A few weeks ago, Jackson dipped his toe into the “testing Mommy” waters for the first time. While I was feeding him some concoction of mushed-up vegetables in his high chair, he discovered he could make a fun mess by blowing the puree out of his mouth — followed with a squeal of delight which I tried unsuccessfully tempering with a firm “No.” After about 10 bouts of this, he took the fun to the next level by trying to reach for his bowl of veggies and throw it on the floor — prompting a swift and loud reaction from me. Immediately, his face crumpled, his eyes got big, and then he welled with tears, lapsing into a pathetic little cry that persisted for some time. As did my guilt at losing my temper at a then-7-month-old baby.
I’d heard that parental guilt is something most parents, especially first-timers like us, experience, but I was surprised by how pervasive and profound of a feeling it is. In reflecting on these feelings, I hypothesized that the instances that have plagued me and Ashlee with guilt seem to stem from three different sources (alliteration entirely unintended): forgetfulness, frustration or fear — and sometimes all three.
There aren’t enough hours in the day for most people, especially parents, whose responsibilities seem to explode exponentially, as do the consequences for not fulfilling them. Before I had a child, if my schedule got hectic and something fell off my to-do list, it meant the grass seed I’d planted wouldn’t get watered or a work call would have to be rescheduled for the next day. Now, almost all of our responsibilities revolve around Jackson (who needs new grass, anyway?), and if we forget a step of his routine or something he needs, it seems vastly more significant, as we’re 100 percent responsible for this little life.
For instance, the Friday before St. Patrick’s Day, Ashlee texted me a few minutes after dropping Jackson at daycare, lamenting her embarrassment: She had walked in to a sea of green-clad little ones, whose parents had dressed them in their St. Patty’s finest, while our little guy was dressed head to toe all in black. We’ve forgotten to send an extra pair of clothes to daycare and, after the inevitable accident, he has come home wearing the ill-fitting outfit they keep on hand for the forgetful parents. If we forget to clips his nails — an agonizing process that seems to need to be done every two days — our eczema-laden little guy is covered with tiny scratches all over his face.
In reality, I know the consequences aren’t dire and pale in comparison to what many other parents deal with, but parents in general have such lofty expectations placed on them by society, which many of us try to emulate — simultaneously being the best parent, employee, spouse, family member, friend, etc. — that, if even the memory falters, it feels like end of days. This is greatly exacerbated by that sneaking feeling, I’m guessing most new parents have, that we’re just impostors who have no idea what we’re doing and will never measure up to other parents. Marry all of that to our social-media society, where perfectly pristine and polished photos of smiling infants convey a highly distorted view of reality with a baby, and it’s no wonder so many parents feel inadequate.
Especially in the beginning, when Jackson was waking up every half-hour throughout the night, the frustration was boundless. Once, after an hour of trying everything known to man to get him to go back to sleep, he finally drifted off–and as I stood up to carry him back to his bassinet, he woke with a start and revved back up, causing me to scream loudly and plop him on the nearest soft surface to tag Ashlee in because I was so frustrated with him. More recently, after several hours of mania involving the dog eating a dirty diaper, projectile vomit and an interrupted nap, I threw my hands in the air and just let him scream in his bouncer for a few minutes while I went and washed a dish just so I could feel accomplished. Just this week, I had him and the dog out for an afternoon walk and, despite the fact he had only slept a few minutes at daycare, he refused to sleep — his overtiredness morphing into a meltdown. My soothing tones got all the less soothing; I debated whisking him home to cuddle up in his rocker, but, knowing that would then leave the dog without a walk and an unmanageable energy level, I put in ear buds, turned up the volume and let him eventually cry himself to sleep as we walked.
A severe lack of time, often coupled with a severe lack of sleep, makes for a boatload of frustration. Expressing that frustration at an infant is nonsensical, but sometimes it has nowhere else to go, setting off a cascade of guilty feelings.
A good portion of things that incite guilt, I’ve realized, are connected to our presumption, as mentioned before, that we have no idea what the hell we’re doing — and that each and every tiny decision we make could have a significant impact on Jackson’s wellbeing — his physical health, growth and development or emotional adjustment.
Since the day after he started daycare in October, he’s been sick — run-of-the-mill colds, respiratory syncytial virus and double pink eye among his diagnoses. Constant illness and daycare go hand in hand, but that hasn’t stopped us from blaming ourselves. Did we not wash our hands after touching that shopping cart? Is that rash related a new veggie we were too eager to introduce? Every time I’ve taken Jackson out on a walk in his stroller this spring, I’ve second-guessed myself if it’s warm enough, or if I should have put a hat on him. Ashlee has even wondered if she passed on some inherited immunity disorder to our sniffling little guy.
Now that he’s becoming more mobile, we’re always trying to walk the line between being too protective and not cautious enough. We want to let him try pulling himself up on his own, but his uncoordinated little body often flops over — should we catch him each time, or let him learn to pick himself back up? He recently started scooting along the floor, and I tried positioning his legs to show him how to progress to full-fledged crawling — and then kicked myself for being overbearing. We try to read to him before bed each night but sometimes, after a long day, getting up to get a book seems like too much of a challenge and vegging out together in front of the TV wins out — is that going to poison his mind? And as every modern parent of a youngster has found, sometimes a mobile device — as much as I want to keep it out of his hand as long as possible — just does the trick. Occasionally, a few good renditions of “Baby Shark” is all he needs to chill out.
Perhaps the hardest to handle are the fears about his emotional development. When we started the cry-it-out method to ease him into sleeping through the night, it was torture. Despite research to the contrary, we fretted that letting him cry — even though it has never been longer than 15 minutes — would cause deep attachment issues later in life. Dropping him at daycare is another guilt-inducing occasion. Though we know he enjoys being with the other kids and the constant stimulation, it’s hard to silence the nagging worry about whether that early separation from us will impact him in the future. Recently, that fear got ratcheted up when I had to take a business trip to Las Vegas for four days. Starting the morning I got back, every time I would leave a room, Jackson would cry — which convinced me that my absence had instilled a deep-seated separation anxiety that would cripple him for life.
Of course, 99 percent of all of these fears are probably nonsense — but dismissing them with logic isn’t always easy. That’s why I think it’s so important for parents to be more realistic, as learning that other people have the same issues with forgetfulness, frustrations and fears can be a major shot in the arm for those whose confidence is faltering.
I am going to try to commit myself to poking fun at my own “failings” as a parent (I sent Jackson to daycare wearing two vastly different socks the other day), or to give a smile and nod (or a helping hand) to that parent at the supermarket self-consciously juggling groceries and a screaming baby. When many of us in the LGBTQ community were coming out, we likely felt like we were the only people in the world experiencing what we were — and, in hindsight, can see how much we could have benefitted from hearing from those in the same boat. Knowing that many others have battled self-doubt about their parenting and come out the other side — with a beautiful, healthy and well-adjusted kid to boot! — is just the medicine this guilt-ridden parent needs.