Is there any word that pops up more readily in any conversation about motherhood? “I feel guilty that . . .” anyone can fill in the blanks based on her own experience. It most often comes up in relation to something one did or said – or didn’t do or say. It almost always goes along with the worry that one’s actions as a parent had – or will have – dire consequences for one’s child.
A mother asked me if it is good or bad to apologize to your child for something you did that you think was wrong and now regret. That question in itself is based on a common assumption that needs to be challenged. The implication is that there are things we do with our children that are inherently good or bad in an absolute sense – without reference to the child, the parent, the situation and most of all, the relationship they have with each other.
I asked the mother what would make the apology to her child “bad.” As we talked about this it became clear that what she “felt guilty” about was the original incident in which she said something to her child she thinks was “terrible.” In asking whether the apology was good or bad, she was really asking if the apology could redeem her and undo the bad effect of her behavior on her child.
Asking further what the “bad effect” might be, she replied that it might damage her child in a way that would interfere with his functioning well in the future. Wow! Imagine how powerful a mother must feel she is to be able to damage her child in the future by something she says. The other assumption here is that children are so fragile that one wrong word from mom can do irreparable damage. The real meaning of the question about whether an apology is good or bad was whether her apology could enable her not to feel guilty.
A similar discussion took place in reverse with another mom. As the mother of a young adult she was searching her own past behavior for an explanation of things that were troubling her now about her relationship with her son. In a recent conversation with him, she asked if he remembered an incident some years earlier when he was having some difficulties. He said he did and she then asked him what that was really all about. His response was to say they were presently having a fine afternoon together and he didn’t want to go into the episode to which she referred.
The mom read all kinds of meaning into his response, particularly about things that had occurred in the past related to decisions she had made. Her son’s response in the current episode was seen by her as his not wanting to be close to her, and triggered guilt feelings about her own behavior in the past. In fact, this misinterpretation on her part was made clear by other things she related about their relationship. The point was this had more to do with her than with her son. She needed a certain kind of response from him so that she would no longer feel guilty.
Beyond mothers feeling they are so powerful they can do so much damage to their children is the anxiety they have about the significance of negative experiences. This leads to the feeling that children must be protected from anything that seems unpleasant, frustrating or upsetting. Feeling responsible for creating such experiences is a major source of guilt. This suggests that it is possible to go through life without having such experiences, and that mothers are responsible for making that happen – for creating a perfect life for one’s child.
Such feelings are fostered by a flood of material purporting to say what is good or bad for children and what is the right or wrong way to raise them. Moreover, our culture surrounds us with an emphasis on pleasure, on feeling good, with pills we can take and other things we can do to avoid painful or bad feelings – physical or emotional.
We know that unfortunately there are too many children who grow up in far from optimal environments both economically and socially. Children are known to overcome even such difficulties, although this does not make the conditions themselves acceptable. The larger point, though, is no matter under what circumstances children are raised, life itself requires the ability to withstand hurts and obstacles. As parents, we wish we could protect our children from pain, but that is a totally unrealistic goal.
Our children gain strength from facing such experiences and finding they can master them. We hope they will not face more than they can handle at particular stages of development, and if they do, we can provide the support they may need. Every experience we have in life has an effect on shaping us into who we are or may become. Every individual makes use of these experiences in different ways as part of his or her personality and temperament.
Feeling guilty is not about the children. It is about us. It is about our unrealistic demands of ourselves as parents, and about a lack of belief in our children’s resilience.