Making Decisions out of Fear and Guilt

Here’s a wonderful article, from the blog A Knotted Life, about how to be at peace with your decision to not homeschool.  My husband and I were both homeschooled for many years, and we’re very grateful for it; but we’ve decided to send our oldest child to kindergarten this fall.  I had always assumed that I’d homeschool, but the closer it got, the more I panicked.  I love teaching my son, and I had happily anticipated all the fun homeschooling we’d do–the field trips, the nature walks, the crafts, the science projects–but I had to reconcile myself to the fact that I am just not up for it right now.  With a small, crowded apartment, a busy schedule, and a toddler and a newborn, I knew that our homeschooling days would be filled with tears and yelling; and more importantly, I knew myself well enough to know that I was prime bait for homeschooling guilt.  I also knew that, if my son turned out anything like his parents, he would need a lot of help overcoming social awkwardness, and he wasn’t going to get it being homeschooled by us.  (I’m not trying to perpetuate the “homeschoolers don’t do socialization” myth here, but it’s important to note that, while most homeschoolers are socialized just fine, some really aren’t–and that includes me and my husband.)

Even after realizing all these things, I still felt compelled to homeschool.  Most of my friends are homeschoolers, and of course I’ve heard all the public school horror stories; so I felt horribly defensive any time it came out in conversation that I was considering public school.  I escaped this mindset mostly through the example of my sister, who wrote about her decision to stop homeschooling here, and chronicled some of her kids’ positive experiences with public school here; but it was only recently that I made a final and peaceful decision about it.  I realized that I had been feeling forced to choose homeschooling out of fear and guilt.  Instead of thinking of homeschool and public school as two neutral options to choose from, depending on my family’s situation, my son’s personality, and the quality of our local schools, I was thinking of homeschool as the default thing, the really good and wonderful thing, and public school as the not-so-great option I could choose only if I had reallyreallyreally good reasons.  Once I removed fear from the equation, I realized that my reasons for choosing public school were more than valid.

I have recently realized that many other parenting decisions I’ve made have been made out of fear.  I had always heard so much about how modern society fears the sacrifice and lack of independence that comes with having children, and how many people contracept because they are afraid of what parenthood will do to their lives; but I also realized that the opposite problem is possible too: I was afraid to even entertain the idea of having a small family, because I was so afraid that I would be judged, or I would not be living up to my faith.

Now obviously, fear can be a healthy thing, when we’re talking about fear of something intrinsically evil: fear of sin, fear of Hell, fear of offending God.  But when we’re talking about a decision that is morally neutral in itself, such as the decision to have another child, it is not okay to be motivated by fear.  Fear of falling short of the ideal picture of motherhood in my head led me to choose breastfeeding over formula, even when breastfeeding was becoming a problem for my health and my family dynamic; it led me to resist painkillers during childbirth, even when they wouldn’t have hurt the baby, and they probably would have helped me calm down; and it led me to feel horrible guilt over my inability to even imagine having a large family.  Only recently have I realized that I should not let guilt be the deciding factor in the way I live my life.  (And I’m not saying that I don’t feel guilty anymore!  Just that now, usually, I recognize it for the seductive falsehood that it is.)

These realizations probably have less to do with my spiritual state than with the fact that, 3 kids into this, I don’t really have the energy left for any unnecessary guilt.  The hell with it.  And let me tell you, nothing feels so good as stepping out of the box that you have guilted yourself into and finding out that you–not the internet, or the tricks your mind plays on you, or the perceived judgement of your peers–know what is best for you.

P.S.–when I was re-reading my sister’s articles, I discovered one more that pretty much says what I’m saying here, except probably better. Here it is.

 

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“When Did I Get Like This?”

When I was pregnant, too exhausted to read anything of substance, and desperately in need of comic relief, I searched around on my husband’s kindle and grabbed the first mommy humor book I found: When Did I Get Like This?, by Amy Wilson.  It wasn’t the self-deprecating, witty stand-up routine I was expecting: instead it was the vulnerable, candid memoir of a modern professional New Yorker, learning everything about motherhood the hard way.  This poor lady got sucked into all the popular pregnancy and motherhood myths, and had to figure everything out by herself.  Take her experience with her first pregnancy:

Today, everything from pacifiers to preschools seems to be marketed to mothers in one overarching way: this product, the ads say in one way or another, is chosen by mothers who want what is best for their children.  Well, who doesn’t want that?….But…should you ignore this new and helpful parenting suggestion, you are in effect saying that no, you do not want what is best for your children….With every step we mothers take these days, we are aware that there is only one right and true path that we should follow, a ‘better’ way to feed our baby, a ‘best birth’….

Her guilt-wracked pregnancy, complete with detailed birth plan and the infamous “Best-Odds” diet from What to Expect When You’re Expecting, ended with a revelation: doctors are not the enemy.  Her doctor, on hearing her desire to avoid fetal monitoring and stay mobile, had a gentle suggestion: “‘You may find, though, as many of my patients do, that once you are admitted to the hospital, you will be happy to lie down.'”  She comments, wonderingly: “Dr. Merman did not seem dismissive when he said this, neither rigid nor patriarchal.  He seemed, merely, kind.”  Sure enough, lying down with an epidural 11 hours into labor feels awfully good.  But when the baby is finally born, she confesses:

[Before the birth] I thought…I would become another victim of a needlessly meddling medical establishment.  But in the end,…I had an episiotomy, which the books warned me would happen to any mother who didn’t stand up for herself,….I had also had an epidural, which the books warned were foisted on all laboring mothers…[T]here was a tiny part of me thinking not of how I had made it through a twenty-hour labor to deliver a perfect baby boy, but of how I had fallen short.  I was a quitter….But lying there holding my son, I could also see that it was screwed up to regard my caregivers’ attempts to alleviate the pain and inertia of…a first labor, as the machinations of the enemy.  They had only been trying to make me feel more comfortable, trying to deliver my baby to me as soon as possible, as safely as possible.  And they had.  That could not have been wrong.

In the hands of a perfectionist like me, the birth plan was the snake in the garden, dangling the apple of an idea that there could be a ‘better’ or a ‘best’ birth, one that could in any way exceed the happy ending of a healthy baby, safe in its mother’s arms, both of them whole.

There’s a lot of other great bits in this book–I plan to write a bit more of a review later–but for now I’m going to leave it here.  I think this is such an important insight.  Sure, you have to look out for yourself, and there are ignorant or mean doctors out there; but what a horrible burden to put on a new mother, to convince her that she is the only one capable of making sure everything goes perfectly, and she had better live in suspicion and guilt for 9 months to make sure she doesn’t mess it up.

In Case You Care…

Here are my own birth stories!  I don’t know, I like birth stories.  Feel free to skip, or to leave your own stories in the comments!

1.  Water broke early, induction wouldn’t take, labor kicked in at the last minute.  In transition, I told my husband that the priest would just have to give me a dispensation for birth control, because I was not doing this again for a LONG time.  Then I told him that I wanted some pain medication after all, and he said “well, maybe you should just wait a while and see.”  Then the midwife told me it was too late anyway, because it was time to push.  Boy, was I mad.  We hadn’t found out the sex of the baby, and I kept asking, until my poor dazed husband (it was 4 in the morning) said, “I think it’s a boy.”  After it all, my midwife said, “well, Rosie, you did it your way” (meaning without pain meds).  I snapped, “I don’t care!”  Suddenly I realized that it really didn’t matter–I had a baby!

Mickey's baptism--she thanks God for the gift of her child

2. Had her about 45 minutes after we got to the hospital.  I had just gotten into the nice warm jacuzzi when my water broke and I had to get out and push, darn it.  Came out in three pushes.  Good girl.  Even though she came out so easily, I felt guilty because I hadn’t pushed as hard as I possibly could.  Gotta feel guilty about something, right?

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3.  Went in on Halloween night because I thought I was in labor, spent a couple of hours galloping around the hallways, looking ridiculous, got sent home.  A week later, my water broke, at full term this time.  By the time I checked in, I was shaking uncontrollably with panic, and labor had barely begun.  Epidural!  Why didn’t I do this before!  Slept through my Pitocin-induced contractions, woke up, and it was time to have the baby.  10 minutes and she was out, even though her shoulder got stuck on the way because she was 2 pounds bigger than my other babies.  Made up for the horrible pregnancy by coming out fast and almost immediately sleeping through the night.

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What is a “Good Birth”?

My husband and I often talk about how much we plan to shelter our children.  We both know families whose kids have been completely sucked into the worst of pop culture; but we seem to know even more families whose attempts at sheltering their kids backfired badly.  When the kids finally encountered the real world, they often rebelled or succumbed to the worst, because they had not had the benefit of knowledge or exposure to build up their defenses.  (I’m being vague here, because I don’t mean to criticize any of the parents I knew, who were certainly doing their best!  But I have experience with all the examples in this post.)  I have seen parents be so scared of inappropriate sex education that they barely gave their children any at all.  The kids had to learn it on their own, either through experience, or through less reputable sources than their parents or teachers.  There is also the danger of sex being seen as something “dirty” that you don’t talk about, which leads to a really unhealthy attitude toward sex.

What I’ve realized lately is that this is not just a problem for children, but for adults as well.  In my last post, I talked about the dangers of sheltering women from the realistic expectations of pregnancy.  I see something very similar happening with childbirth.  Women are assured that, with the proper “birth plan,” they can achieve the perfect “birth experience.”  Now, I know that I have been very lucky: my midwives and nurses were respectful and considerate, and I was never pushed into something I was not comfortable with.  However, I have also heard of so many women who were led to believe that they could have a low-intervention, peaceful, joyful natural birth, only to be crushed when necessity dictated otherwise.  Once again, we’re setting women up for shame and guilt. No matter how much we understand rationally that a C-section, or an induction, or an epidural may be necessary, that nagging little voice inside our head will say “you’re taking the easy way out” or “you’re not letting your body do what it’s made to do” or “you’re giving in;” but if we’ve let our expectations become completely unrealistic, we are feeding that irrational guilt.

The friend I quoted in my last post made the same connection between pregnancy and childbirth expectations; after commenting on the importance of your “attitude” and “focusing on the positive,” she noted that “the people who helped me have a good birth were the ones who kept telling me a good birth was actually possible.”  Now: how do you define a “good birth?”  A birth that goes as planned?  A birth that is peaceful and expected?  Or a birth that results in a healthy baby?  If you only tell a pregnant woman stories of ideal births, how will she feel when her labor fails to progress, and her baby is in distress?  Google “birth disappointment.”  I have seen so many sad stories of women who felt horribly disappointed in themselves because they “gave in” and got the epidural, or because they had to have a C-section.  Instead of fully enjoying the baby, they feel a sense of loss and grieving. They may feel, like this poor lady, that “this was my fault” because their bodies are “broken.” 

[A side note: yes, your body is broken!  But it’s because of Original Sin.  This is why it doesn’t make sense to me to expect childbirth, or sex, or breastfeeding, to go perfectly just because it’s natural and it’s “what our bodies were made to do.”  Our bodies, like everything else in the world, sometimes don’t do what they were made to do.  If we put all our faith in “nature,” we are going to be let down because our nature is broken.]

Again, I am not recommending that we flood pregnant women with horror stories!  But imagine that we tell them something like this instead: “My first was born naturally, and it was wonderful!  My second had to be induced, and I was hooked up to 3 IVs, and that was pretty awful.  But you know what?  I didn’t even care, because then I got to hold my beautiful baby.”  Or this: “I was really loopy after the pain meds, so I don’t really remember the birth well, but we had nice quiet cuddling time afterwards.”  Or this: “The epidural worked great for my first, and failed for my second.  But either way, I got through it.”  Let’s give them realistic expectations, so they’ll be prepared; but let’s always remember to finish up with the most important part: the baby.  A good pregnancy is a pregnancy that ends in a good childbirth, and a good childbirth is one where the baby gets born.  Period.  Natural birth, water birth, home birth, epidural, induction, C-section, forceps, IV, hypnosis, episiotomy, whatever–I wish you a peaceful and pleasant birth, but please remember that no matter what your “birth experience,” the main thing is getting that baby safely into your arms!