82: Getting Over the Guilt
82: Getting Over the Guilt
Getting Over the Guilt
Guilt is always hungry, don’t let it consume you.
Your friends warn you about the money-absorbing powers of diapers. Your cousin tells you about the sleepless nights. And your mother reminds you how it will all be worth it. But no one gets you ready for the never-ending trial, the one where you, the mom, are both the defendant and the jury. The one where no matter how you defend your choices, you declare a guilty verdict.
My trial began on Valentine’s Day — the day I found out I was pregnant. I second-guessed what I ate, how I worked out, and any whiff of secondhand smoke I inhaled inadvertently. Ms. 4.0-perfec-tionist-who-was-once-going-to-conquer-the-world-with-her-bril-liance couldn’t even eat salad without having a minor panic attack. (I mean, what if someone hadn’t washed the lettuce?)
The worst part was I had no real reason to be paranoid. No real reason to feel guilty about taking a swim in the lake with my ever-expanding belly or walking past a smoker without holding my breath. I was thirty-three. I was healthy. And my pregnancy was problem-free. Still, I bit my nails, picked my lip, and enjoyed a non-stop eye twitch. By the time I gave birth to Baby M in the fall, I had taken so many guilt trips I had practically acquired silver status.
And then came motherhood. It was time to go for the gold.
My husband, since he was a father, seemed immune to guilt. He took a three-week unpaid paternity leave and went right back to his old life, with the exception of Friday nights, when he stayed home so I could go swimming.
“No,” I told him. “You are not babysitting. You are watching your child.”
“Right,” he’d shrug, guilt-free, as he got out the PlayStation to play FIFA Soccer — his version of entertaining a baby
While I swam, drowning in guilt for leaving Baby M for the insane length of two hours, I couldn’t help but wonder why I was the one with all the remorse while my husband spent his limited father-daughter time playing games or redesigning his website. After all, it was guilt that kept me from eating cheese while pregnant. It was guilt that kept me pumping my breasts, even when my daughter would no longer nurse. And it was guilt that kept me from going back to work full-time.
When people asked my plans (and they always ask), I’d tell them, yes, I was going back to work, but only on Mondays and Tuesdays plus one day working from home on Wednesdays so Baby M would really only be in daycare two days a week even though I would be working three days a week. If it sounded like a mouthful, it was because it was one; I always bit off more than I could chew.
My mother-in-law listened to my spiel, but still didn’t believe me.
“She’ll take one look at that baby and forget about going back to work,” she predicted before Baby M was born.
Which probably would have been true, if I had been a child of the 1940s.
But it was the 21st century, and I had been blessed with something women didn’t used to have: choices. But give an American woman too many choices and she will take them all. I couldn’t help but think my mother’s life had been easier. As she tells it, when she went to college, her choices were pretty much teaching or teaching. When she had a baby, her choices were pretty much stay home or stay home. When I went to college, there were so many options that I double majored and still felt like I was missing out on something. Eleven years and a baby later, nothing had changed except my concentrations, which had now switched to motherhood and advertising copywriting.
“What are you going to do… sing jingles to your baby?” the older generation would ask. Then I would belt out a fake laugh and think about the alternatives: 1) a résumé gap or 2) a child raised exclusively by daycare workers born after 1987. Either way, the horror music played. Either way, the mental institutions beckoned. Either way, I needed industrial-strength Advil. After all, I was an American born in the 1970s. If I didn’t chop myself in half, I wasn’t whole.
When I dropped Baby M off at daycare for the first time, I waited for the jury. I was outside the daycare. My six-month-old was inside. With other people. My little pumpkin, for the first time in fifteen months, was not kicking me from the inside or the outside. The sky was dark. Raindrops dripped down my black coat like tears. I waited for them to flow from my eyes as well. But instead, a strange thing happened. I smiled.
Stop the press. Hold the camera. Aim it at something you’ve never seen before — a selfish mother. Clearly, I was a good example of one. I should have been bawling, right? I should have been consumed with separation anxiety, no? But as much as I wanted to be Ms. Model Mom and get an “A” in motherhood, this moment would then involve feeling crushed, broken, and in need of a reality show with which to share my angst with the entire world. So that one morning, I failed. I didn’t feel sad. I didn’t feel guilty. All I thought, aside from the charming little girl whom I loved, was, “Well, this is kind of nice.”
I should have rejoiced in that moment longer. Skipped to my desk in my new, non-nursing bra, a binding device that was somehow, at that moment, the epitome of freedom. But as I boarded the train to go to the office, something terrible took over my mind, body, and soul. Ladies and gentlemen, there I was, Ms. Remorse-Free Me, sitting next to the window on my way back to 60 percent of my good old life as a professional working woman, watching my reflection as my smile turned to a grimace, all because I felt guilty for not feeling guilty.
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