Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Unwarranted Guilt

I write today as a continuation of a discussion that began in comments to my blog on apologies and forgiveness where it was posited that guilt arises when we harm someone, intentionally or not.

I personally distinguish this emotion as regret rather than guilt.

Leaving religion out, guilt is a psychological cognitive experience in which a person believes (regardless of the truth of the belief) that they have broken a moral standard and are responsible for the violation.

The question is thus, have I - have any of us - broken a moral standard by surrendering to the powers that be and allowing our children to be taken and placed for adoption? 

Were we not instead put in a moral no-win conundrum to do what all authority figures from our parents to our religious leaders to social workers with great knowledge of child welfare all said was right and best, or to defy them and do what we were told was selfish?

Carolyn Bushong says:

The term "selfish" is used by others to manipulate and control us and make us feel guilty. Anytime we're not choosing to do what is best for someone else, that person will accuse us of being selfish to try and convince us to do what he or she wants. 

What of those such as myself who did defy them as long as possible and still lost in the end?  Was I worng to defy them or wrong to give in?

When we do something morally good, we feel good about ourselves, perhaps proud to have acted well, and when we do something morally bad, we feel guilty to have acted poorly. 

Would you steal to provide medicine for a child of yours who would die without it?  If you did, would it be morally wrong? Would you feel guilty? Should you?

Would you prostitute yourself to feed your child if you had no other way to earn the necessary money?

Guilt is a control mechanism exploited by religious leaders, politicians, car and baby salesmen.  It is perhaps the best and most easily instilled control emotion.

When we were small children, we trusted our thoughts and feelings. We knew when we felt angry or sad, and we expressed these feelings naturally without thinking about whether we should or shouldn't.

When we became mothers we "instinctively" knew what was natural but social mores and pressure to be a "good daughter" pulled at us allowing the "shoulds" rule.  

Carolyn reports that her female clients have shared feeling guilty for:

  • guilty for being female

  • guilty for being smart

  • guilty for being overweight

  • guilty for not being organized

  • guilty for not being a morning person

  • guilty for taking time for themselves

  • guilty for ending a relationship with someone who loved them

  • guilty for not talking to their parents constantly

  • guilty for not being a perfect parent

  • guilty for not sacrificing enough with time, money, etc.

  • guilty for sleeping in late

  • guilty for eating chocolate or dessert before dinner

  • guilty for buying things for themselves

  • guilty for enjoying life

  • guilty for not saving enough money

  • guilty for being who she is

Guilt is a dangerous weapon, and it is also a cage, but one we own the key to.  Carolyn's suggestions for getting rid of unwarranted guilt:

If you actually did something wrong (according to your own belief system, not someone else’s), right the wrong and then let it go.  Clean up your mistake by saying: "I feel terrible about what I've done to you. I really didn't mean to hurt you. I am sorry I hurt you. The reason I did what I did is ___________, but I’m not justifying what I did.  What can I do to make it up to you and earn your trust again?"
She further suggests that those harboring guilt recognize that as humans we are imperfect and should thus avoid guilt-ridden negative statements to ourselves,   i.e. "How could I be so stupid?!"  "If only I would have been smart enough to."  "I sure screwed that one up!"  "I can't believe I did that!"

Bottom line for me: Their "shoulds" and talk of being selfish and doing what was right and constant pressure wore me down. They won. They got my daughter. But I will not allow them to get my soul as well!  I will not be guilt-tripped by those who evilly plotted the destruction of my family, or by a society who condoned such violation of motherhood.

In my first book, The Dark Side of Adoption I compare mothers who lost children to adoption to soldiers.


They were young: seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty. Birthmothers are generally young, too.
They were faced with a war—something no one wants or asks for. We were faced with unplanned pregnancies.
They describe themselves now as having been naive. Most didn't even think about what they were getting into. Besides, their alternatives were bleak—leave the country?
Many of us were given no alternatives at all—give up your baby or don't come home.
They went on what they believed to be a noble mission—defending their country. To counteract the fact that killing and maiming are against human nature, they were told that they were killing in the name of peace, freedom and the American way.
We were told that if we really loved our babies and wanted what was best for them, we would give them up to people who could provide better homes for them than we could. Though it is against every act of nature and a violation of our inborn maternal instinct to give away that which we carried and nourished inside our wombs for nearly a year—we were told not to was selfish.

If they refused to go they were called cowards, draft dodgers. They would have been ridiculed by their countrymen, permanently black-balled and possibly even jailed. Had we refused to surrender, we would have been called selfish and unfit parents. Many would have been disowned by our families and/or possibly have had our parental rights severed by the courts.

So they went. They did the noble thing.
We surrendered. We did the "right" thing.
They returned to find less than a hero's welcome. Far from saviours, they were called killers by many. We are not applauded for our sacrifice either, but looked upon with scorn and disgust by friends and neighbors.
They can never put their experience behind them; some experience flashbacks. Like them, we can never forget; we experience anniversary reaction and delayed grief syndrome.
Like them, no one can truly understand our suffering except another who has lived through it. Like them, we are now ready to come out of our closets and make the world understand us.
They are the men of the sixties. We are the women of the sixties . . . and the seventies and the eighties. Their war is over. Ours still rages on.
—M. Riben, 1983.

Today we know it was just one war that ended.  Today we also know it is called PTSD. 

Today we support our troops - even though they have a "choice' to enlist today they did not have during Vietnam.   But we do not hold them personally responsible for the war or those they are ordered to kill. Instead we offer returning vets as much support to cope with the guilt and return to as normal a life as possible after living in a bizarre world where wrong is right and hate and violence rewarded.

I do not think of myself as "bad" or "evil" or "guilty" for the loss of my daughter to adoption. Nor do I play the victim.  Like soldiers who now support peace, I work to right the wrongs.

If feeling guilty comforted me, then perhaps I would.  If it comforts any of you, please feel free.  But it does not serve me nor suit the facts of what occurred so I will not berate myself or allow anyone else to.  I listened to "them" once. I beleived their shoulds. I have grown wiser and stronger and no longer do.  I will not let anyone guilt me - least of all myself.

They got my child. They will not get my soul. 

1 comment:

maybe said...

This post struck many chords. I particularly like the part about accusations of "selfishness" and how they ususally come from people who are just trying to get what THEY want.

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