Less Guilt, More Mama:
An Interview With Mommy Guilt Authors Aviva Pflock and Devra Renner
by Phoebe Varinia DeMund
Mommy Guilt: Learn To Worry Less, Focus On What Matters Most, And Raise Happier Kids by Julie Bort, Aviva Pflock, and Devra Renner (all mothers themselves) is based on ten years of research into the top causes of "mommy guilt," and takes fresh and friendly approaches to advising how to avoid them, have non-guilt-inducing responses to them, and/or to give up the guilt altogether. The writing is down to earth and often funny and the subject matter strikes a chord with a lot of mothers. During the time I was reading it (often in public places), I had numerous women approach me. "Mommy Guilt," they often began. "That's an intriguing title. Is it good?" Over and over again, the hopeful lilt to the tone of their voices struck me. "Is it really possible to parent without guilt?" they all seemed to be asking. Mamazine.com editors Amy Anderson and Sheri Reed asked me to interview the authors of Mommy Guilt and find out. Aviva Pflock and Devra Renner were available for the job.
mamazine.com: The title of your book seems to promise freedom from the guilt women often experience as mothers. It comes across as a how-to parent guilt-free guide. Do you really believe it is possible to parent without guilt? (Or to mother, I should say. You make an interesting distinction in the book about how fathers, as a general rule tend to experience similar feelings of inadequacy or doubt as frustration, rather than as guilt.)
Aviva Pflock: Rather than a promise of freedom from guilt, we prefer to focus on freedom to enjoy your parenting experience. No, it is not and should not be possible to parent without guilt—guilt is a normal emotion and our hope is that parents come to understand guilt and what factors may be behind how guilt may regulate our parenting experience. What often happens, though, is many mothers tend to get consumed in their guilt and rather than use it as a tool for positive change, it becomes a burden to carry, something that gets in the way of enjoying our parenting. We aren't claiming anyone can "parent without guilt," we prefer to maintain that any parent deserves to enjoy their parenting experiences as much as possible.
Devra Renner: There is a difference between guilt which is useful and guilt which just zaps you and brings you down. In the book we compare dealing with guilt to listening to a radio, there are times when you may master your mommy guilt much like you would dial up a new station–tune it in, tune it out, or just turn it off. Knowing the who, what, when, why and how of mommy guilt is key, and this is what we want readers to come away with understanding; that while mommy guilt is normal, debilitating mommy guilt is not. With so much perfection hype, we just wanted moms to be able to pick up a book where they find encouragement, empowerment and imperfections are embraced.
mamazine.com: I had actually sworn off the general category of how-to parent books shortly after my daughter was born because I'd grown so confused and frustrated by frequently conflicting advice, which often seemed counterintuitive or flat-out unrealistic to me, and which frequently seemed to require no-room-for-mistakes implementation—all to a guilt-inducing effect. Your book presented an interesting question: is it truly possible to give or receive guilt-relieving parenting advice? In fact, I found that Mommy Guilt was a revelation in that regard. (For example, I made the sincere notation "Oh, thank you!" next to a paragraph refuting the myth that a good mother always knows the meaning of her newborn's cry.) However, I did also find myself having the familiar reaction of questioning my adequacy as a mother when I didn't find your advice personally practicable. I was just able to temper it with what I imagined was your bottom line message: "It's all right to let yourself feel okay about the job you are doing." Obviously, it's a difficult line to walk, not knowing exactly who your reader is, to boil your message down to "let yourself feel okay about your decisions;" but is it fair to say that is ultimately your bottom-line message to the loving, non-abusive, non-neglectful mom of physically, socially and academically healthy children?
Aviva Pflock: Precisely. We are fairly confident in stating that most women do not enter into motherhood thinking, "What a fabulous way to make myself miserable and torment everyone else in my life." Given the basic parameters you have stated above, mothers enter into motherhood with the best intentions for their children.
Devra Renner: Ain't that the truth! We were sick and tired of picking up parenting books that already make negative assumptions about how we parent our kids and/or dictate a specific protocol to be followed. We find those books to be frustrating and they also induce more guilt and fear of failure. Instead, we deliberately chose to write our book so that moms could make their own choices about any suggestions, techniques or advice they may read in it. The book does not merely rely on "expert" opinions, it also includes experiences from HUNDREDS of other parents who contributed their stories which are infused into the body of the book and included in an appendix in the back too. We merely encourage moms to step back, consider a different point of view, and in doing so moms may experience a different perspective, which may benefit everyone in their family.
mamazine.com: I've had what I would call an intuitive understanding that parenting with less guilt would not only be more comfortable but probably more successful—now supported by a lot of what you have to say on this in the book. For those who haven't yet read your book, how do you, describe the importance of giving up the guilt? Is there (that you know of) any research being done specifically to demonstrate that parenting with less guilt is a good thing?
Aviva Pflock: When we, as parents, can give up the harmful guilt, we are more confident and, generally, more optimistic parents and people. It is no secret that the mood of the mother is often reflected and magnified as the mood of the household—wouldn't it be nice to magnify confidence and pleasure instead of doubt and insecurity?
Devra Renner: There is research that can support or refute anything, including the effect guilt may or may not have on parents. What was interesting in our research is that employment status did not have an impact on amounts of mommy guilt. The amount of mommy guilt was essentially equal for moms working inside, outside, under, over or on top of their homes. So the whole mommy war issue? Let's dump it. The grass is not greener on the other side of the fence, nor is it decidedly browner. What our research indicates is we've gotta work to remove the fence and concentrate on lawn care for everyone. We like to point to Miriam Peskowitz's book The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars: Who Decides What Makes a Good Mother? , which really spells out what our own research indicates too: Mothers will have less mommy guilt and all families will be happier when our society incorporates policies which offer true flexibility and paid benefits for any combination of care giving and employment.
mamazine.com: Your book is targeted to mothers of all ages of children, not just new mothers. And, I noticed in reading your biographies that when you started this project, of assessing the phenomenon of mommy guilt, two of your three children, Aviva, were also very young—one still to come, and Devra, yours were also still on the horizon. I imagine that having babies grow to children while in the midst of this work would have been its own kind of research! And you do pepper the book with stories from your own parenting experiences. How was your own mothering style affected by working on this research and book? As just one particular, I noted, for example, that many of your survey respondents said that their guilt had increased as their children grew older—did you also experience those effects, or did doing this work enable you to escape it?
Aviva Pflock: One of the deciding factors in writing this book was the fact that our guilt-ridden friends, colleagues and clients would often approach us to see what we were doing differently because we seemed to be having more fun at being parents than they felt they were having. The book started during those very early "new parent" years but went on hold because we were busy with our lives. The interesting thing was, as our children got older, the guilt conversations did not seem to decrease in our work or social settings. This clearly was neither a "new parent" phenomenon nor one that was particular to a time period or locale. I would have to say that working on the book certainly made us more aware of guilt traps but we wrote the book because we already believed we had a way out.
Devra Renner: Please understand that just because we may have harnessed our guilt, doesn't mean we are above any other parent or feel superior in any manner. Hell, we are making mistakes with our kids just like anyone else, we are learning as we go too. We're crawling around on the frontlines and digging those trenches! To try and say we aren't would just make us sound like we were taking some moral high ground. While we may not have as many issues with guilt, we have others to step in and take up space. For me, it's dealing with sibling rivalry. Since I am an only child, sibling rivalry can just halt me in my tracks. We all have our parenting challenges, but for Aviva and me, guilt wasn't one of them. (Uh oh, my kids are fighting over the remote control. The TV isn't even on! Why do they do that? Just like Rosanne-Rosanna Danna used to say "It's always somethin'!")
mamazine.com: One of the women who expressed interest in Mommy Guilt while I was reading it, is my mother-in-law. She wondered if you had addressed only the guilt that parents feel as they are raising their children, or if you also discussed how to let go of the guilt you feel once your children are already grown. This, of course, was one of those eerie reminders for me about how much this job is a lifetime commitment! But in all seriousness, what kind of feedback, if any, have you had from mothers of grown children and/or do you anticipate addressing that issue at any point in the future? What are your plans, if any, for carrying this message forward beyond this book?
Aviva Pflock: The most common statement from mothers with grown children is, "I wish I'd had this book when I first had my kids." Some mothers with grown children have told us that our book touches on common sense and instincts they possessed yet did not have the confidence to follow. For other seasoned moms, they say that they don't understand why moms today feel so much pressure not to follow their instincts. We've also done presentations on guilt-free grandparenting, so while we did not address that issue in this book, we certainly are moving beyond our book to talk about it now.
Devra Renner: What most moms tell us is our book reinforces that moms are doing a better job than we might think. I think moms at any stage of their parenting appreciate the underlying message in our book that no one is perfect, we all make mistakes and, like our kids, we should give ourselves the opportunity to say "do over!" It is very freeing to say "do over."
Will Aviva and I carry this message forward beyond this book? Absolutely! We present workshops, seminars, classes as well as speak at fundraising events. We've already spoken with hundreds of parents this past year and reached thousands more via our blog. Aviva and I are working on our second book and you can bet it will tackle our topic with our unique blend of humor, compassion, and practicality our readers have come to expect from us.
For more information, visit Devra and Aviva's website at Parentopia.net.
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