The World of Parental ‘Guilts’

mom with baby's toes

By Kathy P. Behan

I first felt the icy pangs just a day after becoming a mother. I had walked into the hospital’s nursery and went directly to a baby I thought was my newborn son. He wasn’t. The room was filled with infants who with their scrunched-up faces, tight fists and warming caps looked more like each other than they looked like the parents who had conceived them. That’s why intellectually I knew this was an easy mistake to make, and yet in my heart, I felt as if I had betrayed my son in some fundamental way. After all, I couldn’t even pick out my own child! I had to read the name tags on the bassinets in order to tell which baby was mine.

Thus began my not-so-pleasant initiation into the Wide World of Maternal Guilt. Since that day, on occasions too numerous to note, I have run the gamut from “guilty” twinges to out-right convulsions. The mild guilts are almost a daily occurrence. For instance, while I’m sorting clothes and in the middle of doing laundry, and I hear, “Mom, can you play with me?”

My first reaction is always the same — TWING, a little stomach flutter, accompanied by a nagging internal voice saying, “Play with the kid. Obviously you’re not spending enough time with her.”

Then REASON steps in, “You’ve just finished playing Candy Land for the 200th time, and you have no clean underwear. Tell the kid to take a hike.”

Moderate guilt is more painful, but luckily, less frequent. It usually involves the “should’ves” — as in: “I should have checked his homework,” or “I should have read to her instead of letting her watch T.V.”

It happens because we want to do what’s best for our children. We identify so strongly with our kids that we often take on their disappointments and failures — and we usually manage to take the blame for them.

The worst kind of guilt, the real gut-wrenching variety, is when we truly let our kids down. For me this is how I feel when I yell at my children. I come from a long line of shall I say, excitable people. So when the going gets tough, our volume goes up. Big time. Even though I try to keep my cool, all too often it melts in the heat of the moment. When that happens, I literally feel terrible. However, it does serve as a physical reminder of my parental shortcomings.

The tug-of-war between trying to do what’s best for your child while still maintaining your own life (and sanity) is one of the hallmarks of parenthood. There are many variations on this theme: the to-buy or not-to-buy syndrome; the need to get things done vs. playing with the kids; the desire to be alone vs. being trailed around the house by small non-stop-talking people; the list is endless.

Parents are set up for all kinds of frustrations. And because our children are so much a part of us, sometimes we forget where we end, and they begin. These factors make us extremely susceptible to parental guilt. The trick is to be able to tell the difference between well-deserved from imaginary guilt. For example: You’ve hired a babysitter for the evening. When you mention this to the kids they erupt with complaints. “We never get to see you!”

Now, if you and your husband have just spent the entire day at home with the kids, and haven’t been out alone in three weeks, a tiny TWING is all you should feel. But if you and your husband haven’t been with the children in a long time, the guilt alarm bells should be sounding off loud and clear. This is the call to take corrective action.

Sometimes it’s easy to tell the difference between real or imagined parental culpability, but all too often the line is blurred. That’s when it’s best to stand back from the situation, and try to appraise it objectively. Yes, you might have had a hand in contributing to the problem, but don’t lose sight of your child’s involvement in it as well.

Other times your guilt may be completely unjustified, and you’re wrong to put yourself through the wringer. Remember that just because you feel guilty, doesn’t necessarily mean that you are guilty. (You know, like the way you feel when a policeman pulls up next to you at a red light?) This feeling is just a normal though unpleasant part of parenthood.

The good news is that ultimately guilt can help you become a better parent. After thoroughly evaluating those twinges, learn from them. If you deserve to feel guilty, change your behavior. Guilt can motivate us to strive harder to be wiser, better and more patient.

I’m never going to be a perfect parent no matter how hard I try. But the guilts help keep me on the right track.

Kathy P. Behan, a mother of three, is a nationally published freelance writer, specializing in health and family issues.

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