Mommy Guilt

November 3, 2011 at 4:51 pm (Uncategorized)

We had our first snow flurry a couple of days ago.

I love the season’s first snow, the golden remnants of fall softening and blurring under the white veil. Snow quiets the clatter of every day life. Its magic is this silence.

I sipped piping hot Earl Grey tea as I stood at the window and let the snow’s spell mute the chatter in my mind. But then—as if a giant fist plunged through the window, shattered the glass and the calm, and grabbed me by the throat— I realized that I had sent Andrew to school without snow pants or boots. Did he have a hat? Gloves? He was probably soaked already after two recesses on a snowy playground. He already had a cough? He’d get sicker now. Should I run a change of clothes down to the school?

The first flash of guilt was like a rock rolling down a steep hillside. It gained momentum. It loosened other rocks and dislodged soil. Before I had time to roar “STOP!” or find shelter, my internal tranquility was buried beneath an avalanche of self-recrimination. I’m not being a capable mother. I never seem to be able to get all the permission slips signed on time. I forget to have Andrew practice his 2nd grade spelling words until the night before the weekly test. I’m supposed to come observe his problem-solving group on a Monday to see if it’s at the right level, but something always prevents me from making it on a Monday.

This first slide then knocked loose the larger, half-buried big guilt boulders—the ones I spent a lot of time trying to cover up with spare soil because I don’t want these lethal, sharp stones anywhere near my fragile heart. I am a bad mother. I am ruining my son’s life by being sick. Any problem he ever has is my fault because I am a bad, sick mother. Andrew will have a miserable life because of me. I am worthless, sorry excuse for a human being and a mother.

I know the specific texture and color of my Mommy guilt is uniquely mine. It gets filtered through lenses like my chronic illness and my neurotic over-achiever tendencies. Yet I know from many conversations with other mothers that the experience of Mommy guilt is not unique to me. Nearly every mother I know has expressed some version of Mommy guilt—that they are simply not a good enough mother.

I am not a sociologist or psychologist, so I won’t bore you with armchair speculation about why competent and confident women across the developed world carry around heavy sacks of guilt about everything they don’t do as mothers or everything they do wrong. I’ve read some insightful books on the subject, like Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace (http://ayeletwaldman.com/books/bad.html).

I am, however, an expert on feeling guilty all the time (some might call me a connoisseur). I used to think that being raised Catholic had something to do with the bountiful and automatic guilt I felt about everything. Then I married a nice Jewish boy and learned that Catholicism might have been a latecomer to guilt as well. Before I had a child, I thought of my guilt as a quirky personality trait. Some people were innately funny; I was thoroughly guilt-ridden. If I had to give you a dollar every time I said, “I’m sorry,” you would long ago have been able to retire in comfort. Or I’d have to write you a six-figure “I owe you” note—and feel terribly guilty about that too.

Feeling guilty about how you interact with your own child isn’t in the realm of quirky, though. It’s toxic and bitter, and runs the risk of poisoning the most precious moments. Believe me, I know.

Although I haven’t learned how to stop feeling Mommy guilt, I can at least recognize how useless and damaging it is. Guilt is the lamest (literally and figuratively) in the panoply of human emotions. Guilt is a dead-end. Unlike shame, which can prompt us to change behavior or right a wrong, guilt just freezes us on an emotional ledge. Guilt is the muddy wallowing pit of the inner self. You can churn in it, dirty yourself, get stuck in it…and little else.

I still haven’t learned how to get out from the guilt swamp—or clear of the guilt avalanche (or, pick your own natural catastrophe metaphor for guilt from which I cannot extract myself). I simply endure a guilt attack and try to emerge with the tatters of my self-worth. That’s what happened with the rock slide of guilt that the snow pants started. I hung in there until all the boulders finished rolling over me, and then tried to go about the rest of my day.

Andrew, of course, was fine. He had the good sense not to get himself soaked. He was cheery about the snow and excited for winter arriving. He did not reproach me for being a bad Mommy. He did not accuse me of ruining his day, his health, or his life. So why did I?

I’d like to progress beyond living through Mommy guilt attacks. I’d like to just be a mom.

How about you? Do you have mommy guilt? Or daddy guilt? How do you stop the rock slide of guilt? What are your secrets for living guilt-free?

2 Comments

  1. Marianne said,

    I dropped my kids off that day and then wondered if I should run gloves to them. I wondered if they would remember their sleeves have caps they can put their thumbs through for more protection. Then I had a hot chocolate and thought: this will teach them to get their own gloves. I try to go from guilt to remembering that I am teaching them:)

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      You’re right, Marianne, he will learn if I don’t take care of his every, single need. And I know this. In my head. Problem is my gut likes to tell me I’m a crappy Mom. But I am learning to talk back to my nasty gut instinct. Maybe hot chocolate would help me with this (or some kahlua in the hot chocolate?)

      Here’s to kids learning to take care of themselves,
      Rebecca

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