I am lucky to have 3 sons of varying ages – one born in 1993, one in 1998 and one in 2008. Recently both my middle son and youngest son, had to have operations. The youngest has 2 teeth that did not develop enamel and had to have crowns put on in hospital under anaesthetic. Apparently this is mostly due to something that happens when you are pregnant or could be nutrition based, or just one of those things. The guilt I felt about it all was enormous…was it something I did or didn’t do? Was it diabetes, medications, his dietary intolerances that started when I introduced solid foods…it is not a big deal, and it is not my fault, yet the damaging guilt crept in. Our middle son had a pretty major operation this week and is now home being cared for by me for a few weeks. He has had a number of health challenges in his life and I have experienced guilt about it all. He is a happy, wonderful young man. In this case, there was nothing I had done or not done. Yet it still got me thinking about parent guilt and how easy it is to beat yourself up.
Seeing parents of children with diabetes go through enormous guilt and those of us with diabetes worry about the impact of our diabetes on our children’s health, I think that parental guilt is often unavoidable. However there are ways to reduce the guilt you feel. Part of this is talking with other parents, being mindful, having positive experiences with your children, being open with them, and having a strong partnership if you are lucky enough to be in a 2 parent family. If not, a good support person is vital. Learning the facts and taking time out for you are also very important. Take time away from your kids and put life into perspective. Counselling can really help. Guilt can cripple you but healthy guilt can also teach you things. Your learn from the things that you could have done differently. Guilt teaches you that maybe you made the wrong decision or took the wrong step. Next time you might do it differently. Guilt is tapping you on the shoulder and telling you that you know there was another way. This kind of healthy guilt can help you grow as a person. However the negative guilt that wraps itself around you and gives you that general sense that you are not doing anything right, is something you want to try and reduce. The should’s and shouldn’t of life are a big part of this type of guilt.
From the moment you have that tiny heartbeat inside of you, or even before, parent guilt starts. There’s the worry about your diet, weight, what you drink, that party you went to before you knew you were pregnant. If you have diabetes, there are millions of other things you worry about. Like your HbA1c, your post meal blood glucose levels, whether you should be low carb or zero carb or full on carb…the type of insulin you are using, whether you need CGM, if your medications are an issue, the impact of your blood pressure, blood glucose, exercise, hypos, hypers, and on it goes.
Men and women worry about their diabetes and how it might impact their tiny growing human. Will they get diabetes? Will they be born healthy or not? Women with diabetes continue to worry about the impact their diabetes has on their baby and the impact the pregnancy has on their diabetes, all through the pregnancy and beyond. Is the baby too big, are there any deformities, will she need an early delivery, will she be able to have a vaginal delivery….There is anxiety about whether the baby will need special care after birth, if they will have low blood glucose, how this will be handled…and then comes breastfeeding. Going home with a tiny baby when you have your own diabetes to manage can be a rollercoaster of post-natal emotions and diabetes nightmares. Having had 3 babies myself I know the feeling of having a hypo when you are caring for a screaming baby, the issues with breastfeeding, the impact of lack of sleep. I get the worry, the anxiety and the fear.
Guilt comes at you from many angles as a parent – media, family, friends, other parents, social media, the person in the street, your own head. There are ALL the decisions big and small – where will you have the baby, how will you have the baby, what furniture will you choose and how safe will it be, which pram and car seat should you get, cloth or reusable nappies, organic cotton clothes or should you crochet all their booties like your friend did, which pregnancy classes and mother’s groups to go to, how to swaddle the baby, or not…how to dress them to sleep, are they too hot, too cold…how to put them in their cot…co-sleeping or not…baby wearing, baby slings, leave them to cry, soothe them at the breast, choosing to bottle feed, has your health affected them….is child care good or bad for them, go back to work or not, which kindy, which school, too much screen time, too much junk food..on and on it goes.
Sometimes it is best not to look at social media or read stories about the latest thing mothers (as it is usually mothers) are supposedly doing or not doing to destroy their kids lives. I remember when we were called “latch key kids” when our mothers went to work. How odd that concept would be now. There was mass outcry that children would be damaged as their mothers had gone to work and they had to let themselves in after school!
If you let guilt fill your head, you start to second guess your instincts, you beat yourself up and you feel like you are a terrible parent. This is unhealthy for you and your child. If you are a parent of a child with diabetes or any other condition, there is an extra serving of guilt. What did you do or not do, was it your fault, could you have done something differently. As parents we want to wrap our children up and protect them from all the pain and all the bad things. The problem is you can never do that. People face challenges in life from the moment they are conceived. The very fact that you are conceived is a miracle. The growing of a human being is the most remarkable thing there is. Sometimes things go wrong. Sometimes people are just dealt a tough hand. Other times you have to shift your thinking about what is “normal” or expected. People are all unique and we all make mistakes.
Children with diabetes or any condition or disability are wonderful people with great lives. Accepting diversity in human beings teaches you that there is no “normal” and therefore no “abnormal”. There is just different. Despite challenges, most people with diabetes live fully and are happy. If you experience guilt about their diabetes and pass this onto your child, it can send a message that they are damaged goods. Their diabetes is theirs to own and manage. It is part of what makes them who they are. Unless they are severely disabled and unable to care for themselves at all, as they grow they will be responsible for much of this management. It is healthy to see their diabetes as a part of them and love them as a whole person.
Take on the challenges together in a positive way. I know this is tough. As a parent myself it is a juggle to stay positive when your children face adversity. Feel with them, experience sadness and grief and frustration about the daily ups and downs ofdiabetes, but try not to pass on messages that their diabetes has made your life hell. If you have your own sadness and grief and frustration to share, find some other parents who you can sound off with. You need to experience these feelings and deal with them, but making your child feel bad for having diabetes and how it has affected your life, is not helpful for anyone. This extends to how you speak about and share on social media. Sharing images and stories of your child that are negative or scary on social media, especially without their permission, is speaking for them and not with them. Think before you post and join communities online where conversations can be private.
Dealing with Guilt
In dealing with parent guilt, acknowledge all the things you do as a parent, notice your achievements. Just getting the kids out the door in the morning can be a miraculous achievement! Work out what really matters to YOU. What is important in your family and how you want to parent. Understand why you are making these choices and then stick to them no matter what anyone else says. Be kind to yourself. Also acknowledge where you can make changes. For example, if you experience guilt about not eating at the dinner table, it may say that this is actually important to you and is based on fact, so start building in one or two nights a week where you make it a priority. Take small steps towards what you value. Guilt about why your child got diabetes however, is the kind of guilt you want to try to reduce. You might need to talk to someone else about these feelings, other parents and a counsellor can be your support team. Parenting a child with additional needs is not easy. Be kind to yourself.
As I grow older, I do feel far less guilt about my kids. They have all had challenges in their lives that have led to me experiencing guilt. I feel so very lucky to have them and more balanced about life in general. Yet I still worry about whether they are eating well enough, their weight, their screen time, eating in front of the television, working too much, being distracted, their health and whether any of them will eventually get diabetes….Some of these things are telling me I could be doing things differently. Others are just reactions to what is around me in the world. I am not sure you can stop all of this worry. Loving another person so very deeply, feeling responsible for their very lives, means you do want them to be happy all the time. But all relationships have their ups and downs. You will have clashes with your children. You will make decisions you later regret. You will make mistakes. You create them, you grow them, you love them. Perhaps the guilt speaks of your love, perhaps it is shouting to the world “I love you more than life itself”. Yet their life is not your life. At some point they move away from the centre of your life and start making their own way in the world.
Stopping to realise that you are doing your best in loving them and that they will be ok, is all you can do. Remember to love yourself too. Parenting is really about constantly learning, being able to see your own mistakes or lapses in understanding about your children’s needs, and being able to apologise – to your children and yourself. We learn across our entire lives – it is the joy of being human. If you can learn from your mistakes and love you and your children for who you all are, there is much less chance of negative guilt taking over and much more chance of joyful parenting.