Friday, October 07, 2005

There But for the Guilt Go I

I have always been steadfastly against guilt as an emotion, on the theory that it is either a completely wasted effort and/or it is the height of self-indulgence. Guilt is simply a way to avoid really fixing what you broke, by either paralyzing you or giving you just enough emotional cover to think that the guilt is enough.

It's such a cop-out: "Oh wow, I feel so bad about cheating on you. Sorry. I told you I feel bad, so why do you keep checking up on me?" That's guilt.

"I am sorry I betrayed you; here are the reasons I did it, here are the steps I'm taking to regain your trust, here are the steps I'm taking to make sure it never happens again." That's remorse. That's genuine. Guilt just lets you feel like you are a nice person because you "feel bad" without requiring you to do anything about it. So there I was, deplorer of guilt, at the end of Week One of The Bambina's day care experience, feeling guilt like you cannot believe.

Day One went okay. They said she cried a bit, didn't really eat, but perked up during particular activities. When I walked in the door, she screamed "Mama!!!" and came running over to me. Color me relieved.

But the second day is always worse than the first, isn't it? It's when you realize that this is actually not just a one-day, out-of-the-norm experience but rather something that is the new normal. Day Two was miserable. The crying started in the car on the way there. Through a 20-minute traffic checkpoint around the Capitol, from the car to the building, through security and into the center where she began the real show. Oh, don't get me wrong; she stopped crying. Yes indeedy. Just long enough to start SCREAMING. Like, snot out of the nose, hyperventilating, begging, indignant screaming. Legs wrapped around me so I couldn't put her down. And "Mama!" said in that toddler way to say, "Don't you love me, you byatch?! How dare you?!!"

So, I did what any loving, caring, deeply moved parent would do: I bolted. Said bye bye, mommy loves you, you're going to have so much fun!, and went swiftly out the door. I figured my presence was just making her more upset and delaying the inevitable realization that she really would be okay and would have fun and would be just fine without me. But I was fighting back tears the entire way back to the car, feeling like the worst mother on the planet since...well, me the day before.

Gratefully, Day Three went better, since after all how could it go worse? She had finally decided to make eye contact with me on the morning of Day Three after spending the entire evening of Day Two giving me the guilt-inducing combo of the silent treatment and the evil eye, and just for good measure refusing to eat anything other than salt and vinegar pringles for dinner. So at the end of Day Three, she actually looked at me when I picked her up, and actually kissed me when I said, "Kisses for mama?" Breakthrough.

I anticipate we will go through the entire spectrum of drama when we do it all again next week, but Day Three this week gave me the reassurance that I needed, that she really won't remember all of this, that she will be fine in the end, that she will get so much out of being with other kids, that I really CAN hear my child cry and know that her fear and pain signal not impending psychological damage, but growth and learning.

There is a book called The Blessings of a Skinned Knee, in which the author Wendy Mogel discusses childrearing within the concept of Judaism. Her essential point is that parents who seek to buffer, cushion and protect their children from any and all "skinned knees" are ultimately doing their children a tragic disservice. Mogel believes our children would be better off and healthier if parents, fearful both of the dangers of contemporary society and of their children experiencing pain, stopped being so protective:

``Children learn about the world by being out in it and doing things and finding their way. That's common sense, but many parents today are so afraid of what's out there _ on the streets or in the media or even at school _ that they micromanage every aspect of their children's lives."

Mogel tells parents that if they really want to protect their children, they will help them manage risks on their own. ``Not only is so much close attention bound to make children nervous and anxious, but it also produces children who are self-centered and often incompetent."

So I think I'm working through the guilt I feel about leaving my child while she cries. In doing so, I'm learning four things:

1) Sometimes the best way to teach your child that they will be okay is to assure them that they will be fine, kiss them goodbye, and then let them go, no matter how much you want to live the hard parts for them. The only way for your child to learn she will be fine in the end is to go through the experience and end up fine in the end.

2) Sometimes a little guilt is good because it means I am striving to overcome the pressure to be a perfect mother who never needs to work and who would rather eat glass than leave her child with other caregivers (all of whom are tremendously qualified and caring and truly interested in comforting and attending to my daughter, no matter how much she may be channeling The Exorcist at any given moment).

3) Sometimes these experiences are a greater lesson for the parent than the child. In this case, I am reminding myself that this is just a smaller, less-stressful practice run of what will inevitably occur when The Bambina becomes The Surly Adolescent. Repeat after me: "I am doing what is best for my child. I am not her friend; I am her mother. I will make it through the times when she does not like me."

4) Mogel said it best: "Your child is not your masterpiece. According to Jewish thought, your child is not even truly "yours." In Hebrew there is no verb for possession; the expression we translate as "to have," yesh li, actually means "it is there for me" or "there is for me." Although nothing belongs to us, God has made everything available on loan and has invited us to borrow it to further the purpose of holiness. This includes our children. They are a precious loan, and each one has a unique path toward serving God. Our job is to help them find out what it is."


Miko said...

So, I did what any loving, caring, deeply moved parent would do: I bolted.

Speaking from hard-won experience of my three years teaching in the kindergarten salt mines: You did exactly the right thing. Happily and confidently say "You're going to have a great day, I know. See you this afternoon." And smile and say bye-bye. This is how your daughter knows you believe in her skills, that you don't have any fears for her because you know she can handle things. The parents who drag out a half-hour's tearful goodbye are doing so much damage to their children's self-esteem, all because they haven't addresses their own need.

Anonymous said...

That has to be the hardest thing to do, but it seems like you handled it perfectly.

Thanks for the commentary on "to have" in Hebrew. I never knew that, and think it is a very interesting way of looking at life. I just wish more people actually thought that way instead of what "to have" is in english these days.