Guilt: rite of passage, or wasteful emotion?

I’ve literally lost count of the number of times that I have sat worrying about whether or not I could have done things differently or handled a particular situation better. I try to tell myself that this is because I am constantly striving to improve. In reality though, I suspect that it has more to do with nagging self-doubt, and the awful realisation that life simply doesn’t come with a handbook.

I remember attending an antenatal class with my husband when we were expecting our first child. There we were, eager to learn the craft of parenting – and somehow naïve enough to think that three 45-minute sessions would suffice! We sat on the edge of our seats, earnestly focusing upon the midwife whose (unenviable) task it was, to talk us through labour and birth – which she did, with almost unseemly alacrity, and in glorious technicolour! As I glanced around the room, a real assortment of reactions was on display; from the overt smugness of a young (and very glamorous) couple, to the mild panic etched upon the face of a young single mum-to-be. And I don’t mind admitting that we were undeniably in the ‘Oh my goodness, what have we let ourselves in for?’ camp, clutching at thinly veiled humour to bolster our ever so rapidly dwindling confidence! One of the things that struck me then though (and haunts me even now) was the stark realisation that we would be taking on enormous responsibility and that, quite possibly, nothing that we did from this point onwards would ever be quite good enough. A truly sobering thought!

Anyway, whilst this facet of our lives is still very much a ‘work in progress’ (both boys mercifully having lasted an awful lot longer than any house plant hitherto entrusted to our care), it feels like an opportune moment to share our progress to date…

At nearly 35, and having recently lost both parents, I was blessed with the arrival of a beautiful baby boy. At a whopping 9 lbs 1 oz (and making his appearance in something akin to a Superman pose) he certainly made his presence known! However, as if by way of atonement, he was an incredibly easy baby – sleeping through the night at just a few weeks old and calmly embracing each developmental milestone at his own pace. And so, having initially been rather doubtful as to my suitability as a Mum, I began to wonder if I was in fact Mother Nature?! I became enormously adept at accepting coffee invitations and chatting amiably to other mums (often above the shrill cries of their new-borns) whilst my own little bundle of joy slept contentedly in my arms.   

Imagine my shock then, when a ‘real’ baby arrived some three years later… One that had an aversion to sleeping, feeding or in fact complying in any small way with my (evidently) feeble attempts at parenting! Literally overnight, I seemed to have gone from having a calm malleable pre-schooler to being that parent who feels duty bound to apologise on arrival for the chaos that will inevitably ensue as a result of her child being within a 5-mile radius.

I can’t tell you how many times I have left a soft-play centre, school playground or children’s party at breakneck speed (and with tears pricking my eyes) because my youngest has (in true wrecking ball style) ‘imposed’ his ideas upon his peers. Or frantically scoured the area for any sign of a little boy in a (deliberately chosen) bright red coat who has managed to take advantage of a momentary lapse in concentration and disappeared without trace, only to re-appear many long minutes later unashamedly proud of the utter panic that he has managed to engender. And each time, I have blamed myself unreservedly – not just for his distressing behaviour, but for the woeful negativity of my response to that behaviour too. Because for every loss of self-control, lack of empathy or act of belligerence, there will also be a spontaneous hug, infectious giggle, or funny retort just around the corner and I’m left wondering how on earth to strike a ‘happy medium’, whilst also reeling at the complexity of it all. 

Rather regrettably, 2021 has begun in very much the same vein as 2020 ended – peppered with challenges, uncertainty, and heartbreak. The ‘new normal’ at work is quite alien from the job I used to love, and ‘remote examining’ feels very different from being ‘on the road’ too, where meeting candidates of all ages and backgrounds was a large part of the attraction.

For once then, my New Year’s resolution has nothing to do with weight loss, fitness goals, or even a commitment to consume less alcohol – although the latter would certainly be beneficial! This year, although my role as a parent remains largely unchanged, it is my approach that I am hoping to modify, because I have come to realise that (whilst I never hesitate to berate myself savagely for every time that I have lacked the composure to deal sensitively with a situation) I frequently fail to acknowledge the successes too.

Perhaps ‘guilt’ is simply the mantle borne by all parents? A rite of passage, as it were? However, if nothing else, the last 12 months have demonstrated to us all that life presents numerous challenges (some entirely beyond our control) and I wonder, therefore, if we shouldn’t all be a little kinder to ourselves – and dispense with what my Dad frequently referred to as a ‘wasteful emotion’?