Hello, awesome readers!
As promised, below is an excerpt from my book, SUPERWOMAN: A Funny and Reflective Look at Single Motherhood. It’s the full chapter 2 entitled, A mother’s sixth sense – that damn sense of guilt.
Have you noticed that since becoming a parent, you’ve developed an uncanny sense of guilt? Oh, sure. It was there before you had kids and would occasionally come out of hiding. Like when someone asked you what you did the previous night, and you answered, “Not much,” when really “not much” translates into binge-watching Tiger King on Netflix while devouring an entire box of Triscuits. (Or maybe that’s just me.) But that guilt is nothing compared to the sense of guilt that wakes up inside of you soon after you’ve given birth.
What is guilt anyway? An emotion? A living, thriving part of your personality? A cousin to shame? The mother of regret? Hard to define, yet forcefully present in its evasiveness, guilt has a way of eating at your brain and chewing on your soul. We’re all born with a sense of guilt (except maybe narcissists and serial killers), yet it seems almost dormant until you become a caregiver to little humans.
Scenario: You’ve accepted a newly invented position in the world of pretend jobs, and your title is Chief Word Herder. It’s your first day, and you’re getting settled at your new desk next to a window overlooking a park. Not bad,you think to yourself. Chief Word Herder and a view. How hard can this be? All is well and good, until you realize that the park makes you think of your kids. (Guilt can be subtle.)
“Focus,” you tell yourself. A job is a good thing, because it means paid bills and food and new shoes for the kids every six months. (When you become a mother, it suddenly doesn’t matter that you’ve been wearing the same underwear since 2007. But your kids? Different story.) As you’re having this conversation with guilt, your new boss walks up to your desk with your first assignment.
“Find a flavor that relates to the word guilt,” she asks of you.
Hmm . . . give guilt a flavor, you think. Coincidence? You open a new Word document on your computer and start listing whatever pops into your head: sweet, sour, spicy, chicken wings, spaghetti . . . Suddenly your mind stops in its tracks as it comes face-to-face with an avalanche of memories.
The morning you dropped your daughter off at day care knowing she was coming down with a cold, but you felt you had no choice because you’d taken a day off when your son was sick just last week.
The time you yelled at your son for no other reason than your own tired frustration while he took forever to put on his shoes.
The evening you resented your kids for having so much homework.
That’s when it hits you: you know exactly what guilt tastes like. It’s a cutting mixture of sour milk and dandelions. You swallow and realize that the flavor sticks to the back of your throat like tomato paste mixed with peanut butter. You wonder if “heavy heart” is a food group.
Something happens when you become a mother. That quasi-dormant sixth sense wakes up like a fire drill going off in the middle of the night. Resonating from deep inside your chest, it’s impossible to ignore. Oh, you may “know” when your kids need you (even when they’re in another room), but I’m not talking about a mother’s intuition. Nope. I’m talking about that nagging sixth sense that settles deep within your core and wraps itself around your juicy heart like a boa constrictor around its unwary prey. I’m talking about a mother’s sense of guilt. Ironically, this sixth sense is usually paired with words that rhyme with motherhood—words like could, should, and would.
It’s Friday night. I could let the kids stay up an extra half hour—but it’s been a long week, and I just want to go to bed with a book.
I should make a proper meal tonight—but it’s already late, and besides, doesn’t frozen pizza have all the food groups?
I would have sent the kids to school wearing their Halloween costumes this morning—but apparently I forgot to read the damn newsletter from the school last week.
Admittedly, we all want the best for our kids. As single mothers, we’re raising them alone yet strive to provide a family atmosphere. And I’m certain you’ll agree when I say that we try. Oh, how we try. But let’s be honest with ourselves: when we’re wearing all the things (the pants, the skirt, and the world wrapped around our shoulders like a heavy shawl on a hot, summer day), life becomes a juggling game. And OMG, all the things—they just never stop.
Alone, you manage everything, from the budget (pfft, what budget?) to household chores, the job, and everything going on inside your head. You even manage your emotions—the happiness, the sadness, the bewilderment, the fears, the sense of aloneness. You may not be lonely, but you are alone. And by yourself, you keep all in check with a constant stream of self-reminders to be patient, to take a breath before you react. (Some days you can boast the patience of Gandhi; other days you’re more like the Incredible Hulk, throwing a tantrum at the slightest resistance from your kids after the seventh time you’ve told them to brush their teeth.) Deep down, you know that the “family unit” is only as strong as you are. Some days you’re the pillar, sturdy and resilient—it takes a special kind of strength to make light of the milk that gets spilled across the table at the end of a long day. “It’s okay,” you say as you jump up to get the dish cloth. “It was an accident.” Other days your inner pillar of strength is reduced to the size of a fire hydrant that gets peed on by every dog in the neighborhood. Sometimes it even feels like Life Herself is peeing on you every chance she gets. (The bitch.)
That glass of milk that just got spilled across the table (again)? It’s not okay. Nope. Not today! It’s been a long one, and I’m tired. I do not have the patience for this. Oops. And there it is. The guilt.
Several years ago, a friend (single and without children at the time) took it upon himself to impart his limited knowledge of parenting to me. “All mothers feel guilty,” he’d said. He was trying to make me feel better.
To give you context, it was a Wednesday evening, and I was sitting, feeling deflated, in a classroom. Just a few hours earlier, I had left my day job at precisely five p.m. to pick up my daughters from day care, bring them home to feed them supper, and rush them out again to the babysitter’s apartment. And when I say “babysitter,” I mean my girls’ father. (I could say “but that’s another story,” but as we all know, it’s part of the same story, isn’t it?)
My friend with all the wisdom—I knew his intentions were good. Regardless, his words cast a dark shadow of self-reproach around the muddled blur of the day that sat heavy on my slouching shoulders. To be perfectly honest, I felt like a neon light was flashing across my forehead like the signs that glow above the door to Chinese restaurants. Only instead of promoting dumplings in peanut sauce, my sign was screaming “World’s Worst Mother” in bold, red letters.
I remember life back then as a constant, harried struggle. Monday to Friday, my girls and I would leave our apartment at six fifteen every morning and walk to the bus stop. Our mission was to get to the day care for seven o’clock, as soon as it opened, so that I could catch the next bus, which would take me to downtown Montreal. The goal: to be at my desk by eight.
Confession: I was often late. And by often, I mean always. Before I continue, I need to take a moment to appreciate my boss at the time. We’ll call him Mr. P.
Mr. P. pretended never to notice me walking (mostly running) into the office, usually around eight twenty. How do I know that he was pretending not to notice? One morning I walked into the office a few minutes before eight (the gods of matching socks and traffic were kind to us that day); he saw me, looked down at his watch, and, with an exaggerated “I’m your boss” voice, said, “Mona, you’re early. You’re fired.”
Then he smiled and winked. I remember laughing, but it was more from a sense of relief than amusement. You see, every morning was a race against time, and I truly did my best to respect office hours. But there was always something: my sleepyhead daughters taking their sweet time to eat their toast, getting halfway down the street to the bus stop and suddenly realizing that I forgot a lunch. Yet clearly, my boss, in his quiet way, looked past my daily madness of getting my ass to work on time and focused on my abilities. Although we never spoke about it, from that moment on, I felt that he was silently cheering me on. He gave me the encouragement I needed. He let me know with his subtle understanding that he somehow understood my life.
As for my friend, the one with the good intentions—the one who told me that all mothers feel guilty—I have to agree with him. All mothers, whether single, married, divorced, step, or foster, live with guilt.
Well, here’s the thing: guilt is a lie.
Let’s go back to the day you gave birth . . .
Think about the first time you looked into your new baby’s tender, old-man face. (Oh, come on! Newborns are rarely as cute as we pretend they are.) After hours of heavy pushing and pain and temporary insanity, the rest of the world slips away, and it’s just you, lying in the eye of the hurricane, holding the sweetness that you had been carrying for the last nine months (which felt like nine years). The moment brought tears to your soul, didn’t it?
Meanwhile, the doctors and nurses, everyone else in the room, watched in awe as mommy and new baby bonded in natural, naked glory. Legs still in stirrups yet long forgotten, hair sticking to the sides of your sweaty face, emotions hijacking your heart and soul, you were completely oblivious to the indecency of your dignity. For the doctors and nurses, it was just another day on the job. No need to cringe in shame, because once the task of assisting with childbirth is accomplished, the last thing anyone is focusing on are your exposed and mangled private parts. But you know this already. From their perspective, their job of helping to deliver your new baby is done. Now what they get to witness is an emotional moment, a phenomenon of beautiful proportions—a mother’s love reduced to its purest and unaltered state during the first moments of her child’s life.
But you and me, we’ve been on this side of the stirrups, and we know what’s really going on. Those tears of joy that spill out through exhausted eye sockets are actually tears of terror. As you look down into that tiny face, so new and so trusting, you’re crying because your greatest wish is that time would freeze. You’re not asking for much. Just a few years. This is because in that moment in time, innocence is still shiny new with slimy, untampered perfection. You have not yet screwed up.
You know that perfection can’t last forever. At some point, exhaustion, frustration, life, will butt in, and you’ll react in a way that puts a corroded dent in the perspective you have of yourself as a mother. But for these few seconds, right after giving birth, everything is still flawless. The innocence and trust of your child have not yet been wrecked by the struggles of daily challenges and overtiredness and disappointment in how things actually turned out. The funny thing about being a mother in general, and a single mother in particular, is that you believe that this sixth sense—this sense of guilt—is unique to you. That only you make wrong decisions and choices. That only you react in ways that make you look like a raving lunatic.
You imagine that guilt is kinder to “real” families—the ones with both a mommy and a daddy. This is because real families are built on four legs, not just your volatile pillar of fake strength, but on four legs—mommy’s legs + daddy’s legs. And as everyone knows, four legs are always better than two. Four legs are so much sturdier, as proven by tables, chairs, and bar stools. It’s so much easier to carry the responsibility of your children’s welfare when you have someone to share it with. Or so I’ve heard.
Myth: Every other single mother on the planet is doing a better job than you at raising normal, happy children.
Truth: Every single mother in the world believes that she is—on most days—the worst mother on the planet. Always tired. Always rushing. Always worrying. Our aptitude for motherhood, single or not, isn’t the problem. The problem is our capacity to pour a thick, syrupy layer of self-doubt over everything we do.
Repeat after me: Guilt is a lie.
When it comes to our kids, we all have bragging rights. They do something awesome; we tell our friends and colleagues about it. But do we tell the whole story? Most often not.
What we say: My daughter got an A on her science project.
The tiny detail we neglect to mention: After putting her to bed, I stayed up until two o’clock in the morning to finish gluing all the tiny pieces together.
What we say: My son made supper last night. I don’t know where he’s learning to cook—certainly not from me. I’m starting to think he’s adopted.
The tiny detail we neglect to mention: I spent the rest of the evening cleaning up the kitchen, including emptying the entire fridge to clean up the juice that got spilled.
What we say: The baby is almost sleeping through the night.
The tiny detail we neglect to mention: Thank GAWD! Because I’ve been taking on freelance projects at night just to make ends meet.
You see where I’m going with this, don’t you? We often get so wrapped up in our own sense of guilt that we forget to mention the good stuff we do—the parts of us we share unconditionally. And we do this despite the fact that there is no immediate return on our investment of time and self. Well, except maybe a tender “good night, Mommy” and a tight hug from little arms as we tuck in the day. This is what makes everything worth it. Always. And while it’s true that we will screw up, I can tell you from experience that in the end, whether it be the end of a long day or after the kids have grown up, the good stuff is what we’ll remember the most. The memories, the time spent, the kind words of encouragement. This is what sticks.
Don’t focus on the guilt. It never tells the truth, and it feeds off of your attention. By feeling it, you give it power. Instead, focus on those tiny smiles and wide grins. Your child’s happiness also feeds off your attention. So, give guilt what it deserves (a boot in the ass), and give that attention to your child, knowing that everything always works out.
Buy the book!
Subscribe to this blog and get notified when new posts are up. How do you subscribe? Just enter your email address in the subscription box (somewhere on this page, depending on what device you’re reading from).