Aside from love, I think that guilt is probably the strongest, most universal emotion that parents experience. We feel guilty from the time our babies are born, about everything: for not breastfeeding long enough, for leaving them on a Saturday morning to go to the gym, for going back to work, for letting them watch TV, for keeping them in a wet diaper for too long, and on and on and on.
I can still vividly remember the first time my husband and I went out to dinner, alone, after my daughter was born. The hostess asked how many were in our party, and I told her that we’d need a table for three: a seat for me, a seat for my husband, and a seat for my guilt.
But the thing about baby guilt is that the babies don’t make you feel guilty; you do it to yourself, all by yourself. You read about all of the things you “shouldn’t” do as a parent, and then when you find yourself doing them, you beat yourself up about it, and you wonder how many ways you’ll find to screw your kid up for life. With older kids, we still make ourselves crazy: Am I yelling at them too much? Am I being too hard on them? Am I not engaging enough? But if that’s not enough, by the time our get to be a certain age, they learn how to make us feel guilty, too.
Case in point: my son’s second grade class was supposed to go on a whale-watching trip a few weeks ago. It’s a big deal, the main field trip of second grade that all of the parents are invited to attend. Despite the fact that it’s an awful trip (seasickness, cold weather, about a thirty percent chance of actually seeing a whale), I’d cleared my calendar back in September, because I knew that my son would want me to go.
But it rained on the day we were supposed to go, so they rescheduled it for a day a few weeks later. A day on which I simply was not available. You see, my cousin from back east was coming into town that morning to stay with me for two days, on a trip she’d planned back in July. I couldn’t just tell her that I wouldn’t be home the whole day, that I’d leave a key under the mat and that she could sit in my house by herself until I got home at 4:00 pm. I couldn’t bail on her like that, and, frankly, I didn’t want to. I like my cousin, I never get to see her, and I was looking forward to her coming. But still, I didn’t want to disappoint my son, either. I was, it seemed, between a rock and a hard place.
A few nights before the whale-watching trip, I explained my dilemma to my family at the dinner table. I just don’t know what to do, I told them, keeping a close eye on my son for his reaction. What do you guys think I should do? My son came up with a few ideas: my cousin could come with us on the trip (she couldn’t, her flight arrived after the boat left). Daddy could go on the trip instead of me (he wouldn’t, he gets violently seasick just looking at boats).
Finally, my daughter chimed in. “I’m sorry,” she said to my son. “But I think Mommy has to skip whale watching. It’s the right thing to do.” My son’s eyes welled up with tears. And it was then that my ride on the guilt trip express began. You can’t miss whale watching, he cried. It’s the most important trip, and everyone else has their mom or dad coming with them. I told him that I’d make it up to him. And do you know what he said? He said that nothing I could do would ever make up for it. Oh, my God, the guilt. I didn’t sleep the whole night.
For the next two days, he stepped off the bus in the afternoons with his head hanging and his shoulders slumped. “I’m sad,” he told me when I asked what was wrong. “We talked about whale watching today and it made me sad because you’re not going.” I arranged for him for to have a “fake mom” – a friend’s mom who would watch out for him and make sure he was okay and help him if he needed anything. He shrugged and said it’s not the same as having a real mom. He was like a Jewish mother from the old country. I could barely even eat, I felt so terrible.
But when he brought it up in therapy last week, his therapist asked him if he’d ever been disappointed by me before. “No,” he said. “I’d never disappointed him.” Never. And that’s when I realized that I was feeling guilty for the wrong thing. I shouldn’t be feeling bad that I couldn’t go whale watching! I should be feeling bad because I’ve allowed him to live in a totally sheltered, unrealistic, disappoinment-free world! You see, for ten years, I’ve been bending over backwards to make sure that I never disappoint my children. I move mountains to be at every game, at every performance, on every field trip. I plan every day so that I’m not late to pick them up from the bus, and I plan every night so that I’m home to take them where they need to go, and to help them with their homework. But what I saw that day is that it’s not a sustainable model. At some point, it was bound to collapse, and finally, it did, with the whale watching trip. I disappointed my son. But guess what? I was doing him a favor.
I stopped feeling guilty after that. No matter what he said to me, I just told him that I was sorry he was so disappointed, but that sometimes, life is disappointing. Better to learn how to handle it now than to face it for the first time when you’re an adult. He told me that he’d remember forever that I didn’t go on the whale watching trip. That when he was sixty, he would still be reminding me of it. He tried every trick in the guilt trip book, but I didn’t fall for it again. I’d gotten off that train, and I wasn’t getting back on.
Although, you never know. Maybe when he’s sixty I’ll feel differently about it.