Childrearing

Guilt Trips: I’m Trying To Break The Vicious Cycle, Okay?

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I finally thought I was old enough to act like an adult to my mother, who days earlier had invited me and my daughter – along with two of my brothers and their wives and children – over for dinner. I was having a really bad day, though, feeling both physically sick and not mentally up for conversation. Instead of using the “My daughter is sick” line, which, trust me, is ideal for getting out of family obligations, I decided to tell the truth. Yes, the truth.

I called my mother that afternoon and said, “I’m really not feeling well and I don’t think I’ll be good company, so we’re not going to come tonight.” I broke this news as gently as possible because my mother’s intentions were good. And I thought she could handle the truth. What came back was not, “Are you okay?” or “I hope you feel better,” or “Is there anything I can do?” What came back was, “Well, now Rowan is not going to get to see her cousins!”

I was, quite frankly, mad. First, I told the truth – that I just wasn’t up for it. And, really, it’s not like my daughter never gets to see her cousins. She sees them a lot. I knew my mother was not happy with me, but I am a grown woman and, heck, I WASN’T FEELING WELL. I told myself to let it go. If my mother couldn’t understand that I wasn’t well, then that’s her choice to be angry. Of course, that lasted about 30 seconds before the guilt set it.

No, I didn’t enjoy a relaxing evening at home, which I should have, since I was feeling so ill. I spent the next two hours wondering if I should go, and feeling awful that I said I wasn’t going. In fact, looking back, I really should have gone, because dealing with my entire family, even if I simply wasn’t in the mood and wasn’t feeling well, would have been less painful than the guilt I carried around all night and through the next day.

Ah, mothers and guilt. It’s possibly one of the worst feelings you can ever have. Even though you may think you’re in the right, if your mother makes you feel guilty, it’s game over. At least for me it is. I was telling my assistant, who happens to be Catholic, about my guilt issues and we got into an argument over who feels more guilty when it comes to family. Finally, I just said, “Thanks to my mother, I fell guilty over EVERYTHING. If I don’t call, I feel guilty. If I do call, and don’t have a lot to say, I feel guilty. If I don’t want to go family bowling with them, I feel guilty. So, pretty much, I feel guilty seven days a week!” She argued that Catholic guilt was just as bad as Jewish Mother guilt, and I just shook my head and said, “You don’t understand!”

Now, I’m a pretty strong and independent person, but when it comes to my mother, I can’t stop feeling guilty, especially if she acts as if I let her down. Missing that dinner (in which she planned to order in Chinese food) made me, literally, feel as guilty as if I had just hit a pedestrian with my car. But I realized, to my horror, that Jewish Mother guilt may be something that is passed down.

When I came home one night last week, my daughter was sitting eating dinner and watching television. I said hello to he, and she barely responded. I said another hello and she barely looked at me. Finally I said, “Rowan, when your mother says ‘hi’ to you, you say ‘hi’ back. Even better, you give her a kiss hello. Especially if your mother was out buying you stuff you need for your dance classes.”

As the words came out of my mouth, I realized I sounded exactly like my MOTHER and I wanted to kill myself. My daughter, already at age 8, was showing strong signs of feeling guilt over her mother (ME!). Right away, she said,“I’m sorry, Mommy. I’m so sorry.” She was almost crying. I immediately said, “It’s no big deal. Just say hi. Let’s move on.” Again, the only word to describe what I was feeling was GUILT.

So my mother makes me feel guilty, and I make my daughter feel guilty, and then I feel guilty because I never want to be like my mother and make my daughter feel guilty. I know my grandmother made my mother feel guilty. So maybe I can’t blame my mother either. Really, I can’t win, can I?

I do know that I’m going to try my best to cut any words or tone of voice coming out of my mouth to make my daughter feel guilty. I’ve spent 37 years feeling guilty, only a quarter of which I should have felt truly guilty about. My mother can understand things like, “I’m out of town,” or “Rowan has the flu.” But, even then, I’ll get a phone call telling me I “missed a really good time.” Oh, the guilt! But is it my mother making me feel guilty, or is it me just feeling guilty because it’s in me. I need to call my shrink ASAP.

(Photo: Yuri Arcurs/Shutterstock)