By Halina Newberry Grant
Like a lot of people, I had many opinions about parents and parenting before I became a mom. I had strong ideas about things like handling public tantrums, whether mommy groups were for me, and whether I would return to work full time. I also knew that—like everything in life—there’s the plan and then there’s what happens, so I tried to remain open-minded, reminding myself that until I was really in it, I couldn’t possibly know how I would feel.
When I finally had my first kid a year and a half ago, I was surprised by a few things. For example, the suitcase I had packed for the hospital was completely unnecessary, because I labored at home and arrived at the hospital 9 centimeters dilated, and 4 pushes later, was holding my girl. Also, I thought a book would help me get her to sleep. They didn’t. None of them did. Also, I expected her to cry a lot more—somehow, I have a very happy and easy-to-soothe babe (inexplicably, even when she wasn’t sleeping.)
But the biggest surprise was a feeling that was triggered as soon as I had my daughter. This feeling eclipses every other change she has brought into my life; it has taken over my waking hours and kept me up at night. It preoccupies my mind when I’m on a date night or a girl’s night out, or working, or hiding in my room with my lap top, or talking on the phone, or doing dishes, or eating a meal. It is a feeling that I have never experienced to this magnitude.
It’s The Guilt.
I have tried to put a finger on the origins of The Guilt. I wasn’t raised with any kind of specific religious beliefs associated with guilt, so it wasn’t something that was taught to me. I have of course felt appropriate strong remorse for my part in something gone bad at times in my life. I have pangs of regret when I think of things I wish I had done differently. I have messed up, felt horrible and made amends as needed. But The Guilt is different from all of these feelings. It is much, much bigger.
The Guilt is different than Just Plain Guilt, the stuff my Jewish and Catholic friends bemoan. Just Plain Guilt is basically self-reproach; an internalized feeling that you have messed up, and you deserve to feel horrible for it. From what I can deduce, The Guilt is a miserable and complex brew of conflicting emotions that are on a long, low simmer on the back burner in our parental brains, which bubble over when triggered by events that are either real or imagined. And by the way, you would be hard pressed to find a mind more creative or imaginative than the mind of a parent.
I have put a dropper-full of The Guilt into a centrifuge to deduce its chemical makeup. Here are its ingredients:
Fear and Worry
Some actual thoughts I had the other day:
There’s a helicopter. Why is it in my neighborhood? I wonder what happened. Did grandma take her for a walk? Did they get hit by a car? Did grandma get hit by a car, and is my daughter crying over her injured body? Is grandma unconscious? My toddler can’t talk yet! Is there any way anyone would know who to call? Where are they taking my daughter!?
A parent’s brain becomes re-wired as soon as that precious and vulnerable little life is placed in their hands; it begins thinking like an expert terrorist, kidnapper, pedophile, deranged psychopath, and bully. Otherwise innocuous things—a shallow body of water like a puddle, stray bit of string, and a square-inch of sponge become potentially lethal in our minds. If we don’t think of the danger first, it will find us.
Fear and Worry combined create a poisonous vapor that, when inhaled, is all-consuming. The result? Dread. Our brains become stuck on one track, repeating the thoughts “What am I messing up, and to what degree?” and “if something terrible happens while I’m gone, I won’t be there and she will suffer, it will be my fault because I left her.”
Self-Loathing and Failure
I don’t know what I’m doing, and I’m doing it all wrong. I don’t deserve this perfect being, and I am ruining her. Every decision I have made so far is leading to my ruining her life.
I just really, really miss her. I think about her little face, and wonder what expressions it’s making right now. And she doesn’t know that, she only knows I’m not there.
I know that it’s good for us to be apart. I know she thrives when socializing with other kids, and developing relationships with family and close friends. But I feel horrible for abandoning her, and wonder if she internalizes it as “mama cares about something else more than me.” I feel horrible for doing this to her.
My rational brain knows better, but The Guilt is a powerful voice.
There, I said it. When I’m not with her and someone else is—be it a care-giver, grandparent, aunt, cousin, or my husband—they’re getting to experience her in a way that I don’t, and they are seeing things that I’m missing, and it’s not fair.
Maybe nature wired the parent’s brain to experience The Guilt to help us to be good parents. Scientific studies show that a mother’s brain still carries cells of her offspring’s brains, so this means that even when we’re apart, we’re still connected. This also explains why when we’re separated it feels like something—an actual body part, an appendage—is missing from my body, like a phantom limb.
And here’s the thing: it SUCKS.
It feels heavy like lead and hammers constantly on my confidence like waves on rock.
I’m not fishing for approval or praise—the truth is, I know I am a great mom. I know it in my marrow. And I also know there is no such thing as perfection when it comes to parenting, and that’s not what I’m striving for anyway. Maybe it gets easier with time, or the weight of The Guilt becomes easier to bear as you have more kids, or maybe you just get used to the feeling as your new normal. And maybe it’s a testament to how carefree my life was before giving birth.
Any way I look at it, I accept it as a side effect of a love so big that it’s worth a shadowy, constant discomfort. And it’s in my job description to keep it contained enough that it doesn’t obstruct her growth and happiness.