On the right side of my chin is a one-and-a-half-centimeters-long scar. It doesn’t strike the eye, but is visible. I cannot remember myself without it. The scar is simply a part of my face, like a nose is. I might not be particularly excited by the shape of my nose, but it’s mine and I don’t think much about it. And so I don’t about the scar either.
Some people notice it at once. Others only realize I have a scar after months of knowing me. Sometimes, the more curious and less polite ask what happened. I say, I fell when I was little. That’s the short story. The long story is not much longer — bits and pieces of memories as is always the case when you are four years old. I was playing in front of the house, swinging on a bar, when I fell down on pieces of glass that cut a hole right through my chin.
A passerby, apparently, saw me and took me home. I remember putting an index finger in the hole in my face and keeping it there right until my mother opened the front door. Or maybe that’s not my memory of the event, but, rather, a memory of my parents telling me how it happened. My mother opened the door and there I was, face covered in blood, with a finger stuck in my chin.
When I was old enough to analyze human emotions, I thought about my mom in that moment with lots of compassion: how scary it must have been to see her child in pain. For years, the emotions of shock and scare were the only ones I could imagine my mom going through. Until, at the age of 31, I became a mother myself and thought: “But what about the guilt?”
It seems to me, that a feeling of guilt is born in a mother at the same moment the baby is born. Some learn to rationalize and keep it under control. Others find themselves spinning in a whirlwind of guilt and anxiety. Most are somewhere in between, leaning toward one end of the scale or the other, depending on personality traits, the level of stress and exhaustion on a given day, and the support system or lack thereof.
In an attempt to procrastinate for as long as possible instead of writing this piece, I have read endless articles on mother’s guilt, as well as asked my friends with kids, if they ever feel guilt and why. My sample, of course, is not representative, but out of a dozen moms I asked, only one replied with a confident “no”. The rest varied from “every day” to “yes, often” to “now less than before” to “I guess, no, but wait… if I actually think, maybe yes”.
The most fascinating thing — if there’s anything fascinating about guilt at all — was how, when I asked a general question “Do you ever feel guilt as a mother?” without trying to guide the answer in any which way, every mother understood it differently. “Do you mean when I go to work?” “Like when I want to have some time for myself? Say, do a manicure?” “I thought you meant phycological problems I caused my child”.
The first time I felt a ping of guilt happened only three hours after my son was born. I was lying on the hospital bed, with a tiny crib attached to its left side. A nurse propped a rolled-up towel behind my son’s back so he would stay on his right side, facing me. I was marveling at him, sound asleep, trying to get some rest myself. But in about an hour the feeling of wonder and admiration gave way to an acute sensation of numbness in my left side.
I awkwardly turned to the right only to realize that now I was lying with my back to my son. “What kind of mother…” — because all our guilty thoughts start with a stereotype of an expression — “… turns away from her newborn child to face a wall instead?” I thought. It wasn’t as much a concern for his well-being — you know how you check on a sleeping baby every ten minutes in those first days — but an irrational belief that I must be looking at him at all times, and especially in those first hours after his birth. I turned back, and my left side continued to grow number by the minute.
Since that first day, the feeling of guilt has come back regularly, but took up different shapes and forms. I felt guilty for not being attentive enough and letting my son fall. For looking at my phone while playing with him. For getting irritated when he woke up for the fifteenth time at night. And that is only in the first year of his life.
If I learned anything from my friends, who have kids of different ages, it’s that guilt never ceases to find new ways to manifest itself. As a child grows and evolves, so does mother’s guilt. If at the start of the journey a mother is mostly worried about the physical well-being of a child, come teenage years — phycological health becomes of more importance. I don’t know whom to credit for this saying, but it’s the one I like: “No matter how well we try to raise our children, they will always have something to talk to a therapist about”.
It was my mother, the only one of my research participants with grown children, who said: “I thought you meant phycological problems I caused you”. When I mentioned the scar, she replied with “that goes without saying…” To her, the feeling of guilt for any physical injury is not even worth mentioning, its existence is obvious.
Burdened by my own guilt, I watched a webinar on the subject by a famous Russian family therapist Lyudmila Petranovskaya. She starts off by explaining the two major causes of guilt: parental perfectionism and parental determinism. “Bingo!” — I thought — “Mine is the first one”.
Ever since high school I have been a straight A student. That annoying kid who comes up to a teacher after getting a “B” and asks for additional assignment: “But, Vera Ivanovna, please, I can do better!”
I was one of the two people in my class who graduated with a medal, awarded as a distinction to those with the best grades. A medal, apart from making my parents proud and allowing me a chance to randomly drop this fact in conversations (even though only Russians could potentially be impressed, but even they didn’t care), provided me with actual benefits, like priority to be admitted into University.
And so in University my struggle for perfectionism continued. And then at work. When I got pregnant, I prepared for motherhood with all due diligence: hours of reading books and watching YouTube videos, buying courses online and making spreadsheets to compare the best brands of diapers. I was excelling at being a perfect mom in those months of preparation. I’d give myself an A.
A perfect mother exists, you know, but only in the imagination of a woman who is yet to become one. Once contractions kick in, all hope for perfectionism should be left at the door. I didn’t leave mine there. I went with it into labor, which is why in the months that followed I kept mulling over those imperfections and the ways I could have avoided them.
I should have read more. I should have been stronger. If only I could come up to the doctor and ask to redo the labor: “But, doctor, please, I can do better!”
And if this wasn’t enough of a lesson in humility, after an imperfect birth I still expected flawless motherhood. Not without struggles, mind you, but without mistakes. I would buy organic fruits and vegetables for my baby, make all his food on my own, order wooden eco-toys from Russia, then, inevitably, do something stupid, like give him a tube of cream which he opened and licked.
My husband and I once traveled from Sri Lanka to USA, and right at the check-in our suitcase had broken. We had to use an airport service to cover the suitcase with what seemed like five kilometers of plastic wrap just to be sure our luggage makes it home safe. “There go all the times you said “no” to a plastic bag at a supermarket for the past six months” said my husband.
“There go all your organic fruits and eco toys” I say to myself, taking the cream away from my son. The feeling of guilt for one mistake overpowers the feelings of pride and contentment for a dozen times when I made the right choice.
I don’t think of myself as a bad mother. I rather think that I am trying to be the best mother I can be, but sometimes I fuck up. Now that I am typing it on my computer, this sentence doesn’t pain me, as it did when I pondered over it in my head.
It takes reaching inside oneself, pulling that nagging feeling out and examining it in daylight to feel — if not completely liberated — at least in control. It took me six months — from a vague idea until I hit “publish” — and two thousand words to face the feeling I so desperately wanted to get rid of.
Turned out, getting rid of guilt is not a good idea. Guilt, like pain, is but an indicator. Just like pain gives our body a signal that we are in physical danger, so guilt provides a cue that we have violated our own moral principles. Feeling guilty then is healthy, if you take a moment to analyze what happened, draw conclusions and change your behavior in the future.
It is unhealthy, however, to feel guilty at all times, without reference to a particular situation. We should dive deep into our beliefs about motherhood and figure out which ones are toxic and where they come from.
In her book “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond fear”, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about the fear every creator feels once in a while and how to deal with it. She suggests that the reader imagines herself in a car where one of the passenger seats is taken by Creativity and another one — by Fear:
“There’s plenty of room in this vehicle for all of us, so make yourself at home, but understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making any decisions along the way. I recognize and respect that you are part of this family, and so I will never exclude you from our activities, but still—your suggestions will never be followed. You’re allowed to have a seat, and you’re allowed to have a voice, but you are not allowed to have a vote.”
Perhaps, in the same manner we should offer a seat in our vehicle to guilt, but not on a permanent basis. Give it a ride when you see it by the side of the road. Have a chat. Maybe change the course of your route slightly. Then let it go.