Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Latin really does put some things best doesn’t it? If this phrase hadn’t been co opted by the catholic church I’m sure that it would have been (and probably is for many) the mantra of the modern mother. I’m not good enough, this isn’t good enough; it’s my fault. Who among us hasn’t felt that gnawing twist in the pit of our stomach when we consider the job we are doing, the gravity of our responsibility and the likelihood of failure? There is a phrase for it, I’ve seen it referred to in magazines and on websites. Mommy guilt.
Mommy guilt. I cannot express how much I loathe that phrase. Not anyone who may use that phrase or even the words themselves but the flippancy of it, as if this feeling, this horrifying terror that can well up inside a person, slashing away at their self confidence and self worth, leaving gaping holes into which doubt floods in, lying around the place in fetid pools, can be dismissed and brushed away. “Oh you Mummies”, it seems to say, “you do worry so.” As if we are foolish for our worries, as if the gut sinking feeling that we can never, ever get it right is a foolish pastime in which we indulge. Mental overeating for the permanently insecure.
The truth is so far away from this. The truth is that those of us who are plagued by feelings of guilt, woe, terror, insecurity and occasional madness are actually seeing the picture clearly. What we are trying to do is impossible. And we know this. But what we also know is that it is imperative that we achieve the impossible because the security and well being of those we love most passionately, with all our beings, depend on us getting it right. We are shaping the minds and hearts of our children, creating the adults they will be, defining their memories and experiences with each decision we make. We cannot fail.
Something of a dilemma I’m sure you’ll agree.
Recently I saw a friend of mine wrestling with just this demon. She was telling me of some difficulties she was having with one of her children, how hard she was finding it to reach a resolution and her sincere worries for his well being and state of mind. As I listened to her I felt such a well of sympathy and sadness for her pain. I also felt like sighing with relief and saying “Thank the gods, it isn’t just me”. Yes there was a part of me that rejoiced in my friends difficulties, I was glad to to know the troubles she was having.
Let me clarify. Yes this really is a true friend whom I love and adore. She is also an amazing mum and an inspiring friend. Not only is she raising her own lovely children but she works, supporting other mothers as they and their baby begin their journey along the road of family. I know that she is a kick arse parent and, while I know her concerns to be very real, I know that there is no way that she is doing as badly as she thinks. I know this, but she doesn’t. It does occur to me then, that if this wonderful and fabulous friend of mine feels such doubts and fears, just as I do every day, could it be possible that I too do not suck as grandly as I believe? Could it be we are both victims of some kind of delusion that leads us down a dark alleyway, cruelly mugs us and robs us of our true sight?
I really, really hope so. Because if I really am doing as terribly as I feel I am sometimes then I should probably go right ahead and pop the children on Ebay for their own good. Some days it is a tempting proposition. But the irony is there is nowhere I’d rather be. I’ve chosen this gig and I want to be here more than anything, yet there are many moments in each day where I would happily lock myself in a shed in sub zero temperatures rather than spend another moment in the company of my children. Every day I experience impatience, anger, rage, frustration at their very normal childhood behaviour. But of course I quell these feelings and speak to them calmly and with love, helping to guide them through their difficult moment and out the other side to calmness.
Okay well I’m pretty sure I did that at least once. The rest of the time I shout, or stamp around or generally behave like I am the same age as them but with less emotional intelligence and self control. In my defense I do apologise afterwards. While my children seem able to forgive and forget these behaviours, these storms in the tea cup of our day, I cannot. I am plagued with guilty feelings, I struggle to enjoy moments that are genuinely glorious because of a past failing that may have occurred minutes or hours before.
These are not things I am proud of but there are a part of my reality, just as much as the baking and the crafting and the water colour painting on a sunny day. I know the relief I feel when I hear another mum talk of the struggles she faces and so I am being a little bit brave and saying this, “Me too.”
The advice I shared with my friend as she told me of her troubles is advice I was given by a Shaman a few years ago (seriously, it was an actual Shaman). She told me that at the end of each day I should lay my hand on my chest and say, aloud if possible, “I forgive myself” and list the things I should forgive myself for. But, she cautioned, it must be genuine forgiveness not a listing of perceived faults with which I might continue to berate myself with. It could go something like this:
I forgive myself for losing my patience when I have had little sleep and my resources are low.
I forgive myself for shouting when something precious to me was broken.
I forgive myself for disliking loud screeching sounds that are repeated over a number of hours and for eventually shouting when it got too much.
The odd thing is it really works. I don’t always remember to do it but when I can I always feel better. I find myself able to laugh at the faults that were so huge just moments before. I am able to shake off the negative tangle that possesses my brain and heart and leave that particular moment behind. As I forgive myself I am able to embrace the good and see my day in a different light. The shadow that is cast by what went wrong can diminish and when it does I can see what went right.
That is the greatest irony in all of this. When something goes badly, or is less than perfect, I am brought low by it and then cannot enjoy the moments that go well, meaning that I more likely to react badly to any given situation, I then feel lower…you can see a pattern here can’t you? The more I beat myself up the more likely I am to cast a shadow over those around me, those who I love the most. If I truly love them, as I say I do, I must see this wallowing in guilt for what it is, a fruitless pursuit. I must push past the feelings of inadequacy and doubt and embrace the possibility that the good outweighs the bad and that my children are right to love me after all.
There is another Latin word I like and it is one we would all do well to take into our vocabulary. Venia means grace, indulgence, favour, pardon but most importantly forgiveness. Just as guilt and feelings of fault are something we heap on our own heads so too is it within our power to forgive ourselves and to reach out our hands to those other mothers. Share with one another the visions of glory we see before us, shy away from jealousy and competitiveness and tell our friends “You are doing so well” and ” I admire you”. Perhaps if we all hear it enough we will begin to believe.
In the meantime I will remember the promise I made when I was 7 years old and became a Brownie, words I said so many times and yet I still marvel at their complexity and significance.
I promise to do my best.
Isn’t that all we can really ask of ourselves?