Mother Guilt

August 9, 2022

I’m a DES Daughter. 

I’m a member of a club no one is clamoring to join: those of us whose mothers took a certain medication during pregnancy to prevent miscarriage, a medication which affected their female children later on. DES (Diethylstilbestrone) was widely prescribed during the 1950s and 1960s, hailed as a wonder drug for women at risk of losing their babies. This was also the era of that nightmare drug Thalidomide, which was used to treat morning sickness, but ended up causing horrible birth defects. By the time these were pulled off the market, a lot of irreversible damage had been done.

As a young woman, I was monitored carefully for cervical cancer and other issues which were beginning to appear related to DES (thankfully, I have had no serious problems all these years). A number of “DES daughters” had great difficulties becoming pregnant (clearly not a result with me).

What I do recall about all of this was my mom’s feelings of guilt. Though there’s literally no way she could have known not to take DES, or reason to distrust her obstetrician, Joanie added this regret to a long list of other reasons to feel badly.

Now that I’m a mom, I totally get it. Guilt, appropriate or not, goes with the territory. We stew for nine months, watching everything that passes our lips, making sure not to sleep on our sides (or was it our backs?). Then after our bundles of joy arrive, it’s all about reading to them to encourage optimal brain development, nursing them if possible (just long enough, though), rocking them to sleep/letting them cry it out (I tended to alternate these randomly, the worst of all possible parenting choices), reciting Dr. Spock’s advice from memory (until the meltdown when we encounter Dr. Brazelton and his rather different theories).

For me, mental health issues are, first and foremost, what I hate to have passed along to my children. Why oh why did I “gift” them with tendencies to depression, anxiety, panic attacks? Deep down I know it’s not anything I did deliberately, any more than Mom taking DES was anything she did to hurt me. I think of the truly terrible parents out there (some of whom, ironically, have kids who adore them), and I realize I’m not Monster Mom. But still…

It helps to understand that it isn’t too late, not ever. We hurt each other, but we can also help each other heal. If some guilt is inevitable, it doesn’t have to define us. I was the best mom I knew how to be way back when, and, now that I know (a little) better, I can do better. Joanie, too, did her best, and only took that med because she so wanted to keep me.

And by honoring her fierce love, the love I also feel for my children, I can try to let go of guilt, and, I hope, wherever she is now, Mom has let go of it too.


    I am an author (of four books, numerous plays, poetry and freelance articles,) a director (of Spiritual Formation at a Lutheran church,) and a producer (of five kids).

    I write about my hectic, funny, perfectly imperfect life.

    Please visit my website: or email me at



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