By Teresa Strasser
After months of people telling me not to feel guilty, and my deeply rooted inability to take that advice, I have a new mantra, and it’s all thanks to Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko. Gordon had greed. I have guilt.
Guilt – for lack of a better word – is good.
Guilt is right.
Conventional wisdom and pop psychology better duck, because Gordon and I are about to fly into your upbeat, sappy, stupid face. Guilt is seen as a waste of time, as the unresolved issue of a negative mother who does not “let things go.” By the way, when people tell me to “let things go,” I mainly just want to let my handbag go into their testicles or jugular. Maybe holding onto things isn’t so bad. That’s right, maybe guilt is good.
Maybe guilt works.
In my 15 months as a mother, I’ve done a lot of whining and crying, and a lot of apologizing for whining and crying about what I know are high-quality, first-world problems with my beautiful, healthy child. Still, to me, my anxieties are heavy. I drag them around in a diaper bag of doubt, and telling me to put them down doesn’t help.
I worry that I don’t know how to play with my child, that I work too many hours, that it’s my fault he caught hand, foot and mouth disease because I took him to the germ-infested play area at the mall. I feel guilty because sometimes I look at a guy reading the paper at a coffee shop and I want to yell, “Do you know what it’s like to have the clock ticking every second? You don’t have to be at daycare in 20 minutes, do you? DO YOU, DUMMY?”
I feel guilty because when my son picks up a cell phone, he calls it “mama.” My son thinks phones are called “mamas.” Do my guilt minutes roll over?
I feel guilty when I let him cry it out at night. I feel guilty when I run in to soothe him, because I should be letting him soothe himself.
There is guilt when I drive him around to do errands, because that must suck, being all trapped in a car seat listening to people yammer on NPR, or worse, mom singing some Dixie Chicks song. There is guilt when we stay home, just staring at the same old toys without the stimulation his little brain needs. There is guilt when he kicks his feet and cries when I leave him with the sitter, and there is guilt when he smiles and beams at the sitter when I go, because he must love her more.
There are degrees of guilt, and there are colors and textures of guilt, but there is guilt for almost every parenting occasion. It’s not like I spend every waking moment doused in it, but whenever I mention that I might feel … gulp, guilty … about being a working mom, or an imperfect mom, or an impatient mom, or a un-fun mom, I get the same story. “Never feel guilty. You’re doing your best.”
This sounds so wise.
I’ve finally concluded that, at least for me, it’s not possible.
If I didn’t second-guess and approach each challenge with a pinch of self-doubt, I wouldn’t be me. And since I can’t let go of my guilt, I’m embracing the hell out of it.
Guilt makes me stop by the bookstore for two books on toddler brain development. Guilt makes me turn off the phone during playtime, while I try to make peek-a-boo fun for him and be totally present. Guilt makes me scour the web for rainy-day activities, so we find places like the automotive museum with a special floor just for kids. Guilt makes me visit a day care nine times before choosing it.
If I didn’t love that guy so deeply and so fully, I wouldn’t feel guilt. My guilt is a teddy bear I cling to when I don’t know if I’m doing any of this the best I can. My guilt reminds me I’m doing the only thing my child absolutely needs me to do: love him with the fiery intensity of a million Gordon Gekkos.
Moms who don’t feel guilty, let me be the first to say, good for you. Keep doing what you’re doing. You can skip this.
Moms who strap the guilt into the car seat every day: Are you as sick as I am of well-meaning, dodo self-help readers telling you not to feel guilty when you can’t help yourself? I’m hoping you can hear Michael Douglas whispering to you. Stop beating yourself up over beating yourself up. Guilt is good.
Guilt is right. Guilt works.
You know who never felt guilty? That mom that left her kids starving and chained to the radiator. Okay, now I feel guilty for saying that.
Teresa Strasser is an Emmy Award-winning writer and author of “Exploiting My Baby,” which Life & Style magazine calls a "hilarious first time memoir about motherhood." You can read her blog at ExploitingMyBaby.com.