Am I Messing Up My Baby?

Reassuring answers to a surprisingly common question

Believe it or not, this is a question that we hear a lot at Seleni. And the first thing I like to point out is that if you are asking this question, you're probably doing a much better job than you're giving yourself credit for. At Seleni, we often talk about the unfair and unrealistic expectations that new parents set for themselves and their children, and how often they result in feelings of failure.

These expectations don't come out of left field. They're very real, and they stem from constant societal messages about what we should – and shouldn't do – during pregnancy and as new parents. During pregnancy, there is pressure to eat the right things, get enough exercise (but not too much!), and sleep as much as possible, unrealistic as that may sometimes be. Once the baby arrives, there is more pressure – to breastfeed, start tummy time, and sleep train at an early age. The list goes on. We want to be the best parents we can be. And we want to do the right thing, even when there isn't necessarily a right or wrong way to do any of it.

It’s easy to feel constantly overwhelmed by the difficulty of raising children “successfully” in a complex world. Parents and parents-to-be worry about so many things related to parenting and their children's well-being.

Here are just a few of the things we have heard from parents:

"I'm sad all the time, and I feel stuck. On top of that, I worry that my depression is negatively affecting my baby."

"My partner and I both work, and our families don't live nearby. We need to pay for childcare when my maternity leave is over. But what kind of mother leaves her baby with a stranger all day?"

"When I feed my baby, I look at my phone. I feel so guilty about it, but it's hard to find a moment to myself. Am I already messing up my baby?"

If any of these worries sound familiar to you, that's because they are incredibly common. And importantly, they are coming from a really good place. You want the best for your child. You want her to have a happy, healthy, and meaningful life. So worrying about your own "success" as a parent is, in many ways, useful and productive. But worrying about whether you are "failing" or "messing up" your children can also be consuming, and it can keep you from seeing the good work that you, and the other people in your child's life, are doing.

When I talk with people about these kinds of concerns, I sometimes bring up Donald Winnicott, a famous British psychoanalyst and pediatrician. He was well known for his concept of "the good enough mother." Winnicott realized that mothers do not need to be perfectly attuned to their babies’ every need to foster healthy development. They do need to adequately feed, clothe, and bathe the baby on a regular basis, as well as comfort him during overwhelming emotional distress. But importantly, Winnicott believed that parents would inevitably "fail" or disappointment their children—often in small ways—and that these “failures,” were actually beneficial to a developing baby. So, “good enough" care, not perfect care, is what facilitates a baby's healthy cognitive, emotional, and physical development, by helping him to learn resilience in the face of disappointment, and self-regulation when we cannot be there right away.

These are the lessons we want our children to learn.

It's also important to remember that human beings, both children and adults, are incredibly resilient by nature. Yes, there are phases, especially during early childhood, that are critical to development. But healthy development occurs with a solid – not perfect – foundation.

Of course, it's important to be attuned to our children within a realistic range: We need to make sure that their basic needs for food and shelter are met, read and talk to them regularly, and so on. But in order to best take care of our children, we also must take care of ourselves. And checking in with a mental health professional may be part of that. Together with a mental health professional, you can work on feeling better so that you can access your strengths and enjoy your time with your family more.

As for leaving your baby with a childcare provider, it may help to think of this as another part of building the community of people who will love and care for your child so that you can provide for your family. And that will have a positive impact on you and on them. You may even meet other supportive families as a result of branching out in this way.

Smartphone use is a growing concern for everyone in society. You're not grappling with this topic alone. Many of us are working on cutting down on our usage when we’re with family, and we can still keep that goal in mind. But you can also consider why you are using your phone. At best, our phones keep us connected to other people. This is especially important in the early stages of parenting because we know that poor social support is a risk factor for perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, including postpartum depression.

So if your smartphone enables you to get swaddling tips from a friend, stay in touch with your partner at work, or have a stress-relieving conversation with a family member, those are all good ways of keeping you connected. Accessing the Internet on your phone from time to time can also be a godsend during those early months of frequent feedings. Think of all the good you are doing: holding your baby close and nurturing him with your body or a bottle. If a funny video makes you laugh, or a text from a friend lightens your mood, that's a bonus.

The bottom line is that there is so much room for error in the messy work of raising children. The more we can do to alleviate the expectations placed on us as parents, and the more you can do to release those for yourself, the smoother this transition will be.