A while back you did a column about a young couple that didn’t want the grandmother to baby sit for their daughter any longer (11/9/11: “I Don’t Want My Mother-in-Law to Baby Sit”). I wish! I babysit for my two granddaughters, and I don’t want to do it any longer. You’ll probably say, “So then, stop already,” but it’s not that simple.
When my now-deceased husband and I were raising our two daughters, I worked full time as an attorney in a prestigious law firm. I loved my job and I made good money that helped pay for our family’s very nice life style. However, my job meant I missed a lot of my daughters’ sports and extra-curricular activities.
When my daughter Fiona’s first daughter was born four years ago, I told Fiona that I wanted to make up for being an absentee mother when she was growing up, and that I would be available in any way she needed me with her children. Long and short is that I have become a full-time nanny for Fiona’s two daughters, Hannah, 4, and Tammy, 2. I love my two granddaughters but my whole life revolves around taking care of them. When I told Fiona I didn’t want to do it any longer, she made me feel guilty when she reminded me that I had promised to make up for being an absentee mother. I made a commitment and I guess I have to honor it.
You say your daughter made you feel guilty, so let’s start with this question. Guilt: friend or foe? Well, it depends. In general, guilt acts as a moral compass, alerting us that we’re disappointed in ourselves, that is, we’ve let ourselves and/or others down. Psychologists talk about two main forms of guilt — constructive (“good guilt”) and destructive (“bad guilt”). Guilt can be constructive when it results in our doing some soul searching, owning our mistakes and misdeeds, and making changes to keep us on the right path to be the person we want to be. Constructive guilt is healthy, productive and pushes us to make our lives better by either prompting us to do something or to stop doing something.
Destructive guilt, however, is unhealthy, unproductive and can be debilitating. It can weaken or prevent our resolve to do better, to be better. It can render us stuck, emotionally immobilized, unable to learn, change and move forward. It can leave us feeling embarrassed and/or ashamed; it can prevent us from acting deliberatively and decisively to strive to be our better selves. Destructive guilt can make us vulnerable to being controlled and manipulated by others.
First I want to suggest that it is unfortunate that you use the term “working mom” interchangeably with “absentee mom.” Yes, you were a working mother: you had a job and a paycheck that you put toward taking care of your family. And yes, as a working mom, you made certain sacrifices to keep that paycheck coming in. Many working moms feel constructive guilt and deal with it by spending more time with their children on weekends to compensate for spending less time with them on weekdays.
However, describing yourself as an absentee mom suggests someone who has checked out, not doing proper mothering, went AWOL (absent without leave), a self image that can lead to destructive guilt. So my first suggestion is that you think of your former self as a working mom, and not as an absentee mom, a notion that suggests you were an inadequate mom and now you are obligated to make it up to your daughter by being an enslaved grandmother.
When you say, “Fiona made me feel guilty,” I want to suggest that it is more accurate to say, “I let Fiona make me feel guilty.” Both you and Fiona, either wittingly or unwittingly, have been complicit in keeping you mired in destructive guilt. There’s been a real gain for Fiona: she gets loving and immediate quality care for her daughters whenever she needs it. There’s been a perceived gain for you: you get to feel you’re making amends for something “bad” you did many years ago. I say perceived gain for you because the problem is you never did anything bad. The result is that you unnecessarily indentured yourself, but the good news is that you can un-indenture yourself! It really is that simple once you decide to throw of the yolk of destructive guilt.
When you’re ready, you can tell Fiona that you want to give her some lead time to make other arrangements because you’re making some changes in your life and you won’t be available to take care of your granddaughters as you have been doing. You’ve decided to…, e.g., do some traveling, take some courses, do some volunteer work, go hang gliding, take some time to figure out what new kinds of things you want to do. Will Fiona be pleased and support your decision? Probably not, at least initially, but over time you can hope she adjusts. Will she try to use guilt again to change your mind? Maybe, but it won’t work anymore because you’re out of the destructive guilt game! And in fairness to both you and your daughter, this time around you need to be clear about what you will and will not do with regard to your time with your granddaughters.
Be sure to talk with Hannah and Tammy so they understand that they haven’t done anything wrong, now that you won’t be spending as much time taking care of them. Explain to them that you love, love, love them and you’ll always treasure the special time you’ve had with them taking care of them, but now it’s time for you to branch out and do some other things. You’ll still be spending special time with them, but in different ways.
Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every Thursday.
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