I was visiting a friend the other day who has a newborn and a two-year-old. They are in the midst of potty training the older one. Anyone who has children or who has been around kids trying to get a handle on how that all works, knows that it's not easy. Right before their new baby was born these friends moved into a new house. Moving is up there as one of the biggest stressors in life. Add to that the birth of a child and frankly just being responsible for a 2-year-old alone can be a cause for overload. As my dear, sleep deprived friend shared the experience of potty training, she said “It’s our fault, we should have started sooner”. There were some other shoulds thrown in after that, but I don’t remember because I was so struck by the emotion in her voice and the look of either guilt or disappointment in herself because they had somehow failed to start potty training before these major transitions.
Here’s the truth in this situation. It probably wouldn’t have mattered when they started. That little sweet pea is going to come around to understanding the urge and bolting to the bathroom in her own time. But, it isn’t the act of what they were trying to accomplish that interests me here, it was the guilt and frustration of where they are right now and that somehow they’d caused it or brought it on themselves. This is parenting in the modern age, or maybe in all ages. The guilt that we parents, and particularly moms, carry is overwhelming and unnecessary. And very few of us escape unscathed.
My own “it’s my fault” moment hit me like a semi-truck recently. During a conversation I said something to the effect of “if my kids aren’t friends when they are older I will be devastated”. That is a lot of pressure, that my happiness depends on theirs. The ensuing conversation opened a flood gate into my previously covert thinking. Not only did I think my happiness depend on theirs, but that I was ultimately responsible for their happiness. I had no idea that I'd parented for the last 15+ years with the underlying belief that whatever did or didn’t happen to my girls, their joys and sorrows, everything about them and their future was my responsibility and therefore my fault. That is some crazy making right there. What a huge burden for me to carry, that all of those things depend on me and my actions. And from a different perspective, how pompous of me to think that I can impact them in this way. They are unique individuals with thoughts, ideas, and opinions. Their happiness can only be defined and achieved by them.
The flood rolled downstream further to show me that I take over-responsibility in all facets of my life, not just motherhood. I am a care-taker, but to an extreme that isn’t good for me and doesn’t let me trust that other people can be responsible for their own emotions. That is a topic for another time.
Now that I have some awareness of my tendencies, I am trying to back off of them. This like any other change requires baby steps. I still find myself wanting to jump in and fix things for my girls. Instead I try to listen and ask if they want input. When worry about them sets in I try to tap into my wisdom and take comfort in the fact that all of their experiences are lessons, the “school of empathy” as one of my mentors, Martha Beck, puts it. Imagine my surprise (and pride) when my youngest daughter shared a story with me and said whatever the outcome, she would learn from it and it would make her stronger. Hell yes! And her mom will be there as a pillar of support and will learn from it too.
Where are you making it "your fault"? It doesn’t have to be about parenting. I have been taking over responsibility my whole life. Share in the comments here, I’d love to hear about it.