Guilty of the guilt trip.

Posted on May 27, 2011


Long ago, in a time when I knew everything there ever was to know about being a parent, and raising children, I had a list of things I would and wouldn’t do when I became a parent.  I don’t want to completely slam on “lists” of this nature because sometimes I think they help someone form an idea of what kind of parent they want to be, or the kind of parent to not be.  I of course had common sense things like, not belittling them, giving lots of hugs, encouraging them to always try their best, but helping them learn how to move forward when their best wasn’t good enough, never saying “If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to cry about.” etc…  I also of course had the lofty set of goals like, I wouldn’t be the mom with the kid having a tantrum in the middle of the store,  I would always speak in a soft, patient voice, I would never give into a tantrum just to get them to quiet down long enough so I can finish checking out, my kids would never be out of line, they wouldn’t scream, and yell, and be little muddy heathens, so on and so forth.    I also had the long list of all the parent clichés that I would never say, you know the ones I am talking about, “Because I said so, that’s why!”  “Don’t make me come over there/pull this car over/turn this car around!”  “I didn’t ask whose it is, I asked you to pick it up.”  I could go on, but you get the idea.   Yep, I knew exactly how to raise a child and I was going to do everything right, I wasn’t going to let my kids get away with the stuff  “other” parents did, my kids were going to be smart, polite, well-behaved angels, because I was a parenting expert.

Then I had kids, and realized I knew absolutely nothing.   Beyond the basics of feeding, bathing, changing and getting them to sleep, (which even that was shaky knowledge) nothing was going according to my “lists”.  My son didn’t sleep for 2-3 hour stretches as a newborn like I was told…he slept for 20-30 minute bursts.  He didn’t sleep through the night when he hit 5-6 months, it was more like 9.  Waiting out his crying didn’t get him to self sooth like I had read about, it just intensified his crying.  He would only sleep if he was next to me.  Progress was made when we were able to sleep in the crib mattress on the floor next to our bed, and when he was three, he finally started sleeping in his own bed…for a little while anyway, then the nightly ritual of carrying him from our bed to his began.   Luckily that finally ended when he was about 7, because he is 10 now, and is way too long, and a bit too heavy to carry anymore.

By the time his sister came along I thought I had learned a few things, and this would be easier, and it kind of was in the beginning.  She started sleeping for long stretches at about 4 months.  She would cry when you’d first put her down for a nap, or for bed, but it would last all of 5 minutes and then she’d be out like a light.  She would sleep in her room all on her own while her brother was invading our room (they shared a room at the time), and she didn’t care about sleeping alone.  When she hit 4 though something happened and then she ended up camping out in our room, or which we have finally nipped in the bud.

Along the way I have broken nearly all my “rules” that I set for myself as a parent, none of the common sense ones that I first stated, but the rest of them.  I have been the mom with the kid who is having a conniption in the toy aisle.  I have been the mom who bribed her kid with fruit snacks, just so I could finish the shopping.  I have been the mom who gave into said temper tantrum because at that point it was the only thing that kept me from having a temper tantrum myself.  I have been the mom who spoke impatiently, and sharply to their child.  I have been the mom who despite teaching their child how to behave in public, has wanted to melt into the floor when they do they exact opposite of everything I have tried to instill in them.  Life has a funny way of smacking you in the face with your own arrogance you know?   I knew it all when I was 20.  Four short years and a baby later I learned how dumb I really was.

Today was the finest example of that.  Today I broke out one of the clichés.  It was a variation of the “You need to eat all your food, because there are starving children in ____ .”   This morning as we were getting ready to leave the house for school, my son asks me to send his lunch with him, because there isn’t a lot that he likes on the cafeteria menu today.  Now, normally on days like today I would have already had a lunch packed for him.  However, today I was completely out of sandwich Ziplock baggies, and just had nothing to put his food in.  Now in all honesty, it’s a few days before payday, and last month was lean one for us, so I am trying to conserve gas, and make what little cash I have stretch until Tuesday.  Sure baggies are like $2, but it’s $2 that can be put towards milk, or bread etc…  Plus after checking the menu, I saw that there were some options on there that my son liked so it’s not like he was going to starve.

Judging by his behavior though, you’d think I was never going to feed him again.  There were tears, and thumping, and folding of arms, and the silent treatment, and nearly knocking over his sister while getting into the car, and more tears, and caterwauling.   That’s when it happened…that’s when I broke out the cliché.  I calmly (by calm I mean quiet exasperation)  explained to him how there are children, all over the world, in this very city, maybe even in his own school, that are going to go to school hungry this morning, that will sit in class all morning with their stomach rumbling,just waiting for lunch, so they can eat the very food he is turning his nose up at.  Those same kids may very well go to bed on and empty stomach because there is no dinner in their house tonight.  I explained that while I understood the offerings on the menu may not be his top choices, it was no reason to throw such a fit over, and act like he was being given some punishment.  I explained to him that there are thousands of kids who would love to be able to be so picky about their food choices, but now they would just be happy with any choice that didn’t include hunger.   I pulled out a variant of the phrase I hated hearing my parents say when I was a kid.

I wonder though, is it still a guilt trip when you use it to illustrate a point?  Is it still a guilt trip when you are trying to teach them something?  I swore I would never break out those clichés that my parents and countless other parents have used.  I swore I wouldn’t lay a guilt trip on them, yet is it a guilt trip when you are trying to show them how lucky they are?  How easily we could be in a different situation where they wouldn’t have even half of the things available to them that they do now?  Is it really that bad to dig into that bag of parental clichés?  Looking back now, I can see how some of them were short, to the point phrases that made me (as a kid) stop and think.  Seeing them from a parental I can see some of them as the beginning of a teaching moment.  I guess what I am getting at is, that some of those things that our parents used to say to us, can be really useful.  I swore I would never do a lot of things as a parent….actually being a parent has taught me what a fat lot of good those plans and”rules” I had, did me.

I am the mom, that guilt tripped one of her muddy little heathens, but I am hoping it made him think about how fortunate he really is, and will be something that will stay with him as he grows.  Not because I want him to feel guilty, but because I want him to be able to always see, even when things seem unfair, that there are always blessings to be counted.

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