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Ingeborg van Teeseling looks at the concept of parental guilt, a condition that stems from the choices her generation made.
I think it was a Tuesday. I was sitting in a meeting with an editor of a big monthly magazine. I had my list of pitches in front of me; well rehearsed, because I really wanted to impress her. And it was going great. Until the phone rang. It was the switchboard and it was for me. My daughter’s school, they said, and it was urgent.
I clearly remember the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. It was a few months after the Dunblane massacre in Scotland, where a crazy person killed sixteen young children in a primary school.
Dead; hospitalised; all sorts of horrible scenarios going through my head, I picked up the phone, shaking. Then the voice on the other end started berating me, warning me that if I chose to continue on my unethical course of action, my child would no longer be welcome at the school. For a moment, I couldn’t make the jump from pictures of a dead child to the real content of the call. I was being yelled at by the school Principal for sending my daughter to school with chocolate paste on her sandwiches. How dare I? From this enormous sin it was obvious that I, the single mother with the freelance practice as a journalist, was not coping with being a parent as well. “This one time I will forgive you for it,” she said, “but next time it will be different.”
Both my grandmothers had big families. One had nine children, one had twelve. Both of them worked in the family business. One as a doctor’s wife, who ran the in-practice pharmacy, the other behind the counter at the bookshop she and her husband owned. They were hardly ever at home and I am sure that their children often had more harmful things than chocolate paste on their bread. But I am also certain that those women never felt guilty, like I did that day. In fact, I am convinced that the words “guilt” and “children” in the same sentence would not have made any sense to them. If it did, then it was the children carrying the guilt towards their parents. For not being good enough or bright enough or fulfilling their potential quite to the expected standard. The idea of parents feeling guilty towards their children would have made them laugh and shake their heads in disbelief. As long as you feed them, clothe them, house them and send them to school if possible, what more could be expected?
Guilt has a long history. It is part of every religious faith, and, after Freud created psychoanalysis, all of us got an extra shot of it. But parents feeling guilty about their parenting is relatively new, and I blame the Pill for that.
My grandparents did not choose to have children.
If you were married and had sex, babies just arrived. And you made the best of it. A good parent was somebody who tried to make sure their children didn’t die of hunger or cold, who gave them an (often shared) bed to sleep in and some type of education. Often that was difficult enough, with not a lot of money and plenty of mouths to feed. It was also the job of a parent to raise their children to be independent, well-adjusted adults, who could fend for themselves after they left home. Then your responsibility ended and if you had done it right, your children would take care of you.
When my father was arrested at the start of WWII and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp, his parents obviously were not happy about that. But they trusted that their seventeen-year-old would be able to cope. He was a man, after all, and they had taught him well. Not an ounce of guilt there. On the contrary.
Then the Pill arrived and we could decide if we wanted to have children and how many. Families with nine or twelve became rare and two or three the norm. And with it, parental guilt was born. Now our offspring was limited, it had become precious and, in our minds, delicate and frail.
When I was a little girl in the early 1960s, the Pill was not yet mainstream and children were seen as adults in the making. They wore the same clothes as grown-ups, just smaller. Ate the same things, just less of it. And they were treated like adults who knew nothing and, therefore, had no contribution to make to discussions and decision-making. As I child, the only thing I aspired to was to grow up and be in charge of my own destiny. It might sound completely ridiculous now, but my best school trip ever was a day at a fruit-and-vegetable auction in a rural area close to our town. I was ten years old and we were allowed to place a bid. I invested 25 of my hard-earned cents and won two cucumbers. I felt like I had arrived; more grown-up, somehow weightier than I had been earlier that day.
Childhood, I think, was seen as one long rehearsal for the real event: adulthood. In order to be ready for it, you looked to the grown-ups around you and emulated them. They knew how it was done. They weren’t usually insecure about it and they didn’t see any reason to ask you what you wanted, because you were a child and therefore not in any position to have an opinion. Of course, that often led to sitting in the back of a car being driven to that horrible aunt again, or eating sauerkraut or wearing itchy woollen home-made sweaters.
I remember habitually vowing to “never do this to my own children.” But funnily enough, it also gave a certain amount of security. Decisions were made for me by people who I trusted to know better. My lack of input, as it is now called, meant that I wasn’t burdened with the weight of my own parenting.
Guilt is an interesting emotion. And I am not talking here about reasonable guilt, where somebody has done something wrong or has failed to step in to prevent harm. This story is about garden-variety parental guilt, the one where we feel guilty because we work too much, or not enough, or because we yelled too much, or not enough, or pushed too much, or not enough.
That type of guilt, encompassing everything you do, or don’t do, is doomed from the outset.
Not because there is a rational reason for it, but because we are scared to mess up the lives of those few precious souls who live in our house and depend on us. Chocolate paste can apparently do it, as can allowing them to cycle to school by themselves. But feeding them only organic vegan pulses can do it too, as well as wrapping them in cotton wool. Guilt is an incredibly negative motivator and children, kitted out with a sixth sense to pick up anything their parents do or feel, sense it immediately. Their practical side then drives them to use this uncertainty in their parents for their own gain. They become demanding, manipulative and start to suffer from a sense of entitlement.
That, of course, is a problem. But what it masks, I think, is a generation of children who are anxious.
If your role model for adulthood is racked with fear, doubt and guilt, what is there to emulate? Who would want to be like that? Better to stay at home until you are 35. Better to have your parents do your homework. Better to accept their million-dollar gift of an apartment when you are still in primary school. Adulthood is obviously not something to aim for, so more and more children don’t. And this is what our guilt has given them. Not a better life, but the idea that childhood is the only place to be. If the goal of parenting is to raise well-adjusted future adults, our guilt is undermining that.