Choosing Both the Guilt and the Trip

The girls and I were halfway to school this morning when I became aware of a small crescendo of panic next to me. Sophie, whose five-year-old heart is cased in nothing but bright pink tissue paper, was whisper-wailing “oh no oh no oh no” like a runaway mantra, clenching my fingers as might a lobster in peril.

I didn’t break stride. While I certainly feel for my tender-hearted daughter—especially since she inherited this capacity to feel feelings to the power of one zillion from me—I also knew that her panic might have been precipitated by nothing more than serious than a wad of gum on the sidewalk, because what if the person who dropped it didn’t know where to look for it? and what if he wanted it back? and what if we were the ONLY PEOPLE IN THE WORLD who knew its location while that poor gumless soul staggered around the neighborhood bereft? and also, what if people stepped in it? and it was all her fault? and then the neighborhood took up arms against her and life as we knew it ceased to exist? WHAT IF???

This morning’s crisis was not about gum. Sophie confessed through raggedy breaths that she had forgotten to pack a book that her math teacher had asked her to bring to school. “What am I going to dooooooo?” she wailed, scanning the street as if the forgetfulness police would show up any second to cuff and cart her away.

“First of all, DON’T WORRY.” This is how all of my advice to Sophie begins. (Come to think of it, this is also how 95% of Dan’s advice to me begins as well.) “All you have to do is tell your teacher that you’re sorry you forgot the book and that you’ll try to remember it tomorrow. That’s it. No big deal. You’ll still have a great morning at school.”

“Oh.” Her panic ebbed as swiftly as it had rolled in, and I congratulated myself on teaching a valuable life lesson before 8:15 a.m. Before coffee, even. Look at me, parenting like a real live adult. Wisdom, thy name is Mommy.

I really was genuinely proud of myself. As I’ve gotten a clearer perspective of the shame culture in which I grew up and its effects on wholehearted living (hint: nothing good), I’ve resolved to help my daughters develop a firm sense of their self-worth that won’t be shaken by others’ opinions of them or by their own mistakes. When one of the girls does something out of line with her true self—say, forgetting her math book or using her sister as a pre-breakfast punching bag (it was One Of Those Mornings)—there is no need for her to freak out or berate herself or let the incident define who she is. All she needs to do is acknowledge her mistake, try to make it right, and move on. Easy peasy.

Which begs the question, then… WHY have I been sitting at my desk for the last hour staring dismally into space, reviewing all the most recent reasons I should turn in my human credentials and find a nice homey compost pile to rent?

Let’s take this morning’s pre-breakfast sister punching fest as an example. I woke up tired, and with Dan away on business, I had neither the bolstering effect of his presence nor the bolstering effect of his Good Morning Cappuccino. It was so not the right time for the girls to be waging civil war in the next room, as they quickly discovered when I barged in with my best WFT, children?! face and sent one bloodthirsty sibling back to bed because “I just CAN’T deal with you right now!” Said child then whined that I was treating her like a dog, which I argued was absolutely untrue as I wouldn’t have reason to yell at the dog. It was not a proud parenting moment.

I lumbered out of the room, splashed some water on my face, and made up for hurt feelings in a much more professional and motherly manner before taking the girls to school… but as soon as I walked back in the door, the incident was waiting for me to pick up and mull over and absorb like some sort of skin-borne toxin. I am a monster of a mom, I told myself, forgetting all about my shining life lesson moment in the darker reality of shame. My kids would have been better off with Snooki. I suck I suck I suck I suck. Other memories began to gather as if by invitation, moments from the past few days in which I’d failed to be kind or brave or organized or engaged enough. Before long, it was clear that I was just as worthless a wife, friend, housekeeper, and email-keeper-upper as I was a mother.

Of course now, in the writing of it, this thought process shows its true absurdity. The very fact that these memories strike me with such dissonance proves that I am more than the sum of all suckitude. If I were actually a monster, I wouldn’t care; I would just go along my merry way ruining loved one’s lives, violating traffic laws, and removing mattress tags with cheerful abandon.

I feel anything but cheerful abandon right now, but I’m reminded of the point Brené Brown makes in Daring Greatly about the need to differentiate between Shame and its gentler cousins Humiliation, Embarrassment, Guilt. It’s not that I’m particularly fond of guilt, but acknowledging that I’ve done some things over the last few days that are inconsistent with my values is so much healthier than embracing the idea that I am a horrible human being. If I continue aligning myself with Shame, I will sink further into self-loathing and create even more incidents to regret. If I choose Guilt on the other hand, then I’m free to follow my own advice to Sophie this morning: acknowledge my mistakes, try to make them right, and move on.

And when I file through my mental Rolodex of suckitude, I see that I’ve already done a pretty thorough job acknowledging my mistakes and trying to make them right. The only thing still missing is the part in which I move on.

Enough searching real estate listings for compost heaps; I have better things to do with my morning, including—though not limited to—continuing that real live adult trend.

Just as soon as I remedy the cappuccino situation.

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  1. Thank you for the reminder. I have a very similar cycle of guilt and shame and shut-down. It’s not easy to pull out of, not easy to quiet all the self-hate. It gets easier right? 🙂 I hope.

  2. Your parenting fail moments are small potatoes next to the HUMONGOUS pile of parenting win ones.

  3. What Liz said. She totally beat me here and took the words right out of my mouth…head?….fingers? You get the idea! xoxox

  4. Oh my goodness, how I love this…because it’s so funny (had me literally laughing out loud) and because I can identify so much. Well done! And I know you are a great mom! 🙂

  5. Melissa – I hear you, friend. I don’t know if I’ll ever be completely free of the cycle either. These patterns ingrained into our developing personalities can seem so hard, impossible really, to overcome, and I think people who grew up like you and I did are always going to have to fight for wholeheartedness. At least we are fighting though, and I have to believe that it’s getting easier over time. Love to you and your sweet kiddos.

    Liz – Haha, I’m going to be imagining potatoes in all my interactions with the girls over the next several days. Thanks for the imagery… and the encouragement!

    Megsie – That’s one thing I love so much about Liz’s writing; she has a knack for writing down what’s in everyone else’s head. And if you’re on the same thought path, then… well, you know what they say about great minds thinking alike. 🙂 Love you.

    Stephanie – Thanks so much! I love having you here with me. 🙂

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