I was going to start out using a Felicity Huffman quote I found that states, “Motherhood has been an exercise in guilt”. Then I thought wow, that may be a bit too on the nose. You’ll notice I still used the quote, but mostly because I thought it was funny in that oh shit kind of way. While parental guilt is not at all funny, at least she did something to feel guilty about!
I learned recently that parental guilt is actually a thing. I had no idea it was so widespread. Sure, it’s always been there, on the peripheral in one way or another. A friend who feels guilty for missing a field trip. Someone who feels guilty for how they parented child #1 after child #2 comes along and life situations are different. Parents of adult children who still hold onto shit that was done twenty years ago, which the kid has long since let go of, but the parent just can’t. Or, in some cases, things the kid hangs on to which become destructive all around. What I didn’t know is that parental guilt isn’t just some obscure little thing some of us live with, but most of us never experience. Actually, it’s the other way around. Nearly every parent on the planet experiences it in one form or another, and for many of us, it’s a constant struggle.
The dictionary I keep near my desk defines guilt as “a feeling of deserving blame for offenses”. That doesn’t even come close to touching it, though, does it? Because the real problem with parental guilt is that it is inherently rooted in intangibles. What if me missing this field trip is the thing that eventually leads my child down the path of drugs and addiction? What if I don’t stop what I’m doing right now to gush over this thing my kid made and he resents me forever? If I yell right now in this moment, will it prevent him from doing something much more harmful in the future, or will it be the trigger that leads to a lifetime of reckless behavior? The really messed up part is that I’m not exaggerating. At least, not as far as my own guilt goes.
It’s not always. It’s like a rollercoaster for me. There are days where I feel completely in control of everything, and I know that none of these people would last five minutes without me. But those days are sadly rare. They’re good days though, in that I feel like I matter. I feel like I am where I am supposed to be, and everything will be fine.
On the bad days, however, I feel completely irrelevant in my children’s lives. Hell, in the lives of everyone around me. Days where I sit here and wonder if I were to vanish tomorrow, how long would it take them to notice? Sometimes those days are just my own anxiety and depression knocking at the door, and I know it’s time to take a break. Walk away from whatever has me tied up in knots and take a different look at my life. Remember who I am, and remember what matters.
But some days it stems completely from my intense and overwhelming feelings of guilt. I spend too much time working. School is taking too much away from my children. I’m not making good enough dinners, there isn’t enough variety, Kaleb hates this, Mason hates that, why can’t I just get it right? When is the last time I cleaned the house – I mean, really cleaned it? I’m failing, I just know I am. Mason’s school struggles are my fault, I’m not patient enough, I don’t give him enough time, I’m not paying enough attention. I’m failing at every turn. I’m not giving my husband the support he needs to get through his own struggles. I’m not giving Kaleb enough positive reinforcement or telling him how wonderful I think his uniqueness is. Not enough, not enough, not enough.
Crazy, right? Or… not so much.
Parental guilt is real. It’s everywhere if you take the time to look for it. There’s an article in Psychology Today that lists the top 20 reasons parents say they feel guilty, and holy crap do some of those hit home. If I had a quarter for every time I lay in bed awake at 3am wondering if going back to school isn’t actually showing my kids how to follow dreams and not give up, we wouldn’t have to worry about bills anymore. I can’t even begin to count how many wasted hours I’ve spent laying there wondering if, instead of showing strength and drive and determination, me doing something good for me is actually detrimental to them? It’s hard to stay out of my head here. When I think about the amount of time I actually put into things like work and school, I panic. I then have to spend the time I should be doing something else reminding myself of all the reasons what I am doing is not wrong. And then I feel guilty for wasting so much time worrying about it when I have so much else I could have been doing.
Seeing the pattern yet?
Parental guilt is huge, silent, and indefatigable. It’s a vicious cycle filled with poison spikes and it takes a constant battle of the will to overcome it, at least, in my world it does. It even infects good things. We recently changed Kaleb’s medications, and a lot of good has come out of it. He’s been better able to handle sugar in his system again, he’s slightly less angry, and some of the self-destructive behaviors have slowed down or stopped altogether. That doesn’t mean I don’t sit up regularly wondering if I made a huge mistake ever agreeing to medicate him in the first place. Maybe he would have learned to self-regulate without it. Maybe the binge eating and weight loss issues never would have happened. Maybe, maybe, maybe. What if, what if, what if. The guilt and the self-doubt have become a terrible drumbeat banging over and over again in my mind.
The first time someone suggested I medicate Mason I lost my shit completely. No! No way. You don’t even know what’s going on with him, and you want to medicate him into one of those kids that sits and listens and does his schoolwork without interrupting the lesson with random facts about how platypus’s have venom spikes in their ankles (true fact, btw), or having meltdowns because the dyslexia is bad today and he just can’t cope with what is being asked of him, despite the fact that what is being asked is not only perfectly reasonable but something he’s completely capable of doing… I don’t think so, buddy. No way.
But was my initial outrage because I genuinely believe there is something more going on in Mason’s head and I’m worried if they simply medicate him for being hyper they will be burying the real issue instead of addressing it? No. Much to my own guilt-ridden dismay, I will admit freely right now that was the secondary reason. The primary reason? The instantaneous guilt I felt over all the struggles we’ve had with Kaleb and the medication dance we’ve had to do over the years. Bad enough one of my kids has to go through it, I’ll be damned before I let you do it to the other one.
Does that make me a good mom or a bad mom? I don’t know. Both? Neither? Maybe just a mom who struggles with a shit-load of guilt. A lot of it is my own mind. My own determination to be better, and the constant Pinterest comparison that makes me feel less. The feeling that I may never be the kind of mom I thought I would be. The worry that I’ll never get my patience back, no matter how many times I start running or do yoga or go to bed early or meditate or whatever. The fear that I will spend the next 9 years fighting with Mason night after night over some mundane piece of homework and his frustration and anger will lead to lifelong problems and so much incredible potential thrown away because I couldn’t get my shit together enough to figure out how to help him. Or all the time I spend trying to get Kaleb to understand that taking responsibility for your part in a problem means not ending the sentence with “but you…” will lead to him never holding others accountable because I’ve brainwashed him into thinking everything is always his fault.
It. Is. Constant.
The guilt is a cement block tied around my neck. It’s old Marley’s chains wrapped around my waist. It’s suffocating. It’s infuriating. It’s impossible.
And while so much of it is based on intangibles, things I can feel but can’t see until they have come and gone, some of it is genuine. There are things I regret. Things I wish I had thought through more carefully. Moments, meltdowns, words, whole days I wish I could take back. But I can’t. And that’s the real bitch of it. And also the blessing. Because what it means is that looking back all the time does me no good. Learn from the mistakes, and move forward. Maybe you repeat a couple of them. Maybe the lesson takes a bit longer to sink in. That’s okay.
Parenting does not equal perfection. Maximum effort does not mean you run flat out all day every day and try to be a superhero. Maximum effort means you do the best you can with what you have to work with at that moment. Then you move on to the next moment. Because that’s all you can do. Unless the Doctor swoops in with his (her?) blue box, you’re stuck in time. You might feel adrift, but you aren’t. You’re here. Right here in this moment with your feet planted firmly and time marching forward. All you have to do is march with it.
I tell my kids every day is a fresh start. Bad day at school yesterday? Erase the board and start new today. Big meltdown last night? Let it go and try again now. But in reality, every moment is a fresh opportunity. Each minute that passes by presents you with a chance to make a choice. You won’t always make the best one, nobody gets it right 100% of the time. We yell, we lose our temper, we run out of patience, we open the bottle of wine. And then we move forward. Each moment is a gift, and our guilt makes us forget that. Tomorrow isn’t promised. This afternoon isn’t promised. Right now is all we have. Right now is tangible. You’re in it, deep in the trenches of this moment. Look around you. Nothing is perfect, everything is a work in progress. We are too. And that’s okay. Because we can’t change the past, only the future, and the future can only be changed by paying attention to right now.
The guilt is nerve-wracking. It sends my anxiety sky high and every time it rears its head I can see the impact it has all over my day, my week, my life. But what that really means is that I’m giving power to the monsters in my head, and I don’t accept that. My mindset is mine to change, as is yours. My moment is mine to live, as is yours. So acknowledge the guilty feeling when it shows up. Hold it for just a moment, just long enough to decide if you can use it to make this moment or the next better, and the let go of it, regardless of the answer. Because it can only be used if you let it go.