As a child of two former Catholics, I know all about guilt. Blessed with this lovely emotion from an early age, my mother spent many years trying to beat it out of me. She got enough guilt from her own mother to last any family a lifetime, she insisted, and didn’t want that for me.
I’ve always appreciated her encouragement to resist the guilt, but nonetheless I succumb to it regularly. I try to be the best friend, daughter, worker, etc. that I can be, and guilt creeps in quickly if I don’t meet my self-imposed standard. As I’ve gotten older and wiser, I’m more quick to recognize it and steer myself away from that inevitable sinking ship, but it is a constant effort.
I always expected guilt would be a struggle for me as a mother. After one too many conversations with my parent friends telling me that guilt is just part of the deal – guilt about not being home, guilt about not being at work, guilt about not being available for their spouse – it all sounded pretty bleak to me. I did not want to be consumed by guilt for doing all things poorly, so always knew that I would at least want the option to stay home with our children or scale back on other commitments to keep the guilt at bay.
It was much to my surprise, then, when I recently realized that guilt has served as a road block in my acceptance and embracing of a life without children.
It took me awhile to put my finger on it. We would be out at a restaurant, or hiking, or skiing, or one of the many things we like to do, and I’d see a cute family with parents inevitably struggling to get their kids to sit down and eat, keep walking, or get on the lift. I would feel the normal pang of jealousy, having wanted to experience these parenthood rituals myself, followed by this nagging afterthought that I couldn’t quite place. Finally one day I paid close attention to that afterthought and realized it went something like this “you should be slugging through parenthood like normal people, and not selfishly enjoying your easy life of [eating out, skiing, hiking, etc]. You don’t know hard.”
Once I finally listened to that little bugger in my head, I was floored. After all, we tried REALLY, REALLY hard to have a baby. Years of struggle, thousands of dollars, endless shots and procedures, and lots of hard. Something we worked so hard for should not be included In the realm of things to feel guilty about.
In trying to unpack the guilt, I realize it probably stems from two things. First is the societal stigma of people who don’t have kids or choose to adopt as being “selfish.” I personally think this is a load of crap, as having a biological child is one of the most selfish things a person can do. This is not a bad thing at all, but let’s just call it what it is. The adoption question does come with a whole heap of existential guilt that is of a different order than what I’m talking about today, and will save for a later post.
The second, and more likely culprit, is the desire to commiserate and relate to my parent friends who seem to struggle daily with the hard. I know there is a lot of good and joy in parenting, but as my best friend once told me, it is a lot easier to complain to a non-parent about the mind-numbing, identity challenging parts of parenthood than it is to explain that incredible feeling you get looking into your child’s eyes. I think she was right, because I certainly hear a lot more about the negative side of parenting than I do the good. I’ve had more than one mom-friend imply that I’m lucky I’m infertile and should just use it as my “excuse” to not have kids.
In short, their life is hard and mine is easy, so how could I possibly know what they’re going through? Bam, there it is!! The Guilt.
When this crops up, it helps to remind myself that this particular emotion is misplaced. I can rightly feel lots of things about our inability to have children – anger, sadness, injustice – but not guilt. Not only is it inappropriate for our situation, but it will hold me back from living the best life possible. Which, if I’m lucky, will include many lingering meals out, long hikes, and epic ski days.