My guilt over the childhood I gave them is sometimes like a bundle of cinderblocks I drag behind me.
Recently, I went to the ER with sciatica so bad I couldn’t stop howling from the pain. My left leg felt like it was in a vice from my hip to the top of my foot, the result of weeks and weeks of lower back spasms and pain that I get whenever I’m stressed. Eventually, those spasms irritated my sciatic nerve severely enough to put me on the bed, wailing and writing with pain.
When I later described this miserable episode to a friend, she asked, “Why did you wait so long to go to the doctor if you’d been in pain for more than a month?”
Without thought, I responded, “I deserve the pain.”
I’m not always aware of it, but there’s a part of me that believes that I deserve to suffer.
Pregnant with my first child in 1993, I dreamed of all the ways I would give my baby a better childhood than I had, free of the emotional turmoil and traumas that impeded my own parents’ desires for a peaceful, happy family life.
I can’t possibly overstate the naÃ¯veté of my 22-year-old pregnant self, going for long walks in downtown Albuquerque, meditating on the wonderful life I would create for my family.
Now, as my three eldest children round the corner out of adolescence and into adulthood and my youngest is just a few months from becoming a teenager, my guilt over the childhood I gave them is sometimes like a bundle of cinderblocks I drag behind me on chains.
When I descend into this nasty spiral of regret and shame, therapists and spiritual advisers and friends urge me to focus on the good parts, the things I did well, and of course there are memories like that. There were hours and hours spent cuddled together on the couch reading books; the mornings they came into my bed and enjoyed talking so long that we had to rush to get to school on time; the fancy lunches out we had every year after school registration. There were happy Christmas mornings and joyful birthday parties and jokes and games. There was my advocacy for my youngest child’s educational and healthcare needs, my efforts to co-parent effectively with my eldest children’s dad, and my presence with a cool cloth and soothing words when any of my kids was ill or injured.
But often, the damage done by my many poor decisions, mistakes, and missteps looms so large that there aren’t enough kitchen dance party memories to drown them out. They clatter noisily in my skull, paralyzing me emotionally. For every backyard picnic, there were mornings when I was too depressed to wake my kids with anything but the most cursory interaction. For each hour I lovingly tended them when they were ill or injured, there were more hours when I emotionally neglected my three eldest children because I was overwhelmed by their youngest brother’s special needs. For all the depth of love I felt for them, there is the agonizing fact of my two eldest kids’ alienation from me, and my inability to break that stalemate for years.
Sometimes, the guilt and regret bring me to my knees, begging for another chance, a rewind, a do-over.
The universe never grants do-overs, of course. It is a terrible truth of time that it moves ever forward, impervious to human sorrow. I can no more fix what I’ve broken than change the course of the ocean tides. The curious thing is, among the painful experiences of my children’s lives, there were things I did wrong and things that happened to us over which I had no control, yet I feel equally guilty for all the things that hurt them.
I know my regret is worse than useless. It is emotional poison, and the more I punish myself for the mistakes of the past, the less effective I am as a parent in the present, exacerbating problems instead of easing them. Whatever I may or may not deserve, allowing myself to be emotionally incapacitated and physically damaged by my own regret does nothing to help anyone, my children included. However much I flagellate myself, the past is apathetic and unmoving.
Ultimately, in these episodes of pathological retrospection, I reach a place where my regret is so destructive that I regret my regret, sort of like emotional compound interest, a thing that can only grow.
My task now is to give up all hope of a better past because time is relentless, and while some deep and ugly part of me believes I deserve suffer, I know that’s not true. In any case, whatever I do or don’t deserve, my kids still want me to show up for them, to be my best self in my relationships with them.
My friend, after I told her that I deserved the pain (and after I cried for a long time) asked me, “Is there anything your kids could do that would make you think they should just hurt like hell for the rest of their lives?”
“No,” I said, “nothing.”
“So?” she said.
Photo: Blake Verdoorn