Saturday, September 15, 2012
Day 864: Guilt
And I began to realize something. So often, women talk about how guilty they feel as parents. Guilty that they don't spend enough quality time with their kids, guilty for working, guilty for staying home, guilty for having someone else watch the kids, guilty for carving out time for themselves.
I have never felt like that.
I struggled quite a bit when I went back to work when Lenny wasn't even three months old. I had to do it--Gabe was self employed, my income was steady, and I held the health insurance. Also, I wanted to work--just not that early in her life. It's absolutely ridiculous that we as a society think a 12 week old baby is old enough to be left with anyone but the basic food source, but, hey, that's America. I worried about her because she took so damn long to drink a bottle and I knew they wouldn't spend that much time with her. How could they? I was right--she was always so hungry when she got home. I remember kissing her before I left for the office and feeling a pang--but it wasn't guilt.
I knew I would be overwhelmed, and tired, and way too busy and I knew I would have to travel soon and the whole thing was really stressful.
But it wasn't guilt. I didn't feel guilty when I went back to work when Augie was six months old. I didn't feel guilty that I earned no income at all for four and a half of the months I was home with him, either. I didn't feel guilty that Gabe might have been one of the only dads alive to use a month of paternity leave to watch his baby by himself so the kid wouldn't have to start daycare until after New Year's.
But no guilt. I think it's the wrong word. Babies at that age don't need you. Now, they need SOMEONE. They need love, and nurturing, and they need to be fed and cared for and they need to learn how to be people in the world. But they don't need YOU. When I went back to work, Lenny was so little that she never knew any different, and Augie was a little pissed, but not nearly as angry as he would be a few short months later when his mom would stop nursing him all of a sudden. I liked working. I didn't really want to be home all day. I would have liked a few days a week at home--but not every day. Why should I feel guilty about that?
As a parent, I just don't feel like I have time for guilt. Growing up, my mom was home until I was about 11. And yet--I don't think she ever played with us, not really. She fed us, and talked to us. She colored with us when it rained. She sang to us on our front porch swing. But we played by ourselves or with our friends, and she did her own thing. I never resented that--that's just how it was.
So it's hard for me sometimes, when I hear other moms talk about how crucial it is to spend as much time actively engaged with your kids as you can, when I realize that Gabe is the one the kids play with, when I get confused when people tell me that everything changes when you have kids. I feel like I am supposed to feel guilty about not feeling guilty.
I didn't change when I had kids--not really. My life changed, sure. But me? I still read the newspaper in the morning and ignore everyone. I still yell at them to get out of the way when the game's on. I don't allow them in the kitchen when I'm cooking. I give them that mom look that I perfected years before I ever had kids (an ex boyfriend used to tell me he could feel me giving him that look through the phone) when they dare to come into our bedroom unannounced. I go on walks by myself because they're too slow to go with me. I spend a lot of time writing blog posts. I have never used baby talk--not ever, not even with other people's kids. I just talk to them--like they are normal, albeit small. I used to get so bored when I was home alone with the kids when they were babies, because I'm not used to sitting still. And then I realized, I don't have to sit still. I'll just get the stroller, make them walk with me. Walk around them and do what I need to do while they play on the floor.
Now, don't get me wrong. I got down on the floor with my kids and kissed their bellies and all of that. Just not for long. And I like holding other people's babies--or at least I like holding the babies of people I like. I'm no huge baby-lover, no overdeveloped maternal instinct here. But I love my kids. And maybe more importantly, I like them.
I just figured they would like me too. No matter how I was--because I'm their mom.
I could have felt guilty, but at some level I knew it wouldn't do any good. And now here they are--these kids who play games like "office" and "spinning" and pretend to make coffee or just otherwise do things that mimic me. Or, even better--they ACTUALLY do things that I do. Lenny reads the weather page every morning. She understands football. She knows how to flex her biceps. Both of my kids know how to make coffee. Augie likes to wear nail polish.
You know, every time I hear friends complain that their husband just comes home from work and plops down on the couch and turns the game on, I want to say (besides, um, that's what I do...), you know, someday your kids will look back fondly on those days their dad would watch the game from his special chair. They will remember the chair, and what brand of beer he drank, and they will remember trying to get his attention and being playfully batted away, and you know what? Those memories are just love in disguise.
But I still live with this secret--this guilt that never was, this thing that sets me apart from all other young mothers in my situation.
I never, not for one day, felt guilty that I had cancer.
I felt many things: terror, grief, anxiety, depression, confusion, anger. But not guilt.
There is some unwritten rule that if you have cancer as a young mother, you are supposed to do everything after diagnosis "for your children." You are supposed to stay alive for them, go through chemo for them, protect their feelings above and beyond your own.
But I didn't.
Of course I got lost in my own sadness when I thought of not seeing them grow up, when I wondered if they would ever remember me. BUT THAT IS NOT GUILT. In some ways, that is selfishness. I wanted to see those things, I didn't want to miss out, I loved them so dearly and desperately. It broke my heart to wean Augie so violently.
But it didn't make me feel guilty.
I think I've just broken about 10 breast cancer taboos by admitting this. We breast cancer survivors are supposed to be martyrs in a sense, living just to show others how to be strong or brave or "beautiful anyway" or some other shit. But all we want is what everyone wants, and that's more time to be ourselves in the world. And if I was a hardass mom before, well, I'm sure as hell still going to be one. I had my moments of crawling into bed with Lenny to feel her little body next to mine, when I was in my darkest place and I wondered if I would die. But I didn't do that out of guilt.
I remember how guilty I felt over not feeling guilty. I asked my mom if there was something wrong with me, to feel the way I did, to feel like I wanted to avoid my kids because it was too painful to be around them at the beginning, when I was supposed to be hugging them 24 hours a day. And, as all good mothers do, she told me a story. I will not do it justice--she would have to tell it to you herself. I suggest you ask her if you ever get the chance--it's really pretty fascinating.
She reminded me of something that happened when I was four years old, the same age as Lenny was at my diagnosis. My mom was 29, and she decided to have a hysterectomy. She had had issues for years, had been anemic her entire adult life, and she was happy to have the operation. My dad had a vasectomy years before that, so there was no question of wanting more kids. She went in to the hospital, and told us she would be home in a few days.
My mother bled to death from that operation.
She hemorraghed internally following the procedure. She realized she was dying--she saw the white light, talked to the ancestors from hundreds of years ago, was happy to go. Then, she thought of us, and wondered what would happen to us, so she screamed.
Nurses came in, and told her she would be fine. Her doctor, a man that many women in that feminist era didn't like because he called women honey and things like that, came in and asked what the hell is wrong with that girl? Nothing, doctor, she's just scared. Yes, something is wrong with her or she wouldn't be screaming.
And she flatlined, and he stripped the veins from her legs and sewed them into her stomach, induced a coma, and saved her life.
She was in the hospital a long time. Even once she got home, she was bedridden for months. My grandmother took a train 65 miles to come live with us so my dad could work. She cooked our meals, bathed us, walked me to preschool through the blizzard of '79. I took naps with my mom, but otherwise, I rarely saw her or talked to her. I knew she was there--but it was so different.
Finally, she got up and about. I threw something at her, angry for all the time she was "away." And she told me, enough of that. Mom's back.
She stopped telling this story long enough for me to ask if she felt guilty during those months. She told me that she never felt guilty, because she had to do what she needed to do to get better and live and be there for us, and to be able to be herself. She told me something along the lines of a phrase I learned from another cancer survivor 40 years my senior: You are the most important person in your house right now.
And that's unfair. But life is unfair. The kids will get over it. Gabe will get over it. I told myself that as I walked away from everyone on chemo days, went right upstairs, got sick, took to bed. I told myself that as I got skinnier, as I fought with doctors, as I telecommuted when I hadn't slept for five minutes in five nights. I told myself: Don't feel guilty. You need to do what you need to do to get through this in order for anyone to get over it. You don't have time to feel guilty.
I must have been remembering this story one day at the tail end of chemo when I made the decision to tell all of the people who had generously made food for us for four months that I was ready to cook for my family again. I went into the kitchen and started to get dinner ready. I was bald, and I had no eyebrows. I was in menopause and I had hot flashes every five minutes--literally. It just got worse with the oven on. I had scars all over my left side and soon I would have radiation burns as well. Lenny came in and asked me what we were having for dinner. Lasagna again?
No, I said. I haven't decided yet.
She looked at me strangely--almost suspiciously. She pouted and said, well, I don't care. I'm not hungry anyway.
I told her not to talk to me that way. I asked her why there were rugrats in my kitchen. I said:
And she continued to pout, but I saw that glimmer in her eye. I saw her skip into the next room.
There was never any need to feel guilty, because you know what?
I'd never left.
(For those who don't know--I have started a second blog, in order to give myself permission to write about the random things in life rather than the cancer things. You can now also find me at LiveChickenOnSix.)