Last week, my colleague Dr. Julie Bindeman and I had the privilege of speaking to a group of preschool parents about the experience of adding a new sibling to a family. In addition to providing information and suggestions about managing behavioral regressions, navigating complicated schedules, and finding time for self-care, we spoke a lot about guilt.Guilt is present in so many aspects of expanding a family and is something I speak to clients about with great frequency. However, like most things in the perinatal sphere, guilt is deeply steeped in shame. For that reason, I find that many of my clients have trouble speaking openly about it, or they joke about it to mask what they are really feeling. In an effort to encourage an open and honest conversation about that guilt, here are four examples of how that guilt arises when expanding your family.
- Guilt about not tuning into the pregnancy: The first time around you knew how far along you were to the week or day, what size fruit your growing fetus approximated, and had thoroughly researched questions for your OB. The second time around often feels different. Between caring for an older child or children, having less time for supportive activities such as prenatal yoga or birthing classes, and feeling more familiar with the process of pregnancy, many people find they are less-connected to their subsequent pregnancies, often resulting in guilt.
- Guilt about what you are “doing” to your older child: Many parents worry about the impacton their older children of having another child. It is quite common for parents to feel concerned that they are abandoning their older children or are putting them through emotional hardship. Many adults are anxious about a lack of one-on-one time with their existing children and feel guilty about having to say ‘no’ more frequently.
- Guilt about short-changing the younger sibling: Many parents worry that their new baby’s life will not replicate their first child’s, or that their relationship with the new baby will be different. For example, many of my clients have expressed guilt that they feel less-connected to their newer baby or are less in awe or enamored than they were the first time around. Parents also often express guilt about their engagement with their newer baby, for example noting that they took their first baby to numerous classes and read countless parenting books, and have not done this with their second or third child.
- Guilt about your own regrets or anxiety: Perhaps you feel anxious about having another child because you just got the hang of parenting one child, or were finally getting more sleep. Or maybe you are worried about the impact of another child on your relationships or career. Or maybe you were ready to think about having another baby but were not quite ready to become pregnant. It is very normal to be apprehensive, anxious, or even regretful about having another baby, but I find that many parents feel intense guilt about sharing these sentiments.
As you can see from the examples above, guilt is ever present and can so quickly transform into shame. What’s the difference? In the words of research professor Brene Brown, who has made a career of studying shame, vulnerability, and courage, guilt is “I did something bad” while shame is “I am bad.” In the context of some of the examples above, guilt is “I feel badly that I’m saying ‘no’ to my older son and can’t spend as much time with him” while shame is “and this is why I am a terrible mother.” Both guilt and shame are incredibly difficult emotional experiences but shame is especially pernicious.
Stay tuned next time for some thoughts on working with the guilt that surrounds – and far too often defines – the perinatal period, and how to manage when guilt spirals into shame.