Last time, I discussed our first attempt to go out without the babies. Between the crying, the panic attacks and the general feeling of having chopped off a limb and posted it to a distant relative with a Paddington-style note outlining parental responsibilities, I think it’s fair to say it went rather well.
Although, if we’re being honest, it wasn’t the first time we’d left them. The first true time was a couple of days into life as new parents. Our midwife had suggested we take a break and go to the hospital café for an hour or so. Being dutiful parents, we declined at first, but being easily guilt-tripped by others, we soon accepted against our better judgement. We went for a long walk around the grounds and settled in the coffee shop for a drink. I’m never the biggest Costa fan (too hot, bit bland) but that was a particularly uncomfortable visit. After an incredibly anxious hour, we headed back to the ward, only to discover we’d been gone a little over ten minutes. Ah, well.
Above all the emotions flying round at that time, and there were a lot – feelings more potent than a film about a Christmas puppy with an incurable wasting disease on the Hallmark Channel, in fact – the overriding sensation was one of guilt. Deep, unshakable guilt.
While that feeling is understandable in the context of abandoning your little ones, it doesn’t explain why the feeling of guilt never fully goes away. Ever, in fact.
You could be stood, looking over your little ones with puma-like reactions, ready to tend to their every need, and yet above all the joy and pride you feel, there’s that guilt again. Sitting in the corner of your mind, niggling away at you like that unopened tub of coleslaw that remains warm and untouched at a family buffet. No matter how you try and ignore that feeling, you can’t. It’s there. Always.
Why do we feel so guilty as new parents? Granted we all make mistakes, but isn’t that just part and parcel of figuring out our new role? I guess, though it’s fair to say that the stakes are demonstrably higher than if you’re… I don’t know, learning to drill a hole in a wall. Sure, once that wall plug is in there, there’s no getting it out, even if it now protrudes from your wall like a third nipple on the landing. But at least you can cover it with a picture. If you screw up while you’re parenting, it’s much harder to hang an out-of-focus holiday snap on it and call it a do-over.
If you misjudge something when it comes to your child, who knows what will happen. You could inadvertently teach them that spitting is to be applauded, and open flames are to be embraced. You could stunt their physical and/or emotional development, setting them back days, weeks or even months. The worst case scenario doesn’t even bear thinking about, but it’s a damn sight more permanent than a peeping Rawlplug.
The problem is, no matter how careful or considered you are, you’re always bound to second guess yourself. For all my wife’s many talents, notoriously she’s the sort of person who orders food at a restaurant and endures the rest of the meal in a constant state of regret. Myself, I deliberate for hours over an outfit and then spend my evening surreptitiously tugging at my shirt so it doesn’t shape itself around my substantial curves. Between us, we can’t really be trusted to settle on clear decisions. Now imagine that dilemma, every five minutes when you’re deciding whether these pink squishy bundles need another feed, or more sleep, or a nappy change. The mental gymnastics we go through to settle on an answer we, deep down, knew made sense all along is frankly embarrassing. But it’s par for the course, I suppose. You don’t make an omelette without carefully choosing then re-choosing your eggs, before smashing them onto the rim of a bowl and scooping up the overspill with your sleeve.
When you’re struggling to know how to do things, the obvious answer is to ask for help. However, it’s never quite that simple…
The frontrunners in the advice steaks are obviously: your parents. They’ve been here, they’ve done that, heck your dad’s probably got a hideous t-shirt he printed himself with his office inkjet printer for your 21st birthday. Yet, here’s the problem with speaking to parents – you feel you’ve got to take their advice. And if you don’t? Hello guilt! I was starting to miss you for a second, there.
And it’s not that parents don’t have good advice, they do. It’s more that, they can’t always see when it doesn’t apply to you. Everybody parents differently, and that’s great. But when you tap up your loved ones for advice, they’re always quick to assume their way holds the key to unlocking those stubborn feeds or disruptive nights. When really, like almost anything with parenting, it’s all down to blind luck and whether or not your child will deem it acceptable to humour you on this occasion.
That said, once the advice faucet is turned on, it’s very hard to turn it off again. Or at least turn it down to a gentle trickle. Parents – for all their many wonders – have an indescribable knack for upping the guilt. They don’t mean it of course; they’re really just trying to do their best, like all of us. But it’s odd, once that guilt takes hold, it shapes the way your mind processes information. A relatively innocuous suggestion that you should maybe try rocking your crying baby, soon sounds like an earth-shattering criticism in the style of Carmina Burana as played on a symphony of vuvuzelas. Before you know it, you’re questioning whether you’ve ever rocked your baby, or if you’ve rocked them too much (imaginary criticisms can be sarcastic, you know?). As I say, it’s never meant in this fashion, but before long your defences are up and you’re rattling off a series of reasons why it’s a good suggestion but maybe not appropriate in this setting.
Parents, more than likely, don’t care what advice you use and what you discard, and yet that cheery jingle of shame plays in your head and tells you that not only are you a bad parent, but a bad child for rejecting your own parent’s good ideas. That’s exponential guilt, and that’s quite an achievement on less than three hours sleep.
So if you can’t turn to your loved ones, who can you turn to – parenting books? Those people on This Morning who rock up for a phone-in on breastfeeding in public? Bloggers?
While any of the above may be a good suggestion, they too will hit that guilt button faster than a tiny-handed Trump in the War Room. Especially bloggers. No offence to bloggers – of which I’m admittedly a poor imitation – but their often perfect-looking lives can have a bigger effect on you than seeing them struggle. However, a lot of these bloggers live their lives through a filter, a sepia-toned veneer of competence that’s easy to create but not so easy to follow through on. Not all of them, I have to say. The conversation around parenting seem to have shifted from one of joy and lightness, to one of frank, honest discussion around its hardships. But that too can be tricky. Sometimes when all you need is a solution, you’re left with a greater sense of hopelessness. And yes, I see the irony.
The fact is, guilt will never go away. No matter what you try, or even how successful you are with your parenting, you’re always left feeling like you can and should be doing better. So what’s the solution?
I wish I had the answer. I don’t. My wife and I feel very fortunate to be in charge of two sprogs that are very little fuss from day to day. But that in itself produces guilt. We feel guilty when we talk to other parents who are finding it difficult; guilty that we should probably be doing more to get ourselves to that stage as well – as though we’re freewheeling this whole thing. And then of course, there’s feeling guilty about all these feelings of guilt we harbour. But this is too late in the post to get into double-decker disappointment.
There will always be guilt. But I think eventually, you have to learn to embrace it. I’ve learnt that there is nothing I can do or think, that won’t, at some point, make me doubt myself. All you can do is make the best choice you can in that moment: if it all works out, you’re laughing (and probably crying), if it doesn’t then thankfully you’re already brimming with guilt, so what’s a few more shovels-worth on top of that?
Guilt is like terrible flatulence. If you learn to cope with the suffocating atmosphere it creates, then eventually you’ll be able to shrug off each and every guff.
Become one with your guilt, because it’s not really a feeling of culpability. It’s the feeling of being a parent.