Guilt – that feeling as a parent that hangs over you at times, feeling inadequate and sometimes lost, wondering if you really are the answer to your child’s needs. If somehow you could only find the right parenting book that could show you the way through and provide the answers, because really, something must be terribly wrong if you feel so guilty? Right? Actually, no … not necessarily, sometimes guilt is the best evidence that you are indeed the very answer your child needs.
The reality is that we too are a work in progress (hopefully farther along the road than our children), and there is nothing like having a child that calls to the forefront our own shortcomings and areas of immaturities. The best therapy one could ever do is to have a child because in trying to be their answer you come face to face with your own areas in need of growth. For example, in trying to hold onto the frustration and tantrums of a preschooler, means we must hold onto our own frustration and keep our reactions in check. It is the love for our children that can call forth within us this motivation and desire to be more and to not repeat the things that didn’t work for us as a child. And so to this desire we give ourselves fully, and in it’s wake our guilt appears, showing us where we have fallen short of these goals and how we have served to sometimes harm the very ones we strive to take care of. It is this guilt and conflict about who we are and who we want to be to our children, that actually helps us form intentions to do differently.
The other side of guilt is the existential reality that in seeing yourself as your child’s answer you can experience guilt for everything … from the bruised knees to the sadness they experience when you leave for work. It is only because you see yourself as responsible for them that you experience this guilt at all, and it is the very best manifestation of it. If truth were told, I worry most for the children whose parents don’t ever feel guilty. And if you look at it from a child’s point of view, they can graciously and willingly forgive when their parents make mistakes. What children can have a harder time understanding is a lack of guilt in their parents when harm is done.
We live in a culture that doesn’t support tears and guilt, but they are both part of what serves to keep us human. When you are able to find your tears about the ways you fall short as a parent – then, and only then – can you begin to find your way through. All of the time we run from our demons we are at their mercy and are threatened to be swallowed whole by them. Guilt is a message, an unwelcome one sometimes, but one worth listening to if you have the courage.
Becoming the answer to your child is impossible without experiencing guilt and it needs to find its rightful place in our psyche. Guilt keeps us honest and real, pointing us in the direction of being the parent our children deserve. The only guilt that is worth getting rid of is feeling guilty about feeling guilty. Its very existence is the expression of our deepest yearning to be our child’s best bet, and to that I say, guilty as charged.
Deborah MacNamara, Ph.D., is a parent consultant, counsellor and educator in private practice in Vancouver. She has interned with Dr. Gordon Neufeld and provides leadership to the Neufeld Institute. For more information please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or www.macnamara.ca