4.4
November 30, 2020

Guilt: the Ultimate Parent Trap (& How to Reframe It).

*Warning: well-deserved naughty language ahead!
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Parenting is an honor, a privilege, and a joy; it’s euphoric and satisfying—but what about the other 23 hours of the day?

I have been a mother for 13 years, a co-parent for 12 years, and a lone parent for one year, and aside from all the love and joy (blah blah blah), parenting is the hardest fucking thing in the world.

One thing they don’t warn you about enough before the little bundles arrive is the endless and overwhelming specific emotion that sets its home up in your heart and never leaves:

Guilt.

Guilt when your hectic work schedule means they get another take-away for dinner.

Guilt that they didn’t score high enough on their latest test. You wonder, should I have pushed them more? Should I have paid for that extra tuition? Have they inherited my inability to grasp long division?

Guilt when they fall off their bike and graze their knee. Shit, I should have watched them closer, stood nearer, bought them sturdier shoes.

Guilt when they have fallouts with their friends. Maybe they are an empath like me—could I have prepared them better? Should I have intervened?

Guilt when you’re late for pick-up because your meeting ran over.

Guilt when you forget their sports shoes because it’s Rugby Monday, but you failed to remember their schedule.

Guilt that you didn’t provide them the two-up two-down house they should be living in.

Guilt that their daddy remarried.

Guilt that you can’t afford that trip to Disneyland.

Guilt that a family member doesn’t bother with them.

Guilt that it’s raining on their birthday.

Guilt when you squeeze them into those one-size-too-small shoes one more time because you don’t have time to go to the shop and make it to your meeting.

The guilt is overwhelming and constant and relentless. And that’s just the day-to-day guilt.

On top of that, you have the foreboding future guilt. The guilt that is surely promised for the future, right?

Has my deciding to leave their dad given them abandonment issues? Will my constant moving for work make them co-dependent? Could my independent, “can do” attitude make them narcissistic? I don’t know how we do it, but us parents feel guilt now and for a future we haven’t even yet lived.

I mean, come on—what’s this all about?

Show me a parent who feels no guilt. Show me a parent who hasn’t at one point wept in the shower because they can’t take one more broken night’s sleep, one more argument to referee, one more meal to cook that then leads to an hour-long battle just to get your kid to eat it (knowing full well it’s going to end up in the bin). Show me a parent who hasn’t at one stage whispered under their breath that their kid is a little shit or driven that extra few miles outside of their journey home just to enjoy the peace for a few minutes longer. Show me a parent who hasn’t put the clocks back an hour just to get the kids to bed earlier. Okay, that may just be me, but my point is this: I’m pretty sure this parent does not exist.

We are all in the same storm, navigating our own specific brand of boat—but still riding the waves in unison.

(And don’t even start me on the mom shaming! Us parents need to stick together; this shit is hard.)

Unpopular opinion, but the few years I spent co-parenting—one week on, one week off—was by far the easiest to do. Removing an unhealthy relationship from the mix and focusing my whole efforts on being a parent gave me the presence I lacked, the focus I needed, and the space to miss their little faces enough to be eagerly awaiting their return each week.

In my head, I was a better parent when I only had to do it half the time. I loved the time I was with them, but I also loved the time they were with their father. Some might say this is selfish—I would say it’s honest.

Yet those times of shared parenting also racked me with guilt. I found myself calculating the hours, days, and years of my children’s life that I was missing instead of enjoying my free time. I was so completely self-absorbed in my own pity and guilt that I couldn’t see the flip side of that time being precious for me and time well-spent for my children with their other parent.

But do not fret. There is an upside to this story—a bit of a moral and a load of lessons learnt along the way.

What I have come to realise, understand, and try and put into practice is this: the guilt we’re feeling is a sign of our endless, deep care and concern. It’s a sign that we are being great parents, while also being a shitty friend to ourselves.

That guilt you feel is love. 

What if we decided to reframe all our guilt into lessons imparted? Our lateness to the pick-up taught them patience. Our second take-away meal of the week (which I’m sure hasn’t scarred them in the slightest) showed them that even on your busiest day you are able to fill their tummies.

That fall from their bike that you weren’t present enough to prevent taught them to get back up and carry on riding. That math test they flunked taught them to rise after failure. The family member who’s always shunned them brought them closer to the ones who didn’t. The relationship you left taught them that happiness is primary, and gave them a real-world model in their own pursuit of it.

The sports bag you forgot to pack taught them personal responsibility. The fallout with their friend taught them resilience and how to deal with conflict. The party that was ruined by the rain taught them to party in the rain regardless.

You see, there are no perfect parents or perfect children. We are just parents and children, each doing our best. Each learning lessons and simultaneously finding our feet. And that is enough. Being there is enough. Mopping up after the event is enough. You are enough.

To err is human, and to feel guilt is human. But to dwell there is not a great idea.

I love my children deeply, but I have also learnt that if I don’t give myself the same level of concern, that guilt can quickly turn to shame, bitterness, anxiety, and even resentment.

The greatest thing we can do for our children is show them we are human—not perfect, fake, Stepford parents, or diluted versions of ourselves. We are people who run late, make mistakes, and are shit at long division. It’s okay that we forget things, make dinner at 9 p.m., and iron shirts at 7 a.m. because we were far too engrossed in the latest episode of “This is Us” the night before. We are parents who will cry and yell but still love and show up for them anyway.

A present parent will always offer more than a perfect one—and a happy parent is even better still.

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