By Virginia Fundora
Fuck! The word just spilled out of me as I stood in my closet deciding what to wear to work that day. I felt a pang in my stomach, a stab in my heart. What did I forget? Surely, something important, a work project or birthday. No, my visceral reaction was prompted by the realization that I had forgotten to dress my six-year-old in 50’s themed attire for his classroom’s 50th day of school celebration.
Not a huge event in the grand scheme of things. This I knew intellectually, logically, but at my core my heart hurt and I struggled to shake off the warm, stinging sensation of mother’s guilt that began to take hold of me. Not a sensation I am unfamiliar with. Sometimes, it’s hardly noticeable just a lingering feeling that passes swiftly; other times it takes hold like a tight fist over my chest and clouds all that I’ve done and brings to the surface all that I think I should have done. I was upset that I had forgotten this event but I was more upset knowing that the guilt it created would linger with me for the rest of the day.
I know better than to carry it alone and I am grateful to have a partner who I rely on and is an active part of our children’s day to day lives. I shared my regret with him to which he responded with an appropriate “that sucks, but he will be fine.” I knew that was the practical thing to say, to feel; but why did my guilt linger while his was at worst transient and at best non-existent?
I don’t always know why we feel, say or do the things we do and I am certain that there are hundreds of reasons for why we experience things differently. But on this mundane Tuesday my thoughts for understanding my “mother’s guilt” didn’t go towards cultural, societal, or patriarchal expectations and traditions; although there is plenty there to continue to unpack. But rather, my thoughts focused on myself and my own experiences. Why did I struggle with this guilt? I knew that for me, the guilt is at its most powerful when my mishap or forgetfulness is around my children missing out on an activity or feeling left out. The image of my six-year-old in his school uniform while his classmates are all dressed in theme for the party makes me cringe.
So, I ask myself: why? Why do I experience this so profoundly? And like many times on this parenting journey I am transported to my own childhood. Some of my clearest memories from early childhood are from times that I missed out. And, no, there were not many to be fair. But for whatever reason, those few times are imprinted in me. I remember hiding behind a column at recess as I watched my friends play in the school sprinklers enjoying Friday’s water day. The Friday that my mom had forgotten to pack my bathing suit. I do not remember feeling angry with my mom. Even then I could understand the ease in forgetting a detail amidst all that she already carried. But I did feel alone, not part of, and mostly unseen. And as I dig deeper into my own thoughts I realize, that’s the real fear; the trigger for the most potent version of my mother’s guilt.
The fear of being unseen, of my children feeling unseen is at the core of not wanting them to miss out. This FOMO, as we all casually refer to it, has deeper roots than most of us are aware of. Why was I hiding as if I had something to be ashamed of? Had a teacher or classmate taken notice of me; acknowledged my disappointment and said “I’m sorry you weren’t able to play today” or “There will be other water days” or “don’t worry about it go ahead and get a little wet if you’d like” anything at all, would have let me feel seen. And so, perhaps it is not the fear of missing out but the fear of not being seen that we struggle with.
My hope is that through understanding comes wisdom. In my endeavor to be a wiser parent, even if not a perfect one, I cannot promise my children that I will never again forget an activity or event, it will certainly happen again and again. But I can promise that when it does happen I will do what I can to help them be seen; to validate their feelings and listen to their experiences. I can promise to encourage them to advocate for their needs and reach out to those around them when they are feeling unseen. And, I can promise to try my best to raise them to be kids that are inclusive of others. The kind of kids that would go out of their way to look for their friend, who may be hiding behind a column, and say “hey, I see you.”
Virginia is a clinical psychologist in Tampa, FL where she lives with her husband and three young children.
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