Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Mother guilt

Everybody knows that mothers are always feeling guilty.  As far as guilt goes, it's apparently as bad as being Catholic!  Which, as we all know, must be awful.  *rolls eyes*

Catholic guilt, though, is a straightforward thing.  You did something wrong, you know it, hopefully you're going to try to make it right.  If Catholic guilt keeps you up at night, it's easy to fix.

Mother guilt never rests.  You can drift off with it at midnight and wake up with it again at two a.m., and it's every bit as fresh and bushy-tailed as you aren't.  There is no confession for mother guilt.  If you go to a priest for it, he'll only be puzzled.

Because mother guilt is not actually guilt, not in the sense we usually mean.  You feel guilt when you did something wrong, when you could and should have done better.  Mother guilt is what you get when there was no human way you could have done better, but you still feel horrible.

I rarely felt guilty when Marko was a baby.  He had needs, I fulfilled them, no angst.  Except when he caught a cold at work.  I felt guilty because I had brought him there.  Surely that was because I valued my own sense of accomplishment more than my fragile baby?  But when the year ended, I felt guilty because we didn't get out much and my poor baby would never be socialized.

When Michael was born, though, guilt exploded.  Michael was either latched on or screaming 24/7 at first.  I felt horribly guilty that I could do basically nothing for or with Marko, to the point that he was raiding the fridge himself because he was hungry.  But if I put Michael down and made Marko a sandwich, I felt guilty because Michael screamed that pitiful heartrending cry that only a newborn can and I knew it was all my fault.

There was a time when John was gone at night and both kids were awake and needing to be rocked to sleep.  Neither would fall asleep if the other was there (I did try).  I locked Marko in his room and nursed Michael to sleep, feeling anguished the whole time because Marko was screaming and pounding the door and I knew he had no idea why he had been abandoned.  Then I laid Michael down and went to lie down with Marko.  This was fine until I faintly heard a sound of crying and realized Michael had been crying for some time .... I had no idea how long.

What could I have done differently if I had known?  I have no idea, but I was racked with guilt.

I felt guilty for having Michael when Marko was still so little and needed me so much.  And I also felt guilty for even thinking about not having had Michael, because he was here now and deserved to be loved and wanted.

If John wants some attention from me or to spend some time just with me when I am super tired, I feel guilty if I turn him down.  But if I don't, I feel guilty because the whole time he is talking I am daydreaming about my cozy pillow.  I feel like a failure as a wife.

Before John gets home, I like to have dinner ready and the living room clean.  If dinner is ready, the living room's a mess, so I feel guilty.  If the living room is nice, turns out I forgot to turn on the potatoes and we all have to wait twenty more minutes.  Guilty.  And if by some miracle I've done both, it's only because I completely ignored Michael trailing along behind me the whole time, tears running down his face, arms outstretched, begging for "uppie."  I am a terrible mother whatever I do.

Lying awake one night, counting over my inadequacies, I suddenly realized something.

This is not guilt.

Guilt is when you do something wrong, and you could have done right.  This is the feeling that there is no right.  Mother guilt is not guilt, but the helpless feeling you get when you realize there are so many needs, and you will never fulfill them all.  There will always be someone else who needs something else from you.

That's kind of what being a mother is all about -- taking upon yourself the various needs of everybody until it's not just dutifulness, but a moral imperative to take care of everybody and everything.  It's a tremendous task, more than any of us will ever adequately perform.

What we call "mother guilt" is really just an enormous love, love that suffers in every single moment that we realize our hearts may be a mile deep, but our bodies are only so big, that we have only so many hands.  The neediness of everyone tugs at your heart so that there is nothing more important than fulfilling those needs.  When we can't do it all, the pain is excruciating.  But it isn't guilt.

It's love.

I feel like a terrible mother because I want to be so much more, want to be everything for these needy little people whom I brought into this world and love more than my own life.

But maybe this very feeling is proof that, perhaps, I am exactly what they need.  They need to be loved this much.

1 comment:

Enbrethiliel said...


Sheila, I read this post yesterday but had to think about it more deeply before I got what you were saying. And now I believe you've hit the nail right on the head! There are so few relationships in which we love so much that we become painfully, agonisingly aware of our inability to achieve even half of what we want to do for those we love, so we probably don't recognise it as love when we do experience it. But it is indeed love.

Your insight here is very close to the Cross. I think that one thing Jesus had to deal with in His human body was exactly what you're writing. As the God-Man, He was both omnipotent and limited, and His death on the cross was really the only way He could have saved us with both His omnipotence and His limitations. And throughout it all, He longed to do so much more than He was already doing.

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