There are a lot of things a person can feel guilty about. And “guilty” is such a wonderful word to describe the feeling. It tucks in on itself, hiding its face, but its tail is always sticking out, never letting it hide all the way. Guilty. A great, anthropomorphic word. Guilty. A less-than-great way to feel.
As a mother, I think it’s easy to feel guilt as a squelchy emotion that is just as common as bursting love and blackened exasperation. I’ve been feeling overly squelchy lately, and I feel like it’s time to confess. I am watching as my vibrant, terrifyingly smart daughter skirts around the alluring, white-hot fringes of anxiety. The stomachaches, the finger biting, the sleepless nights, the fast heartbeats… I’m watching it happen and I’m trying to help, but the only two things I can think are “It’s all my fault” and “I’m throwing half-full buckets on small, but growing flames.”
I can see you flip your head to the side and purse your lips and shake your finger at me. “It is not your fault,” you’d say if we were out for coffee. “These kinds of things are brain things, they’re not fault things.” And you’d be sort of right, because, yes, I totally believe an anxious brain is wired to be that way. Genetically, the child was gifted with her mother’s propensity to worry and fret. My fault without being my fault.
Maybe that’s something she and I can talk about: belief versus worry. Truth versus fretting. Faith versus clutching on with fingernails for dear life.
But the thing is, even with a brain wired to lean towards this life of rapid heartbeats and anxiousness, I think so many things have happened to encourage this rather than fight against it. I think that circumstances have become a bellows, puffing up these flames, and I have been at fault for squeezing the bellows with my own two hands.
This is what I find on repeat inside my head: I had to wean her before she was ready. I went to the doctor one day and didn’t come home for five weeks because I was immediately hospitalized. Her younger brother was born way too early and needed more hands and attention than four babies combined. There were weeks and months I spent caring for him out of town. There were weeks and months I spent caring for him in town—but lost in my own worry and angst.
Could I have changed anything about these situations? No. Can someone be faulted for things like this? No. Should I put them all behind me? Yes. Do I wonder if they’ve had some long-lasting effect? Yes.
Maybe this litany of worry and second-guessing is how every parent feels when it comes to a younger child or a middle child, and our situation just has some exclamation points and hairy close-ups. There is never enough time for everyone. This is how you learn sacrifice and empathy, right?
And now I watch her, a 6-year-old who in some ways is absolutely fearless, but in other ways trembles and quakes, and I want to clap my hands and fill her brain with endless whispers of how smart and strong she is. But I can’t be with her when she needs these whispers the most. I am not assigned to sit at her table during reading time. I do not sit across the mat from her during spelling lessons.
I make up for this by hugging her tight and feeding her frozen blueberries and agreeing to dyslexia testing and telling her over and over how much I love her. But I never stop worrying that she doesn’t hear me over her own voice in her head. I never stop worrying that she hears “I love you” from me—but with an asterisk at the end.
So that is what troubles me on this rainy Monday, when paperwork has been signed and testing agreed to, and meetings have been had, and teachers and administrators have linked arms with parents to try to form a chain of loving adults who will not let this child think she’s not good enough or smart enough or strong enough to take over the world.
Our arms are linked, and we are being vigilant and proactive and all of those words with stiff backs and shiny shoes, but I fear she can still slip through our links. I fear she’s spent so much time being self-reliant over these formative years that she would rather fight the fight alone than with help.
These are my fears, though. Not my beliefs. I don’t believe she’ll slip through our linked arms. I don’t believe she will end up not feeling smart and brave and strong. I don’t believe she will spend her life under a cloud of anxiety. I worry about it. But I don’t believe it. Maybe that’s something she and I can talk about. Belief versus worry. Truth versus fretting. Faith versus clutching on with fingernails for dear life. Our past experiences are the things that give us inspiration and color and perspective, right? Our future experiences are all the amazing things we can do with the pieces and parts that make us unique, yes? A stomachache in the morning because of reading challenges in school does not mean you aren’t as smart as a rocket scientist.
I hope she can understand that I don’t do anything for her with an asterisk at the end. I will always be on her side. I might get exasperated. I might not have all the answers. The answers I do have might not be the ones she wants. But I will always be looking for answers. I will always be asking questions. We are learning together.
I will try to stop letting guilt tuck its little head into the back of my shirt collar and whisper in my ear. And I will do my best to keep my positive voice louder than the self-doubt that whispers in my daughter’s ear. She must learn that the world is hers for the taking. She must learn that whoever controls the bellows controls the flames.
So we will squeeze the bellows together. Not to fan the flames of anxiety, or to start new fires, but to fan our hair out behind us like superheroes. Superheroes running to the action, not away from it. But in slow motion, through the warm breeze.
This post originally appeared on the author’s blog Haiku of the Day.