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[ Opinion ]

Mommy Guilt

Let me preface this by saying, I know that there are plenty of different types of guilt, and I do not believe that mothers are the only people who feel this. I know many fathers who experience this type of guilt as well. The disease of addiction ravages families, making both men and women single parents, or causing one parent to play the role of both parents as the addicted party self-destructs. I am just speaking about this one topic as it relates to my story of being a mother recovering from substance abuse. . .

Mommy Guilt…Ugh! I feel like I could probably write an entire book on this subject. 

Let me just start by saying, mommy guilt is the worst! There’s hardly anything that compares to the amount of pressure mothers put on themselves every single day. Most moms will admit to having experienced some form of guilt at one time or another, and if you are like me, you might have actually taken to shaming yourself before allowing anyone else to do it for you.  

This topic got me thinking about all of the women out there who are their own worst critics. It saddens me that women of my generation seem to have almost been bred to think this way. So it’s certainly no surprise that my shame as a mother in recovery was magnified. I am not saying that the guilt I feel is any more, or any less, than any other mother out there. I am just saying it is different…

Most of the mothers that I know worry about things like how their children are doing in school or how they interact with other kids on the playground. Some worry about determining the proper punishment for mischievous behavior or making sure they complete their homework on time. Many have had the uncomfortable experience of being told by another mother that the way they are parenting is all wrong and are then given a laundry list of things they should be doing differently.

As a woman struggling with addiction, I had my own laundry list of things I was doing wrong. It was probably more like a scroll, like the ones that kings had, that would unroll at their feet and continue across the entire room. I really didn’t need, or want, any other mother’s opinion, because I can assure you I thought worse of myself than any other person out there. 

As a mother in recovery, the things I worry about are somewhat different. And again, I want to stress that I am not saying my guilt is any more, or any less, important than any other woman’s. It’s just different…and to me, it’s debilitating at times because I know I could have done things differently. Most of my guilt stems from the fact that it is self-inflicted. Yes, I was in the grip of my disease when I was absent or acting irresponsibly, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t still find it difficult to forgive myself for the decisions I made. 

I worry about how “lost time” will impact my daughter, if she inherited my addictive thinking or if she will have a fear of abandonment. I worry that my addictive behaviors have in some way scarred her for life, or that she may have felt unloved when I was sick. I often times replay past events over and over again in my head, wishing more than anything that I could go back in time and change them. I could literally torture myself with the mistakes of my past. I try not to do that anymore, but every once in a while I still like to give myself a good emotional lashing.

In my opinion, self-shaming is learned behavior. In a society obsessed with social media (guilty!) and the worldwide web, it seems like “Mommy Shaming” is at an all-time high. Mothers are shamed for just about anything you can think of; choosing not to breastfeed, breastfeeding in public, giving their kids too much sugar, allowing a pacifier, being too affectionate, not being affectionate enough, spoiling their kids, having a career, not having a career, stretch marks, baby weight, for not being Betty freaking Crocker! I could go on and on, and trust me it’s a good thing I don’t get started on the infinite list of things moms are shamed for today. I would probably get all worked up and I try not to cause a scene in public these days. So let me try to give you a relatable mental picture, one that happened to yours truly…

Imagine, if you will, a mother who has been secretly struggling with addiction while attempting to care for her child. Imagine that mother, who already feels alone and ashamed, reading an article about how another mother in active addiction was arrested in front of her children. Picture this mother now curiously clicking on the comments section of that article and reading the vicious, vile and hateful words that others have posted.

“That woman doesn’t deserve to be a mother.”

“She should have her children taken away forever.”

“That woman should be shot, or locked away in prison for life.”

“What a disgusting human being. She should be sterilized.”

Comments like that are almost enough to make a person like me decide to lock myself away for life. In fact, I almost did. I drank myself into oblivion. And why, you might ask? Stigma! The stigma of not only being a female addict, but a mother too. 

Stigma…and I am so frickin’ sick of it!

When I first came into recovery, the amount of guilt and shame I felt as a mother was paralyzing. I could barely say the words, “I am an alcoholic,” or “I am an addict,” without breaking down and sobbing for fear of what that was going to mean for my life. I didn’t have a clue how to live a life free from alcohol and drugs, nor did I have a clue how to be a good mother. I didn’t have the slightest idea how to set boundaries with my child, or properly discipline her when she misbehaved. I would try to put her in a time out, and she would literally smile up at me as she skipped away; a tiny toddler victory. 

I remember one time in my early recovery when I was folding the laundry, my daughter was crying hysterically about some missing doll, the dog was barking at something outside (probably his nemesis…The Squirrel!), and my husband was calling me on the phone. I snatched up that phone and screamed, “I CAN’T DO THIS!” In that moment I felt defeated. I was afraid. I wanted to drink.

As I fell to my knees and sobbed, my puppy began to lick my tears and my daughters little arms hugged my neck as she gently placed her head on my shoulder. “It’s OK, mommy….” I was amazed at how perfectly her tiny head fit into the crease of my neck, something I had never noticed when I was drinking. And once again, I felt guilty.

I honestly believed I was probably one of the worst mothers who had ever walked this earth, and because of that I let my child get away with EVERYTHING when I finally cleaned up my act; as if that would make up for the countless times I was in and out of her life. I found myself obsessed with the opinions of others, and this made it difficult for me to share honestly about the things I had done in my active addiction.

I remember how terrifying those early meetings were. My sponsor had told me, very bluntly, that if I wanted to succeed in recovery, I better start talking about what was really going on in my life. No more fluff! She suggested that I start sharing at every meeting, and by suggesting it, she meant do it!

I remember sitting in those meetings sharing tiny pieces of my story and then looking around the room at all of the women to see what their reactions were. I was expecting to be met with looks of anger and disdain. But that is not what happened at all! Each time I shared something I was ashamed of, things I was sure would deter any woman from wanting to befriend me, I was met with nods of agreement. I was met with empathy and understanding. The women were even smiling, sympathetically, at me! I couldn’t believe that those women weren’t judging me, and they couldn’t believe that I thought that they would. 

On more than one occasion, after those meetings ended, women approached me to tell me they had done those same things too. They would share with me how they learned to work through that pain, they would offer me their phone numbers and they would tell me to keep coming back. They would give me big hugs, the ones with the tightest squeezes, and I remember wishing I could just stay there forever; safe and secure.

That is when my healing began. I found that every time I shared something that I thought I could never say out loud to another human being, I was relieved; as if a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. There is a saying in the rooms, “drop the rock.” I started to realize I had been carrying around boulders on my back for years, and the moment I started dropping those rocks, I knew my life was changing forever.

The women I met in recovery saved my life. They often tell me not to put them on a pedestal, but I do. I can’t help it! They taught me how to act like a lady again, and they taught me, through their own actions, how to be a good mother. I was so relieved when I found out I wasn’t the only woman who had at one point put a substance before their child. I am forever grateful to those women for showing me the love and support I so desperately needed In early recovery and for continuing to love and support me today. They didn’t wave a magic wand and make all of my problems go away. What they did was generously offer me their time, shared their experience and they listened. Which, if you ask me, are the most valuable gifts a person can give. 

My daughter was 4 years old when I took my last drink or drug. For her first 4 years, she never knew which mother she was going to get that day. Would it be the one who was playful or the one who never left her bed? 

Today I am the kind of mother I always wanted my daughter to have. I actively participate in her life each and every day. We laugh together and we play together. I help her with school work, I coach her soccer team and I am on the PTA for goodness sakes! I am able to tell her no, and scold her when she is acting inappropriately, without feeling guilty.  

 She is now 6 ½ years old and, by the grace of God, she barely remembers those days. I understand how lucky I am to have found recovery when she was so young. All she remembers is that mommy was sick, and then mommy got better. And what a beautiful lesson for her in perseverance. I hope that, more than anything, I have taught her that we may struggle in life, but we should never give up, that people can change and that no matter what happens I am proud to be her mother.

The women in recovery are my heroes and the mothers in recovery are an incredible example of what true love and tolerance looks like. I don’t know where my life would have ended up had I never met them. Because of these women, I am now the woman who approaches the newcomer with a big warm hug and words of encouragement. 

Shame and judgement had absolutely nothing to do with my decision to change. NOTHING! And furthermore, my actions when I was in active addiction in NO WAY meant that I did not love my daughter. I loved her more than anything in this world. The problem, was that I didn’t love myself.

Love, empathy, understanding, trust and faith had everything to do with my success in recovery. I hope that every struggling woman, or man (because I’ve seen this disease create quite a few single dads too), who stumbles upon this story,, gains the ability to give themselves a break, because we do recover! 

Vanessa D. 

Milwaukee, WI

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