Motherhood Guilt and Mary Poppins - What does your guilt look like?

 It follows after the season of goodwill: the season of guilt. It is traditional in January, either because we overindulged at Christmas - spent, drank, ate too much - or because we have already broken our New Year’s resolutions, a mere two weeks since we made them. Apparently, however, it is what most mother-makers feel the whole year round. At every Open Space event that I have hosted under the Mothers Who Makebanner someone has called a session simply entitled, “Guilt” and whenever the word is said out loud there is an audible reaction – laughter, sighs, clicks of the tongue.

           Guilt: as a mother and a maker I get a double dose. It is so normal, so much a part of the fabric of my everyday experience that I take it for granted, as constant as the sky. If I check into my own guilt-list from the last 12 hours alone it contains the following items: failing to get my daughter to eat any fresh foods; looking at the computer when I should have been clearing up the supper; snapping at my son when he was jumping up on the loo and postponing brushing his teeth (actually I was snapping at him because I was already feeling guilty about my mother and how I think I have inadequately supported her around the sale of her house); not managing to get the children into bed before 9.15pm; taking a phone call at 10pm which kept my son awake; not getting myself into bed before midnight; still not having caught up on my emails since before Christmas; still not having managed to re-establish my daily writing practice; still not having got back to writing my novel, which is what I am really supposed to be doing…..and this is by no means the complete list. Nor does it include the long-term list, the kind that make up the formula, “Because I did X (e.g. ate too much sugar in my pregnancy/ breast-fed too long/ too short etc.) my child has turned out Y (hyperactive/ violent/ addictive etc.) - the list that lays everything at the mother’s doorstep and makes me think I should be saving now for my children’s therapy later. 

           If I take a step back it saddens and outrages me. The mothers and makers that I know and with whom I have connected through the growing MWM network are the hardest working people I have met, the most crazily underpaid, attempting to do vital, if unrecognised work – raising the next generation, reflecting on the state of their own. They are trying to do nothing but good in the world. There is a ludicrous mismatch between the amount of guilt they carry and the important and positive work of caring and creating with which they are so deeply engaged. What is going on?!

           My two year old daughter is far more practical than me and currently, when faced with any quandary she heads for the tool box. She knows where the screwdrivers live. I will follow her lead and reach into my creative toolbox now – there are two things in there that might come in handy.

           The first is an understanding I gained about the dynamics of guilt from training in Non-Violent Communication (NVC). Guilt is a form of self-judgement, as differentiated from shame, which focuses on other people’s judgements. Guilt entails an internal critic (though there may be a ton of shame and plenty of external critics hanging about as well!), the kind of self-talk that starts off with phrases like, “You should have…” “You are rubbish because…”. However, dip beneath the judgements and there is a value at stake, a principle that you hold dear, a need that your actions did not manage to fulfil. Look a second time at your actions and you will find that there is another need, equally precious, which you were trying to meet by doing whatever you did. So, for example, when I snapped at my son at tooth-brushing time, I did not act in accordance with my deeply held belief that children deserve respect. I did not speak to him as I would wish him to speak to me. At the same time I had some other, equally dear needs, that I was trying to look after when I snapped – wanting to tend to my son’s health and teeth (which are not in a good way!), wanting him to get into bed in time to get enough rest, longing for some space for myself to be able to process the day, including my care for my mother. This was a moment – 5 seconds – and yet it is all there, and when I recognise and name the needs I was attempting to look after, and the ones I failed to look after, I feel sad rather than guilty. If underneath all guilt there are unmet needs, cares, and strongly held beliefs, seemingly pitted against one another in the moment, it is no wonder that the mothers and makers of the land feel guilt-ridden. Passion and care are part of our job description. There is so much that we are each holding. So many strands. So much potential for guilt. What to do?

           I am going in for the second tool in the creative toolbox. This time it comes from the Process Work that I have done, working with Improbable. Instead of seeing the guilt, the internal critic that holds great power, as a problem, there is an exercise you can do where you find out how it might become your ally, a force to support instead of an energy that drains. I am going to try to do this fast now, in writing. Here goes…..

           My guilt, in the bathroom with my son, besides the toothbrushes, takes on a form in my mind– she is a perfect woman, upright, always kind, smiling, wearing a stripy pinafore, whilst she tells me, in no uncertain terms that I have failed again. I look down at her feet, and they are sharply turned out. She is taking out a tape measure and measuring me – she tells me I measure up as, “Trying hard, but not good at boundary-holding.” She measures herself: “Practically perfect” she says. To my great surprise my guilt-critic has morphed into Mary Poppins. We watched Mary Poppinsat Christmas with the children, and then went to see Mary Poppins Returnsat the cinema on Sunday. My daughter keeps requesting that we sing, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” together. As I slow down and imagine being Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way, holding her tape measure to prove it, I can also feel a tug inside my chest, like the pull of a kite string. It is at once related to the pain, the pull of guilt, and it is also its exact opposite, because a kite string, on the wind, tugs upwards not down. “With your feet on the groundYou’re a bird in flightWith your fist holding tightTo the string of your kite…”

           So here is a kind of answer for me tonight, an image to which I can connect in the next moment that I need it, a way to remember the incredible forces, the longings, strong as the wind, which are out there and in me. I remember how I wrote at the start of this piece that my guilt was as constant as the sky. Now this strikes me as a strangely positive image – a place of flight, where wonders can happen, where practically perfect nannies and carers can appear. What I love about the Poppins’ kite song is how we get to stay on the ground and be in the clouds, how our hands are in fists and yet also in flight. When I next close my hand into a fist to beat myself up, I will try to feel the pull of the kite string inside it, the upward tug of all the things I care about. 

Here then are your questions for the month, your homework – don’t feel guilty if you don’t answer them. Or do, feel excessively guilty, and find out what that’s really like and where it is tugging you:

What are the items on your guilt-list?
What are the needs and longings underneath them?

What does your guilt look like? Can you imagine it as a figure?

If you slow down, what wisdom might that figure be holding for you? How could it be an ally to you?