The Guilts

Tommy handprint and booties

Two weeks ago, a younger friend of mine called to ask my advice about achieving work-life balance. She has a three-year-old, is in the middle of a challenging pregnancy and is less than a year into a new leadership position. How did I do it, she asked.

I didn’t, I told her. I oscillated between roles rather than achieving balance. Like her, I was pregnant when I took a challenging new job — and I, too, had medical complications. My boss approved the normal six week maternity leave. When I came back to work, my infant daughter still cried much of the day and night. (The only thing that seemed to sooth her, during these colicky periods, was a bouncy swaying back and forth reminiscent of low impact aerobics, which I had continued during pregnancy.) I pumped breast milk sitting on the john in the bathroom. But my daughter soon caught on to the fact that drinking out of a bottle was a lot faster and easier than breast feeding. My milk dried up.

After I had been at that company for more than nine years, I cut back to part time. Then I left and ended up taking a new full-time executive role in a consulting firm. After four years, I cut back to part time. Then I left and took an even bigger full-time job in large company. Guess what I did after four years?

When my little girl was still a babe in arms, I fretted so much about the time I spent away from her that I logged when she slept and when she was awake. Then I calculated how many of her waking hours were spent with me rather than with her in-home caregiver. It made me feel better to know that more than half her waking hours were spent with me.

I tortured myself with questions. Would she be secure in herself and in my love for her? Would her personality develop as it should? What would she think of my choices in the future?

And I got plenty of sidelong glances and snarky comments from others. One of my favorites, from the mother of another little girl: “Your daughter is remarkably well adjusted considering you work full time!” That was meant to be a compliment.

I did maternal guilt really, really well.

The years rolled by. I completed an M.B.A. while working full-time, after which my husband and I had our second child, a baby boy. (Perhaps this is on my mind this morning because I jut had a dream about him as a two-year old, so sleepy that he fell asleep against my chest, and I laid him gently on the couch for a nap.)

Then came the death of my mother in 1999. Before she was diagnosed with late stage lung cancer, I felt that loss coming. I had begun to notice changes seven years earlier, when my son was born. Always helpful, Mom had come down to help, as she had done after the birth of my daughter. When I came home from the hospital less than thirty hours after giving birth, exhausted, I laid down on the couch. My mother hovered over me and asked, “What did you have planned for dinner?”

Her question startled me. I had nothing planned for dinner. I had been busy having a baby!

Her dementia increased noticeably in the following years. She could still dress herself, but more often appeared with stains on her clothing, something she would never have allowed, had she been normal. When Dad encouraged her to do her Albuterol treatment using a nebulizer, she fought him. One night as I laid in my old bed, I heard her yelling in their room above mine. She was shrieking that she didn’t need a breathing treatment, even though she was stopping periodically to catch her breath.

After Mom died, I fully expected Dad would be one of those men who followed their wife to the grave within six months. Though neither used the phrase, they were soul mates: a couple who fit together magnetically with complementary intellect, humor, affection and — yes — sexual enjoyment.

Dad didn’t die. But after a few years, he decided to take himself off the road, and he moved to an assisted living community near my brother. In his apartment, where a little pale Seattle light came in through one window, he seemed to shrink.

The question of work versus family asserted itself. Again. By this time, my daughter was a junior in high school and my son, in seventh grade. I hadn’t missed their childhoods, but I certainly hadn’t been present for large parts of it.

This doesn’t come around again, I thought to myself. By “this,” I meant time. Time with my father, time to do what I could to ease his final years. We had every reason to believe — based on what his cardiovascular surgeon had told us in 1999, after Dad’s third open heart surgery — that his final years, maybe even his last year, was upon us.

I would have time with my children in their teenage years and young adulthood (presuming they wanted to be around me at all). I would not have time with my father. That window would close.

If you’ve read my blog before, you know what happened next: I retired and moved Dad to California. He lived an expectation-blowing seven years under my care.

So why guilt? Because I wonder, why was I able to give up my career for my father and not my children?

I have lots of things I say to make myself feel better about it, but it doesn’t make the feeling completely go away.

The Guilts. I think of them as forming a place, a dark, swampy bog that smells acrid, of things decomposing, where quicksand sucks you in and pulls at your ankles. I know it well.

I hear the voice of my own mother, the woman who knew how to soldier on, seemingly without regrets.

“The world needs you,” Mom told me on her death bed. Sometimes I have to remind myself.


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2 responses to “The Guilts

  1. Reblogged this on Sandwich Family and commented:
    The Henry Chronicles muses on a classic sandwich family dilemma: guilt. Beautifully written, as always.

  2. Ellen

    I am thinking about your guilt at leaving work to care for your dad, but not to care for your children. There’s a big difference here. Your children’s lives stretch out before them with endless possibilities. Your Dad’s life was moving towards it’s end. Think of all that you modeled for your children when you were a working mother (now, Betsy, think about the positive things instead of the less positive ones…). Now, view that from the perspective of the people your children have grown up to be, and the relationships you have with them. Also, think about the modeling you gave your children by your care for your dad. I like to think that guilt is a choice. When you start to enter that swamp, with those voices talking in your head, you have a choice about staying there, or stepping out into the light. We do the best that we can as parents, as people. Your children and your dad were and are both so fortunate to have been with you. There is nothing to feel guilty about.

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