Welcome to the Cleft Support blog. This blog was created as a resource and to provide support to parents with a child born with cleft lip and/or palate.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Mother's Guilt

If you’re a mother, chances are you’ve felt your fair share of what I refer to as “Mommy Guilt” from time to time.  Society almost demands that we feel guilty.  We’re expected to work, have successful careers, and be productive members of society while at the same time being the ideal mother.  The unspoken standard is that you should be able to work a full-time job, come home (to your spotless and well-organized house), make a wonderful (and healthy) meal, play with your kids, read them bedtime stories, bake cupcakes for the class party, and wake up feeling and looking refreshed and rested in the morning.  When we’re unable to meet these ridiculous expectations, we feel Mommy Guilt.  If we forget to send a snack for our kid’s preschool party, we scold ourselves and vow to work harder and just generally be better at everything we do, even though we know it’s not always possible.

We’ve all felt that kind of guilt from one time or another, but the guilt I’m talking about is bigger and deeper than that.  This is the guilt that stems from the fact that my child was born with a birth defect, and somehow I’ve always felt that it was my fault.  My son was born with a bilateral (meaning both sides) cleft lip and palate.  This birth defect was not picked up on our 18-week utlrasound, so my husband and I were very shocked when Gavin was born.  My immediate reaction was, “Thank goodness he’s okay.”  This then stemmed into, “Okay, now we need a plan of action to get him the best care that we can find.”  And it finally resulted in, “What did I do to cause this.”  The fact that my child, my sweet infant boy who I already loved more than life itself, would be forced to deal with countless surgeries (the approximation is somewhere around 18 – 20), doctor’s visits, and speech therapy sessions was overwhelming, and all I could think was that, somehow, this was my fault.

Gavin shortly after birth

From that point on, I was on a mission.  Not only would I make sure that my son got the best care, had the best surgeons, and would see every specialist that he needed to see, but everything else in his life was going to be perfect, and I was going to be the perfect mom.  He would never lack anything: fun, toys, attention, love.  He would have it all, even if it killed me.  I would spend the rest of my life making sure he had everything he ever dreamed of in order to make up for all the pain and discomfort he would have to go through.  That was the extent of my guilt, but it actually got worse.  A lot worse.

Gavin after his first surgery

What I fondly refer to as “guilt gift buying” began with his very first surgery.  Here was my four-month-old son, getting ready to undergo a four-hour surgery, and I felt terrible.  He was such a happy baby, and I hated to think of the pain he was about to endure.  I was scared – scared as hell.  What if something went wrong?  What if he reacted poorly to the anesthesia?  What if something happened?  So, to make myself feel a little better, I bought him some new, elaborate toy.  There, that will make you happyA new toy. The good news is that Gavin did incredibly well with his first surgery; nothing went wrong, and he was back to his normal, happy self shortly after.  But, that didn’t make me feel any better because I knew we still had a long road ahead of us.

Gavin after his second surgery

Fast-forward to four surgeries later.  They were all trying, heart-breaking, nerve-racking, and exhausting.  But, we survived.  Somehow, we survived.  The guilt, however, never went away.  I tried to do everything and be everything for my son.  I made homemade lunches for him every night.  I refused to send a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, opting to send things like stir-fry instead.  I made sure that he was read to every night.  I made elaborate birthday cakes that took me hours and hours to decorate.  I bought him everything his little heart ever desired.  And, I worked.  I worked and I worked and I worked.  I worked to make more and more money so I could buy him more and more things and take him on countless adventures – all to make up for my guilt.  I worked so much, and focused so much on making money, keeping my house clean, cooking the perfect dinner, that I became someone I didn’t even like.  I barely got to spend time with my family, I was crying over things like over-cooking a slab of prime rib or forgetting valentines for his daycare, and I was stressed to the point where it was starting to affect my health.  To add to that, I wasn’t enjoying life, and I definitely was not a pleasure to be around.

Gavin at age 2

It was at this point that life gave me a much needed wake-up call.  Something personal happened that made me stop in my tracks.  I asked myself, “Is this really the person I am?  Is this the person I want to be?  Is this the life that I want for myself?  Is this the role model I want to be for my son?”  The overwhelming answer to all of those questions was “NO!”  After a few months of some very intense self-reflection and self-evaluation, a few things occurred to me:

1.  Maybe there was something I did or didn’t do during my pregnancy that led to Gavin’s cleft, but I did the best I could.  How could I have known?

2.  What happened, happened.  I cannot go back in time and “fix” this, and no amount of gifts or cupcakes is going to change what happened.

3.  Despite all he’s had to go through, my kid is happy.  He’s a happy, outgoing, well-adjusted child.  He’s handled all of this far better than I have.  So, if he’s happy, I should be able to let go of some of that guilt.

4.  The person I became was not the person I wanted to be, and I was not the mom I wanted to be.  Did I really want my child to grow up thinking that nothing’s worth doing if it’s not perfect, or that if he isn’t perfect people won’t love him?

5.  I should have accepted the counseling that was offered to me after he was born.  I shouldn’t have tried to tell myself that I could handle this surprising news all by myself.  I’m now finally able to start working through all of the guilt I’ve harbored for well over three years.

6.  Life doesn’t always give us what we want, but it always gives us what we need.  Despite all that he will have to endure, I was given Gavin (and he was the born the way he was) because the challenge of the birth defect will make us both better people.  And, I needed that.

7.  I’m not perfect.  Perfect is an unattainable goal.  But, people will still love me even if I’m not perfect.  I’m doing the best that I can, and that’s all anyone can ever really do.

So, the next time you’re overcome with Mommy Guilt, take a few deep breaths, remind yourself that you’re doing the best you can, and we’re all in this together.

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  1. Such a life-affirming post, Andrea. I couldn't stop reading and thinking and loving on everything you've done for your son. Thanks for sharing this, momma.

  2. I agree with Erica. This is an amazing post. And your little man is so handsome. :)

  3. This was beautifully written and let me know more about cleft issues and what a mom whose child has them faces than I ever knew! Wow. You are amazing. And so is Gavin :)

  4. GREAT POST! I can relate to every word you said. My son (Buddy) has a syndrome and we didn't know about it until after he was born too. Buddy had a submucous cleft palate and VPI (Velopharyngeal inadequacy). Because a submucous cleft can be hard to detect, we weren't able to do surgery until he was 5. Let me tell you, of all his 8 surgeries he's had in his short little life (he's 6) the palate & VPI surgery was by far the worst! Words can't describe the pain I had to watch my poor little man go through. There was an issue with him coming out of anesthesia, so unfortunately they wouldn't give him anything stronger than ibuprofen (I think it was ibuporfen...that or extra strength Tylenol - he just couldn't have narcotics based pain relievers). Many prayers for you and your adorable little man! Visiting from lovelinks.

  5. Gavin's palate surgery was horrible (for me!). I can't even imagine having it done at 5! Gavin had his at 1 and 3 months, and it was incredibly difficult. He didn't understand why he couldn't have food, we couldn't eat in front of him, and I was home alone all day with him! On top of that, I can't imagine only being able to give him Tylenol! Hope all is well with your son!

  6. visiting from lovelinks. What a great post. We have friends who have survived the cleft journey with their first son. Their strength and HIS have amazed us the whole way through.

    Take care and good luck!

  7. Thank you! I know this comes a while after you first wrote this post. I also got the surprise of a lifetime when my son was born with a cleft just over a year ago. I cried when I read this post because it's exactly what I do...trying to make up for all the guilt I feel when I know there may or may not have been something I did. Thanks for helping me realize this sooner rather than later.