Let’s talk about guilt. Let’s talk about the knife twist in the heart, bitter taste in the mouth, dull ache in the joints of chronic, relentless guilt. When I was 25 my housemate stuck a yellow magnet on the fridge that read “GIVE UP GUILT” and we all pledged over communal tofu stir-fry to live by that philosophy. I’ve read that psychotherapists consider guilt to be a “useless emotion,” which perhaps means that it is unproductive, helping no one—not the guilty sufferer, nor the objects of her ruminating mind.
But how can we simply be free of it? Today’s mothers, especially, are at the mercy of impossibly high standards for the love and care of their children. “Natural parenting” in particular—which promotes drug-free, holistic childbirth, extended breastfeeding, co-sleeping, baby-wearing, and extreme child-centeredness at every turn— can feel like a set-up for failure. French feminist philosopher Elizabeth Badinter has criticized this trend of “the natural” in her provocative new book The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women. French women, says Badinter, take a “nonchalant approach to motherhood.” They reject the view that “the ideal mother is enmeshed with her child bodily and mentally,” and she applauds this attitude as healthy for both women and society.
Maybe I need to relax and light up a Gauloise, a la francaise. Because for five years I was enmeshed with my children and now those silken maternal threads are becoming more spacious. New opportunities for guilt abound.
I came home from work one night last week to find my girls reeling from a BBC Nature Special they’d watched with their Dad. Their eyes shone bright as if they’d eaten a chocolate cake. The show’s theme was “Baby Animals,” and they’d witnessed astounding sights: a mother hippopotamus giving birth, her calf’s huge head crowning, then a fat jungle frog hatching her babies through pores in her skin, and…
“Mommy!” C shouted. “The baby spiders ate their mother!”
Yes, apparently the newborn orb spiders—hundreds of tiny translucent creatures, like hungry crawling pearls— swarm over their mother’s body and feed on her in order to survive. It is the ultimate sacrifice. My girls seemed casual about the act, but I latched on to the metaphor. If I were an orb spider, could I sit there and let my offspring devour me? Is anything less acceptable?
Not a day goes by I don’t suffer some twinge of guilt over a motherly failure. From the primal c-section guilt that left my girls a legacy of “birth trauma” to the mundane not-chaperoning-the-field-trip guilt, my insides are consumed with it. Then there’s the lack-of-arts-and-crafts-projects guilt and the perennial frozen-pizza-for-dinner guilt. Not to mention the “crap, my kids aren’t doing enough activities” guilt. Even on good days, there’s some low-level sense of maternal inadequacy running beneath the surface, invasive as goutweed, that horrible species which propagates itself in healthy gardens, spreading in three ways: by root system, spore, and seed.
Since I’ve emerged from The Baby Cave, I’ve realized I’d often rather be alone than with my children. There! I’ve said it. String me up now and stone me for this confession.
I’ve heard of mothers (not French) who thrive in the constant company of their young ones. I admire these women, I envy them, I sometimes long to be like them, happily homeschooling and bread-baking, but I’m not. My two girls are older now, more independent—they go to school for 4 or even 7 ½ hours at a stretch, and I thought I’d miss them but I actually don’t. I’m privileged to work part-time at a job allows me to be somewhat flexible with how involved I am with my kids. If I were French, I might be nonchalant about prioritizing my professional and personal pursuits over motherly activities. But since it’s in my nature to ruminate and self-criticize, the constant deliberation torments me.
Looking on the bright side, my girls are thriving. Despite C’s troubling tendency to tell fibs and A’s occasional bouts of anxiety, they are both healthy, bright children—children with whom an earlier generation of underachieving mothers would be satisfied. And after all the cave-like years of gestating and nursing, co-sleeping and staying home, there is immense relief in our new distance, even though it confuses me. Am I still a good mother if my children go to school all day and then I work at night and only see them for an hour at bedtime? How much time is enough? Isn’t quality more important than quantity? How can I be fully present in the time we do have, rather than impatient or distracted, anticipating the next task?
Our most important role models in guilt management are our own mothers, of course. Mine devoted her entire life to her four children and building the nest of our loving family. Her generosity and selflessness are still unparalleled (though she too struggles with guilt and worry). Since I can never compare, I may as well stop trying. But how can I find the Middle Path between French nonchalance and privileged American self-recrimination?
to be continued…