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How to Wrestle Mother Guilt to the Ground

Use the power of your imagination to become the mother you want to be.

I wasn't a very patient or attentive mother. By psychiatrist Donald Winnicott’s criteria, I was good enough; certainly, I provided enough frustration to foster their development. I battled the mother guilt that plagues all of us to a draw, but not until they were grown enough for me to realize that they'd become the kind of adults we all want our children to be—kind, caring, trustworthy, and capable—that I could replace the guilt with regret.

Regret is looking back at what you might have done differently and wishing you had. Regret is also about having compassion for who you were and what you knew back then. Regret is guilt without denial, suppression, or neurosis.

When my children were little and I was raising them alone, I was simultaneously overwhelmed by their needs and guilt at having, much less satisfying, my own. Around that time when I was interviewing successful women for a book, I met a woman named Dede Allen. Dede was an award-winning film editor who also wrote novels—three of them, which she described to me as unpublishable. “There was no tension, no drama, and no conflict. But publishing them wasn’t the point. I wrote to create who I wanted to become—not a perfect mother, but a good enough one.”

Abandoned early by her own, she had had no role model, but the mothers she inhabited as she brought them to life on the page, she said, made her better in real life than she would have been otherwise. “Writing those women—and I wrote every night, even just a paragraph—instilled the habit of thinking before I spoke, which as a mother, you don’t usually do; so much of parenting is just reacting in the moment. And what I thought was not, what should I do or say now, but what would Evvie or Michaela or Carole do? Would they really say, If you don’t stop that right now, I’m leaving and I’m never coming back? When their kids were fighting, would they really threaten to lock them in a room together until only one was left alive, and it didn’t matter which one it was? If my son told me he’d gotten a girl pregnant, would my heroine really tell him to deny it and abandon her, even if that was my own first impulse? If my daughter said she hated me and wished I was dead, would I say, That makes two of us? If my character keeps solving her children’s problems for them, will they ever start solving their own?”

I only wrote one novel about a mother, and she was a lot like me; someone imperfect, someone still trying to reconcile her child’s needs with her own, someone who always felt guilty because she said or did the wrong thing at the wrong time. Good Intentions was published a long time ago, but most of the fictional mothers in today’s novels are just as flawed as my character was. In retrospect, I realize she was less so because I kept Dede Allen’s story in mind as I was writing that book, and I got through the really challenging years of my kids’ young adulthood by creating made-up perfect mothers. They never made it beyond my journal—no drama, no tension. But they reminded me, like the rubber band Dede always wore on her wrist to snap before she spoke, to stop before I reacted.

You don’t have to be a writer to imagine a better mother than you think you are; you can visualize the wise, patient, supportive, encouraging one you want to be, look for examples among the good ones you know, or even channel your own. You can inhabit them, make them real enough to guide you, not just through the difficult times but the good ones, fantasizing how proud they’d be at how you handled it. If your role model was your mother and she’s still alive, you could call and ask her for advice. If she’s not, you could spray a little of her favorite perfume on your hair, wear one of the nightgowns you kept when she died, and bring her to life in your memory. If she wasn’t, you could forgive her for whatever she did wrong by reminding yourself that she didn’t do it because she didn’t love you, but because it was the best she could do, given who she was and what she knew at the time.

In many ways, my mother was my role model. She was far from perfect, even in memory. But 30 years after she died, she gets better every year.

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