Friday, June 14, 2024

Mom Guilt: The Plague That Never Goes Away

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published June 17, 2024] ©2024

I am not generally prone to guilt.  Our former primary care doctor, Dr. No (as in no foods that you’d actually want to eat), did her best to inflict shame upon Olof and me for our culinary choices.  If dietary guilt lowered triglycerides, we would be the healthiest people in America.  But since we aren’t, we’ve directed that when the time comes, we’d like our ashes spread over hot fudge sundaes.

Mom Guilt, however, is another story. It has plagued me relentlessly from the get-go.

June is a time of graduations on every level from pre-school through college. It was thus temporally inevitable that I would revisit my older son, Rory’s, long ago sixth grade graduation and the guilt I have been carrying about it ever since.

Did I mention he is now 46? 

My children’s grade school years were not the happiest time in our household.  Their father and I were involved in a protracted divorce proceeding.  I was back in the work force in an entry level job living paycheck to paycheck. 

Unfortunately, on the day of Rory’s sixth grade graduation, we were in the midst of a grant proposal deadline so my boss wasn’t keen on my taking time off for even two minutes much less two hours.

“They even have graduation for sixth grade?” he muttered. “Do you really have to go?”

“I swear I’ll come right back the second it’s over,” I promised.

And frankly, I was so glad I went. The kids sang “We are the world” and got their diplomas. It was all so touchingly adorable. Full-on mommy heroin.

Out on the school patio, as parents and kids posed for pictures, Rory turned to me and said, “So where are we going for lunch?”

Lunch?  I hadn’t planned on lunch.

“Rory,” I said, “I’m so sorry.  I didn’t realize you were expecting lunch.  I have to get back to the office right away.”

Rory looked at me like I stabbed the family pet to death.  (We didn’t actually any. I couldn’t have afforded so much as a goldfish.)

He burst into tears.  “But everybody is going to lunch with their parents!” Ratcheting it up: “This should have been the happiest day of my life! You completely ruined it!” Ratcheting it up some more: “I will never forget this!” 

For a nanosecond, I thought about calling my boss (if I could find a payphone) and plead for more time.  But my skills were required for this grant proposal being submitted by EOB that day.

As poorly as I was being paid, I could not afford to lose this job and its health insurance.

I apologized profusely all the way back to the house where I dropped Rory off (statute of limitations is fortunately past on my kids’ latch key lives).  When I got home from work later that day, Rory continued to freeze me out.

I have truly been haunted by this ever since.

In trying to assuage my guilt, I look back on those years and wonder how I did it.  Perhaps in an effort to compensate my children for the stigma of having divorced, warring parents, I managed all manner of youth sports teams, ran the local Cub Scout program, and used my minimal vacation time to count laps on Jogathons. I even drove all the carpools on my ex’s custody days because he invariably fucked it up and everyone just called and yelled at me.  I would often collapse fully clothed on top of a pile of clean laundry on my bed at midnight.  I was veteran of the 10-minute combat nap.

Suffice to say, in that era, baking wasn’t something I had much time to do.  So it was not too surprising that if chocolate chip cookies were made, it was from a tube of supermarket Slice n’ Bake. 

Fast forward seven years to Rory leaving for college at UC Santa Cruz.  In an attack of remorsefulness for my children’s lack of mommy domesticity, I decided to make him a batch of homemade Toll House Cookies to take with him.  So overdue. After all this time, he deserved the real thing.

A few days later, I asked how he’d liked them.  Well, he reported, the cookies were only OK.  They didn’t taste like the ones I usually made.

Ah, what sort of failure of a mother was I that my kids didn’t even know what a “real” chocolate chip cookie tasted like, and that they associated my baking efforts with artificial flavors and colors?

But I suppose it could be worse:  one of my daughters-in-law reported that her grandmother was such a terrible cook that her father joined the Coast Guard just for the food.

Not long ago, Rory was down visiting us for a long weekend and I said to him, “You know, I have to confess.  I still feel guilty about sixth grade graduation.” 

He looked puzzled.  “We had sixth grade graduation?”


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