you are having a wonderful experience with Baby #2. Many blessings to your family and please keep sharing the truth of your life with us, it helps the rest of us be brave and share ours as well. Thank you.

  • Eva

    Thank you so much for writing this! I am a new mother and my daughter is just two weeks old. Your blogpost could not have come at a better time – this is exactly the topic I’m struggling with and I thought I’m alone in this. I felt so guilty for feeling overwhelmed, guilty for not being able to get some simple chores done, guilty even for feeling sad and crying because isn’t this the time when I should be really happy and grateful… I loved how Christiane put it – the deep belief that having basic needs is a weekness… I just realized that I too have that belief and that I’ve been trying to be a superwoman and perfect in order to be just barely acceptable in my own eyes.
    Thank you so much for the comfort and encouragement your words brought!

    • Kate Northrup

      Congratulations on your baby! This passage into motherhood is one of the hardest, if not the hardest, transition we’ll ever experience in our lives. I felt so similarly to you during my first go round after birth. There’s nothing wrong with you and you’re doing great!

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