Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Guilt List

The following is a book-inspired blog contribution to the online bookclub, From Left to Write. I received the book from the publisher free-of-charge, however I was not compensated to write this entry. You can read what others had to say in reaction to the book here.

M.F. Chapman’s Take the Cake: A Working Mom’s Guide to Grabbing a Slice of the Life You’ll Love is a quick read that offers practical suggestions for moms to achieve a more “balanced” life. Chapman eschews the “mommy wars” and avoids any discussion of staying and working at home v. working outside the home, which allows this book to be relevant for all moms.

Now, I’m not a big fan of the word “balance.” I think it’s one of these “pie-in-the-sky” ideals that goes along with being “guilt-free” and “perfect.” I prefer terms like “less-harried,” reduced-guilt,” (except when it’s applied to food) and “increasingly comfortable with imperfection.” But as my mom always says, if you can take away one thing (from a book, a training, a talk, etc.) it hasn’t been a waste of time. And Chapman had more than one strategy in her book for improving one’s quality of life. I could easily have addressed her chapter on television watching, “unplug,” playing outside, “fresh air,” or nutrition, “eat well,” but those are all things that I feel fairly good about. I thought it would be more meaningful if I mined what is, perhaps, my greatest struggle as a parent:


The Guilt List
Chapman recommends that you: 1. Brainstorm all the different aspects of guilt you feel in relation to your child, spouse, friends, work and most importantly, self (I will focus on “child” here—otherwise this could reach novel proportions.); 2. Determine which truly have negative consequences and delete any that are “moderate or inconsequential when thinking about the big picture.” 3. Examine the remaining items and determine whether you can live with the guilt because the item is in service of something larger or you can’t live with the guilt and what you are going to do to change it.

So here goes…my guilt list (in no particular order):

1. Letting Sophia lounge in bed a little longer while I try to grab a couple extra minutes of sleep. Particularly since she has to go to the bathroom when she wakes up.
2. Not wanting to pretend with, read to, or complete a puzzle when I do fetch her from the crib. Particularly pre-caffeine.
3. Getting impatient with her as she dances around the room and I need her to get dressed so we will be on time for whatever comes next that day.

That’s three pangs of guilt before breakfast.

4. When we are out and about I feel guilty about underutilizing our post-diluvium basement playground. When we are in I feel guilty about not taking her somewhere fabulously stimulating and engaging that day.
5. Checking my email/hit count/FB on my iPhone (when I could be interacting with Sophia).
6. Setting Sophia up with a pile of books while taking a shower (when I could have taken one during her nap, but was too busy responding to emails, writing, etc.)
7. Not involving Sophia more in my household chores (cooking, laundry, cleaning, etc.) and letting her fend for herself while I do them.
8. Not giving Sophia a sibling.
9. Making a phone call or simply receiving one when Sophia is around.
10. Missing a “bath day” (because, as it is, I only wash her ever other day)
11. Playing with Sophia too much (not letting her have enough independent time).
12. Not playing with Sophia enough (see #8 not giving Sophia a sibling).

I detect a theme here. Okay, so my list is mostly about attention and active engagement and the constant question that plagues me: Am I giving her “enough” of me? I am fairly certain that this would be true whether I was working 16 or 60 hours/week (though I’d definitely be feeling it more if I was working full time). It never feels like enough.

Of course the minute I start doing playing with Sophia out of guilt and not genuine enthusiasm, it becomes inauthentic, to which I’m pretty sure all kids are fairly attune. In fact, I would venture to say that it is far better to let her play by herself (which she does enjoy) than to have me doing it out of guilt (and either neglecting my own needs, which breeds resentment, or neglecting our household needs, which creates a whole other host of problems) just to assuage my guilt. The right amount is probably whenever the spirit moves me (which it often does; I like to play), and not when it doesn’t. But I tend to ignore all evidence in support of this (that Sophie happily reads while I’m taking a shower, that Sophie is not deprived—she has plenty of opportunities to play with other children through playdates, school, outings, that Sophie is becoming increasingly independent and creative on her own) and only listen to this nagging inner voice that constantly berates me for not doing more.

To return to Chapman’s task: The fact of the matter is not one of these things would have a negative consequence…well, maybe if Sophie wet the bed that would kind of suck. But I don’t think Sophia is going to be sitting in therapy one day talking about the fact that her mother never paid any attention to her. In fact, what could happen instead is that she finds herself talking about how I didn’t give her enough space, how I wouldn’t give her opportunities to be bored and create…or worse…how I poisoned our relationship with leaked resentment that stemmed from my perceived need to constantly attend to her.

I know I need to chill out, back off, and deal with the anxiety that pops up as a result. I wish making dramatic changes in one’s psychology was as simple as making a list, but alas, it’s not. I take some comfort in knowing that awareness is an important first step in the right direction.


M.F. Chapman said...

I don't think any of us are the masters of getting rid of guilt. We all have it. I am reading Karina Kenison's memoir, The Gift of an Ordinary Day, and her own worries about making the right choices for herself, her kids, her career, etc. ring true for me. Each choice seems important, and yet, as you show with your book, they aren't all monumental. Maybe just for survival, it's about putting the guilt in perspective.

Anonymous said...

HOLY GUILT TRAIN BATMAN!! Stopping in from FLTW... It seems like Sophie is doing just fine and you're stressing for nothing. Of course, I say this and DO the exact opposite. I think we all have these guilt issues when it comes to our kids. And what it ultimately boils down to is that they are healthy, happy and well adjusted to this crazy thing we call life. I think you're doing a great job... Relax, have a cocktail and save one for me! Nice work!