It’s often said that parenthood is a journey. You try to be ready, but you can never be completely prepared for what lies ahead.
I remember our very first trip together as a family: Home from the hospital after I gave birth to our son. I sat anxiously in the back seat next to the baby as my white-knuckled husband drove us home. He kept glancing in the rear view mirror at us and I couldn’t take my eyes off our scrawny little chicken of a boy, strapped into his huge car seat.
Just a few days into motherhood, I did not expect to be so immediately full of the mama bear instinct. Every bump, every traffic light, every car that ventured everso slightly toward us sent my heart racing. I can only imagine how scary it was to be at the wheel. Later my husband confessed that the 20-minute drive seemed to take hours.
A few years later we took our first flight with kids big enough to know what was happening, and thus big enough to potentially be whining messes of tears and meltdowns. It was the ultimate Choose Your Own Adventure planning challenge. I had prepped for any scenario that we might face.
The diaper bag was crammed with disinfectant wipes (so many germs!), coloring books, crayons and markers, activity pages, healthy snacks, not so healthy snacks and DEFCON 1 meltdown snacks. Kindles were packed with movies, games, favorite TV show episodes and headphones were at the ready. Matchbox cars, action figures. We had extra diapers, extra pants, extra socks, and even extra security blankets. If we were stranded on a desert island, I’m confident we could have sustained ourselves for months from the supplies in this bag.
I would like to say I was not surprised when they turned out to be model passengers, but I was. They serenely drank their complimentary juices without spilling, watched a movie on the computer together, and fell asleep in sweet, sweaty tangles for the last half of the flight. I underestimated their fortitude, and I count my lucky stars that they continue to be easy-going travelers.
As many trips we take with our kids, there’s one that never seems to get any easier: The Guilt Trip.
Working or stay-at-home, breast feeding or formula, strict discipline or loose, tight reins on food or few rules on snacks, time spent with friends or partners versus time spent with the kids are just a few of the innumerable ways we feel parental guilt. Every, every, every choice we make as parents can lead to self-doubt and that moment of lying awake at 3:17 am full of fears that these choices have ruined, or at best, scarred the children for life.
Nobody warns us about this trip. While you can get ready for almost any other adventure you might take with your family, here is no Amazon category for ‘Parental Guilt Trip Gear,’ unless you count the adult beverages section in AmazonNow.
A terrific mom I know has a career she loves and two young kids whom she clearly adores. Recently she was supposed to join a few other moms and me for a get-together during the same time as a drop-off birthday party. This mom texted just before the events, clearly caught in the tricky net of guilt that threatens to ensnare us all daily.
One son wasn’t having a great day, and her mom instincts kicked in. She knew he needed her to be at that party. She felt bad for missing her own fun, but she admitted that her ‘working mom guilt’ had gotten the best of her. It turned out, she was absolutely correct – her son needed her. But still she felt guilty for following her gut, even though she was right where she should have been.
Stay-at-home parents aren’t exempt from this guilt about time allocation. Do my kids spend too much time with me? Am I coddling them? Will they live in the basement forever? This last fear haunts my husband most of all, I think.
Recently my younger son cried at the end of a Cinderella-type book, when the new bride rides away (assumedly happily) with the Prince.
My 4-year-old was distraught. “When do I have to get married and leave you?” he sobbed. “I just want to stay with you forever!”
I thought back to that first trip home, how he’d kicked the sock off of his impossibly tiny foot, how I wanted to protect him forever and ever. My heart ached at the thought of him and his brother growing and moving away, even though that is many, many years in the future. And ultimately the goal of raising children.
Not for a long time, I assured him, holding him close. “We will all be together for a long, long time.”
For now we’ll try to do everything we can to prepare our sons to take on their own adventures. We’ll be there for them as needed, and hang back, if reluctantly, as is necessary for us both to succeed and grow. We’ll manage our parental guilt and pray that our instincts will guide us through. In the end I can only hope that my boys will be resilient travelers on the road of life.
By then, perhaps we’ll all be ready to go.
This essay originally appeared in Fete Lifestyle Magazine, June 2018.