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 (

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?

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What a Difference a Year Makes

November 1, 2011 at 11:15 am (Uncategorized)

A few days ago—when I was mired in the worst of my post-chemo nausea, tiredness, and hopelessness—my husband of 14 years, Jay, came home on his lunch hour to watch an hour of good television with me.

It was the nicest thing he’s done for me in a while.

“She has either very-good-TV or very-lame-marriage material,” you are probably thinking.

Well, it was the season finale of Southland, a compelling, character-driven, gritty cop show (my weakness). But that’s not what made Jay’s gesture so meaningful.

It’s taken us seven years in Chronic Town—four years of chemo, four major surgeries, 10 trips to major medical centers outside our state, dozens of nights in emergency rooms, dozens more nights in hospital wards, and more terrifying moments closer to death than life than either of us would like to count—to learn how to be together in sickness. Did I mention we’ve also had to learn how to parent at the same time? Our son, Andrew, was just three months old when I was diagnosed with sarcoidosis.

For the first several years, Jay was, in many ways, the Platonic ideal of a partner for someone in Chronic Town. He was by my side for nearly every one of those medical trips, hospital stays, and pre-surgery moments. He never complained about my transformation from his mountain-climbing, globe-trotting, self-sufficient, “do it all” wife to the financially-dependent, often bed-ridden, 100-pound heavier version whose doctors wouldn’t make predictions about my future prognosis. He did more than his share of child care, grocery shopping, cooking, and household management. He still works not one but two free-lance jobs to supplement our income and pay for the thousands of dollars of medical bills I routinely rack up every year.

But Jay had his Achilles heel (to over-extend my Greek reference points) in all of this. He is a man. Now let me explain before you think I’m being too harsh in this assessment. I have resisted gender stereotyping for most of my life. I thought Men are From Mars¬, Women are from Venus should have been be pulped, along with the reductive and essentialist thinking behind it. What can I say? I went to U.C. Berkeley. Plus, the book was terribly written. But I digress.

After partnering with a man and co-parenting a child with a man (and watching my son manifest personality traits that are frighteningly similar to his father’s with very little prompting), I have come to the conclusion that the Y chromosome carries with it some unusual qualities. More bizarre than the male-wide delusion that football isn’t merely a game, but some mythological battle of good vs. evil, justice over inequity, and (in a perfect world, at least) the New England Patriots kicking the crap out of the New York Jets, is their belief that they should always be able to fix a problem.

Here’s the mindset: if the car needs its oil changed, you fix it. If the garbage disposal is sputtering or the front door doesn’t have a proper seal, you fix it. If your wife has systemic sarcoidosis and the disease has knocked out the cranial nerve responsible for balance, you…fix…it. Damn it, I can’t fix this.

Unable to magically wave a magic masculine wand (don’t go there, Rebecca; just don’t go there) and resolve my medical problems, Jay withdrew emotionally. Sure, he kept fixing all the fixable things in our life. He practically became a Costco employee he was there grocery shopping so often. He taught Andrew how to ski, paid our bills, made sure I got time to rest. He fixed so many problems at work that they kept giving him more to fix. He kept oiling the gears of domestic life, keeping his mind focused on the task at hand, one foot placed determinedly in front of the other, eyes focused just past the tips of his shoes.

But what about unfixable, messy old me? Where did I belong? Unfortunately, home alone, stuck in bed, while Jay flitted around town taking care of everything that could be taken care of. I was lonely. I was alone. I was sick. I would go—alone—to the doctor and get bad news, and come home to live with it—alone. I was beginning to think my husband was a real jerk.

Last year, we had our big bang—a crisis that blew us out of the petty resentments and habits that bound us in our opposing roles. We had to decide to choose each other again. After 13 years of seeing each other’s flaws and limitations, did we still want to call each other husband and wife? Best friends forever? If we did, we had to find a way to reach each other across the great divide of chronic illness that yawned open between us. For me, this meant relinquishing bitterness and hurt feelings. For Jay, this meant embracing the sick me—the fat woman with an unfixable illness. It meant joining me in Chronic Town, instead of keeping the hedgerows trimmed on the periphery.

The good news is we did choose one another. But a lot of hard work was still ahead.

I will always respect and admire Jay for the ferocity and love with which he faced the problem. You would have thought I’d signed on to play for the Patriots. He showed up to our life every day. He listened to what I needed and wanted. He asked how he could make hard days a little easier and truly heard my answer. “I want to feel less alone on bad days. I just want a friend to hold my hand when I am hurting.”

And so, two days after Rituxan, when I was barfing and wheezing from an allergic reaction to the drug, when I was too sick to take a shower, when turning over in bed was about all I had the energy to do, he skipped his afternoon workout and came home to snuggle beside me and watch Southland—and hold my hand.

It was better than a truckload of flowers, a pantry full of groceries, anything that could have been bought or simply said. He was there with me when I was broken. And he didn’t worry that he couldn’t fix me.

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