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Coming to terms with guilt

Guilt is a common emotional thread that runs through most women’s lives. Working mothers in particular talk about being stretched between the demands of children and work, and feeling heartbroken when they can’t be there for their children. Research by the late Yale psychologist Daniel Levenson included interviews with working mothers about their priorities. The majority of women said that their children were most important, work was the next priority, husbands (if there was one) came in a distant third, and women friends straggled in fourth because there just wasn’t enough time for those friendships.

When you don’t make changes that bring you into integrity, healthy guilt turns to shame, or links up with the shame that you’re already carrying. Shame is an unhealthy emotion. It isn’t a voice that reminds you of what’s most precious so that you can live in accord with that — no, shame’s voice is like a mean harpy, always tearing you down and blaming you for anything in your life that isn’t perfect. Shame is less about what you do than who you are. Unlike guilt, which goes away when you act on its message, shame has staying power.

As I tell you my story, parts of your own are likely to come to mind. If you don’t have Mother Guilt, some other guilt is likely to bubble up. The invitation is to stay open to what you feel, and then to journal it or share it with a loving person who you trust. That’s the beginning of forgiving yourself and letting go of the past so that you can be present to the Now, making any necessary changes with an open heart.

I was a 23-year old graduate student when Justin, my first-born, arrived naked and innocent in this world. Had we known that our rigorously applied (and messy) family-planning efforts had worse odds than Russian roulette, we would have chosen another method. But I’m glad we didn’t. I loved Justin from the moment he crashed the gates of my womb.

This early marriage to my high school sweetheart was already on the rocks, and would have ended even before Justin was born were it not for my fierce and feisty mother. “You can’t get divorced now,” she decreed. “What would the neighbors think?”

I didn’t even know the neighbors, but my mother was a formidable woman who was not to be disobeyed. She didn’t want to deal with the disgrace of an unwed mother, as it would surely taint the family name. I was a shame-based, people-pleasing goodie-goodie of a doormat back then. I did as I was told, hoping that people — in this case, my mother — would respect me if I stayed married.

Life during pregnancy was incredibly stressful. Being a student at Harvard Medical School, where we practically ate one another for breakfast, was hard enough. Dragging myself through the halls of Harvard felt like crawling through the desert after my camel had perished from dehydration. Furthermore, there were only a handful of women in the entire class, and I was not about to wimp out on womanhood just when we were getting a toehold in medicine and science. I was determined to be the best, even if it killed me… which it almost did.

Not only that, but my husband and I were dirt poor. We existed on my graduate-student stipend, which put us well below the poverty line. Our tiny apartment was in imminent danger of being carried off by the generations of industrious cockroaches who called it home. The lights went out routinely when there was no money to pay the electric bill. The car always had to be parked on a hill and coasted until the engine kicked in because the broken starter was too expensive to fix. Fortunately, my parents lived nearby, and I could augment our groceries from their pantry — otherwise we might have starved toward the end of each month, when money was always running out.

Justin had the good taste to arrive three weeks early, but still at a healthy weight. Two days after his birth, my parents picked us up from the hospital and ensconced our new little family in their spacious home, where I could have help. My mother had insisted on hiring a professional baby nurse for several weeks to teach me the ropes and give me a break. She was only trying to be helpful, God bless her, but the generous gift backfired dramatically.

Unfortunately, the baby nurse hated me at first sight. I was clearly an inexperienced mother, and she guarded Justin jealously from my inexpert and possibly lethal advances. I hardly remember holding him. After six days of postpartum depression, I went back to classes and to the laboratory, where work on my dissertation research was in full swing. I’m sorry to say that it was a blessed relief. At least there was someplace where I felt competent and at home. The first seed of Mother Guilt had been planted in the fertile soil of my young heart.

Through both my sons’ infancies and the toddler years, through grade school and high school, the little guilt seedling grew until it almost choked my heart. How could I have been a better mother? Let me count the ways. Let me review the important milestones in Justin’s life — and later Andrei’s — that I missed while working. Let me think about how little I knew about nurturing children when I took on motherhood, arguably one of the most important jobs on the planet.

Lost at sea without a compass, I learned about mothering painfully, by trial and error. If parenting skills aren’t in our bones, or a legacy of love from our own parents, there’s healing work to be done before we can hand down a different legacy to our own children. Today, young mothers are much more fortunate than they were in my day. There’s a world of expert help and sound advice available in every community about parenting, cultivating emotional intelligence, managing your stress, and healing your past.

Learning from guilt, and then letting it go, is one of the continual cycles of growth that marks our time on Earth. The tangled roots of Mother Guilt — or any guilt — can eventually turn into rich compost that nourishes us. That happens when we’re able to forgive ourselves for what we did or couldn’t do, and instead celebrate whom we’ve become.

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