It’s a cold morning, the kind that makes you swear you’re going to uproot your family and move to a tropical island if it’s the last thing you do. My four-year-old daughter and I are at the store. After we check out, I grab the shopping bags and reach for her hand with my free one. The door opens and a cold blast of wind greets us with ruthless intensity. My daughter's face breaks into a scowl and she whines, “Carry me!!”
I remain patient, a rare accomplishment for me these days. Honey, my arms are already full, I explain calmly, and look, it’s only a short walk to the car. She responds by crying harder. By the time I’ve forcefully dragged her back to the car, she’s wailing as if her heart is broken. “Nooooo Mama!! I wanted you to carry me, carry me….”
This too shall pass, I think, hearing my daughter’s frustration and her sadness, each cry piercing my eardrums like a tiny razor blade. But there’s another emotion in the car with us now, one that settles heavily in my stomach, one I can’t seem to shake. It’s guilt.
Yes, I feel guilty that I didn’t carry her; it’s just so cold outside, and the parking lot looks like a scene from Frozen. But that’s not the end of the story, because guilt—particularly that special type I’ve come to know as “mommy guilt”—is a sneaky little emotion that can quickly snowball into a much larger version of itself.
For a moment, my awareness shifts away from the parking lot and my daughter’s short-lived tantrum that will soon be forgotten and I’m thinking back to my pregnancy with her; to the sudden complications that resulted in her arrival nine weeks early. She was so small at birth, the doctors said she looked like a baby several weeks younger. Each time I visited the neonatal intensive care unit, I’d gaze at her in the isolette, trying to make peace with the fact that this plastic, beeping fortress was going to be her home for the first month of her life. I’d watch her little chest move up and down as the machines all around her did their work, the work my body was designed for but had somehow failed to do—to nourish her as she grew, to keep her safe.
There was virtually no way to prevent my daughter’s prematurity, but even so, the guilt and sadness I felt surrounding her birth have never quite faded. They are an ancient wound, a gash that rips open again every time a present-day incident—even a seemingly minor event like the one in the parking lot—reminds me of how I’ve failed to shield my daughter from the inevitable hardships of life.
Why does guilt seem to be so universal in motherhood, as firmly embedded in our daily existence as naptime meltdowns and Cheerios scattered on the floor? From the moment we become moms, there are so many examples: We’re often laden with remorse if we don’t breastfeed (or even if we do, but not long enough). We feel horrible when, despite our best baby-proofing efforts, our cruising toddler takes a tumble and winds up with a bad bruise. We feel as though it’s our fault, and only our fault, if we send our kids to school with the “wrong” snack (even though they liked it yesterday) or if we arrive two minutes late to pick them up (even though traffic was an unexpected nightmare). We blame ourselves if it appears we’ve made a less-than-perfect choice for our children, from deciding on a school or an extracurricular activity to determining the appropriate treatment for a complicated health condition.
With so many opportunities for guilt to creep into our parenting world, is it possible to ever be free of this feeling? I don’t know.
But I’m starting to realize this: the less blame I pile on myself for things I can’t change, the more energy I can invest in my kids right now. And even though I will make mistakes, and stuff will happen that’s completely beyond my control, I can help my kids understand that no matter where they are in life, whatever they may be going through, I am here for them. I imagine this invisible thread that formed when they were born, connecting us always. Reminding me that love is stronger than guilt.