Going on a Guilt Trip by Nina Lorez Collins, author, What Would Virginia Woolf Do?


WHY DO WE FEEL GUILTY?  To me, it’s obvious. From the time the children are shooting down the mini-slide at the playground until they are walking onstage to accept their diplomas, all eyes are on Mom. Dissecting mothers for their awed parenting and the impact it will have on their offspring is something of a national pastime (see “It’s Official: French Women Are Better at Everything” earlier in this chapter). It begins in utero (no sushi! no wine! don’t stress! bad mom!); continues through birth, which ideally—so as not to traumatize the infant—would be 100 percent natural, attended by a midwife, in a bathtub, and accompanied by whale song; and goes on forever. Unless fathers do something really egregious (like incest), they get infinitely more leeway. Don’t believe me? Consider the flip side. Have you ever noticed when a dad does something that would be considered normal for a mom, say, bake a birthday cake, take a sulky tween shopping for a bar mitzvah party outfit, or actually play at the playground, everybody oohs and aahs like he’s some kind of humanitarian hero? This may be changing with younger Gen Xers and millennials being stay-at-home dads or at least trying to split the parenting fifty- fifty, but still, there’s just no comparison with the burden mothers bear in the guilt game.

I feel all the time that if I had done a “perfect” job (whatever that means), my children would be perfectly happy and good and successful in every single way. Yes, I do realize that sounds ridiculous, and yes, I am familiar with D. W. Winnicott’s 1953 theory of the “good-enough mother.” (If you aren’t: “The good-enough mother… starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure.”) This is basically a psychological theory designed at least in part to defend the ordinary mother against what Winnicott saw as the growing threat of intrusion into the family from professional expertise. It’s a term that has gained casual popularity, and you can see why—it ever so slightly lets us off the hook. Most of us can say, “I’m sure I was good enough!” But when you are in the trenches, and your kid is miserable or making major mistakes or doing actual harm out in the world, it’s very hard not to feel like it’s all your fault. “If I hadn’t gotten divorced/if I’d gone to more of Sally’s gymnastics meets/if I’d cooked dinner more often/if I’d read more books aloud at bedtime/if I drank less/if I wasn’t always so worried about money/if I didn’t hate their father so much.” God knows there are a million “ifs” running through the heads of most mothers.

I nodded in silent agreement as my friend Magda vented to me over the phone recently. “Being a mother is impossible. I’m a doer and a problem solver, but neither seems to apply to raising my kids. They are who they are, no matter how much you love them and how much you do for them. They make small mistakes and huge ones—you can’t anticipate this. I’m always thinking, analyzing, and worrying about the next thing. I don’t ever feel settled or calm. My children are my life, my love, my everything, but they are also killing me slowly… Was it stupid to have them? Yes! Would I do it again? Yes!”

All we can really do in the face of self-blame and guilt is face our regrets, reconcile them with the reality of our flaws, and accept that we truly did the best we could.

Nina Lorez Collins was born in New York City in 1969 and attended Barnard College. She had a long career in book publishing, first as a scout and then as an agent. She completed a master’s in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University and become a certified Life Coach with IPEC. She has four children and lives in Brooklyn, where she is a trustee of The Brooklyn Public Library.

 

 

Excerpted from WHAT WOULD VIRGINIA WOOLF DO?: And Other Questions I Ask Myself As I Attempt to Age Without Apology. Copyright © 2018 by Nina Collins. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Life & Style. All rights reserved.

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