“DO YOU remember the day you tried to ram a banana down my throat?” my daughter Abby asked me recently. I had hoped that she had forgotten. Irritated by other parents’ faddy offspring, I had promised myself that my children would eat everything. I should have known better.
Abby, aged seven, turned into the worst picky monster overnight. Filled with an unreasonable anxiety that she would starve to death, I had grabbed the banana that she was obstinately refusing and attempted force feeding. Not one of my best mothering moments. And one that I relive with a certain shame.
Most mothers are beset with guilt at what they did and did not do, making a mockery of twee Mothering Sunday cards about the gentle, selfless paragons that we often feel that we’re not.
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) meant that my own mother was more interested in the good behaviour of her curtains than her children. I don’t remember ever being on her knee, or her reading me a story. I was determined not to be like her — though I now wonder whether her mind wasn’t dislocated by the “occupational compulsive disorder” that stems from what a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work, Dr Brené Brown, calls the uniquely female pressure of “Do it all, do it perfectly, and never let them see you sweat.”
Until that moment when you held your first baby, you had thought yourself a fairly easygoing sort of person: anger issues were dealt with, temper was firmly under control. But, within weeks of sleepless nights, unexplained crying, and feeding problems (why does baby not know breastfeeding is best?), you discover, with shock, that lurking within you is some kind of harridan that shouts and screams, and is even tempted to lash out. All those aspirations to be the perfect mother evaporate, because no one told you what exhaustion would feel like — or what it could do to you.
Unlike my mother, I was going to give my children quality time; but my images of motherhood vanished in the multiple tasks of daily survival: shopping, cleaning, tidying, cooking, ferrying. And that was before I went out to work full-time and returned — cream-crackered rather than just exhausted — to a vicarage, with phone and doorbell ringing and a pavlova to make for the bring-and-share supper.
One day, as I caught sight of my husband, Peter, playing with the children, fondness at the laughter and fun curdled into fear that I was, indeed, turning into my mother. It was Peter who read the children Bible stories in the morning in our bed; I was the sleeping partner, literally.
Yet there were also many wonderful moments when I would have kept my two from growing up if I could — when having children was the greatest privilege in the world. And, I have to say, I came into my own when they were teenagers and Peter could not quite get his head around what kind of ailment that was.
So, why the guilt? Perhaps because we have only one shot at being a mother. It is an awesome responsibility, and we dare not mess it up.
Mothers are haunted by their mistakes, convinced that they might inflict lasting emotional damage on the offspring they love more than life itself. I remember once, in my usual rush, and needing something for the evening meal, I propped my bicycle, with my then two-year-old son Joel in the child seat, against the butcher’s window. The bike toppled, and Joel landed on the pavement.
Years later, my blood still runs cold when I think about the possible consequences of that fall. And yet this man now does a 50-mile round trip to work in the centre of London every day, on a bike; so evidently there was no psychological damage.
I clung to 1 Peter 4.8: “Love covers a multitude of sins.” Dr Brown says that vulnerability breaks the bonds of self-imposed perfectionism. As we go through Lent, confession might involve apologising not just to God, but to them, admitting our mistakes, explaining that the damning words we spoke in anger and frustration were untrue, and, if we went too far, that our behaviour was not acceptable.
Admitting our failures to others can be releasing, too. But mothering is such a competition that sometimes even in the Church it can be difficult to find empathy and understanding.
Older women (of which I am now one), instead of being a listening ear and surrogate granny, tut and suggest (in looks, if not words) that their children never behaved like that; that they were better mothers. Dr Brown suggests that this may be a way of avoiding their own guilt, but it compounds a woman’s sense of isolation.
Daring to be vulnerable in a church context, however, in the hope of developing a community where difficulties, struggles, and mistakes can be shared honestly — and heard with commiseration and reassurance — can bring resolution, laughter, and ultimately liberation.
We need to forgive ourselves, too, and try to let go of any feelings of guilt and shame which can otherwise plague us. In maintaining a sense of self through a myriad of choices, it seems that every one of them will involve some loss to someone. We need to acknowledge that, and make our choices in the light of that understanding.
Mothering is sacrificial and courageous, but rarely affirmed. Raised in a Jewish family, I wondered at the weaknesses of our “great” matriarchs — Sarah the unkind, Rebecca the manipulative, Leah the jealous, and Rachel the resentful. Why were they fêted at all? But their example shows us that no mother is perfect. (Neither, incidentally, were the patriarchs.)
In Judaism, it is the children, not the parents, who live with guilt: the harvest of emotional blackmail from a diet of obligation, pressure, and duty; a reminder that social expectations are often defined by race, class, and culture.
From my Christian perspective, the matriarchs now remind me that nothing we can do is so bad that God’s grace cannot redeem it. As I watch my daughter and daughter-in-law raising their own children, I see how the cycle of love and joy, shame and guilt, repeats itself — perhaps more so, given the demands and pressures of the busy careers it takes to pay the mortgage.
But I also see that failure is eternally redeemed by love, which we are reminded of particularly as we prepare to remember Christ’s eternal sacrifice.
Michele Guinness’s latest book, Grace: The remarkable life of Grace Grattan Guinness (Hodder), based on the diaries of her husband’s grandmother, is just out in paperback.