on guilt, growing up, and (ira) glass

Has this ever happened to you?

You’re happily reading some mildly interesting article, when all of a sudden – WHAM-O! – the expert or the study or the news smacks you with The Finding That You Should Have Known And Now Means You Have Completely Failed At A Major Portion Of Your Life.

Case in point. Yours truly was idly surfing through the Motherlode blog at the New York Times, generally equal parts interesting-news-articles and opinionated-Manhattan-mommies-up-in-arms about the latest parenting buzz. And being the parent of a child who occasionally expresses his disdain for my insufferable rules by wailing at the top of his lungs, I clicked on this post: Seeing Tantrums as Distress, Not Defiance.

So there I was, all innocently reading about toddlers’ inability to self-regulate their emotions and how parents need to lovingly guide them through this challenging phase. When I got to this line:

Dan Siegel, author of the “Whole Brain Child,” gave me the science behind this. “During those early years, the ability to coordinate and balance your own subcortical source of emotion is dependent on a caregiver’s response to you,” he said. We freak out, they freak out. Our ability to stay tuned in to them literally helps their brains grow.

WHAM-O! And the whole room slants. My (now fully developed) brain screams, “I KNEW IT! I LOSE MY TEMPER AT MY TODDLER’S TANTRUMS AND NOW I HAVE PERMANENTLY SCARRED HIS BRAIN DEVELOPMENT AND HE’S GOING TO BECOME A SOCIOPATH!!! COMPLETE AND UTTER PARENTING FAIL.”

Ah, parental guilt. It bursts into a calm mother’s mind as quick and sudden as a newborn’s wail, and it lingers in her heart as long and pitiful as a toddler’s whimpers.

Before calling child protective services on myself, I thankfully went back and read the entire article again, only to find that it wasn’t as drastic and dramatic as all that. In fact, it might actually help me handle tomorrow’s tantrums with a bit more love and grace. (Maybe.)

But the memory of that flash of mommy guilt lodged itself in my brain and wouldn’t let go.

I remembered other sinking feelings from my first year of parenthood. Doctor’s appointments when I feared my baby wasn’t hitting every single developmental milestone. Parenting magazines whose glossy photos celebrated children who neither slept, napped, or ate like mine. A fellow mother in a “baby & me” class who actually uttered the words, “I just can’t believe how easy this has been!” in response to the question of the biggest surprise of motherhood. (I’m still surprised that my unshowered, bleary-eyed, anxious, hormonal self didn’t lunge across the circle of newborns to strangle her.)

Motherhood brings with it a new and special kind of guilt. A guilt that screams to your deepest fears and insecurities. A guilt that terrifies you into thinking you are not only making a mess of your life, but a brand-new person’s as well. A guilt that rears its ugly head just when you think you’ve cobbled together some kind of confidence about the whole raising-a-kid thing.

Along the way, I’ve learned to handle the outbursts of guilt with slightly more finesse. The second year of parenting brought with it the ability to forgive myself for being a decidedly imperfect mother. And the third year has dawned with daily reminders that since the many ways I supposedly failed my first child did not – it appears thus far – ruin him for life, I may actually be able to successfully help raise a second.

But I still feel the mother guilt on an all-too-regular basis, as I imagine many of you do, too. How can we help it? We want to raise our children well, and when we start out, we have no clue how. Fertile soil for the rapid growth of guilt, if I ever saw it.

So when I came across this delightful bit from Ira Glass, I was cheered. Not only because I love his wry voice and his quirky story-telling, but because his wisdom speaks to me as both a hopeful writer and a hopeful mother.

Ira reminds me that we can’t help but start off frustrated in the early years of any good work we’re trying to do. We have a grand vision of what we’d like it to be – the family we’d like to have, the book we’d love to write – but the daily slog often falls far short. Many days we want to throw in the towel and declare we’re beat. But when we stick it out and make ourselves keep going, we start to close the gap between hopes and reality. We find that we might actually have a chance of becoming the parent – or writer or artist or minister or teacher – that we dreamed we could be.

Nobody tells this to beginners, Ira says. And maybe they should. So the more we remind ourselves – and each other – that most everybody goes through this, the easier we’ll be able to breathe. And perhaps the guilt, or the fear of failure, or the frustration of not living up to our high hopes, can even spur us on to more than we dreamed in the first place.

It takes a while. It’s going to take you a while. It’s normal to take a while. And you just have to fight your way through that.

6 thoughts on “on guilt, growing up, and (ira) glass

  1. Excellent quote. This is something I would have balked at while learning to breastfeed, thinking that I should have gotten it down by now. But slowly I did learn to accept such an idea, and even shared it with others just starting the process. But recently I have felt completely ineffective in discipline, and I have no grace for myself. This quote is a great reminder that yet another thing that I think I *should* have figured out is also going to be very difficult, and will take a while…and that’s all ok. Thank you!

    1. Great examples, Elaine. And sometimes the things we think we already have figured out once (like nursing – to use your example!) become completely different beasts the next time around. So we have to learn again, scrape together some humility along the way. And you’re right that it’s simply ok to let ourselves muddle along in the frustration for a while. It’s the only way we get through.

  2. Yes, I would agree that this is the type of honesty and encouragement we need to be able to share with one another. I feel that so many people simply share the positives only, present the ‘ease’, and it makes one feel worse when they make mistakes. Thank you for sharing this… I would say your ‘gap’ between your desires for writing and your actual writing are small… these messages since the ‘page’ transformation have all been SPOT on. A real gift…

  3. I value that piece by Ira Glass. It’s comforting to be reminded of life’s learning curve.

    I also like what you said about a sense of humor being a key tool for parents. It’s SO true. I’ve often thought about that since my poor Mom really didn’t have one. Parenting young children seemed very hard for her because she couldn’t laugh at us or herself. I’m glad you found your laughter while your husband was gone.

    1. “life’s learning curve” – well said. Though often I find it’s filled with sharp corners and twists, too!
      And it’s true what you say about how difficult parenting young children can be without a sense of humor. I feel for parents because the early years can really be so hard. And not everyone has humor as a coping mechanism. But it really helps me, I’ve learned that much. A healthy release, perspective, diffuser of frustrating situations, etc.

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