This week, my A level students and I have been discussing guilt.
As we debate over whether or not using someone else’s mug in the common room is a matter for a guilty conscience, my own mind keeps returning to the question of parental guilt. I feel guilt on a daily basis. Some of it, like the guilt of working full time and sometimes not thinking about my child whilst I am there, I have learned to live with. Others, I’m not so sure.
This week it was an advent calendar. Advent calendars were an integral part of my childhood. They were always there, usually several weeks in advance, hidden in the back of the wardrobe until the time came for it to be December, when we were finally allowed to start thinking about Christmas, albeit only incrementally, and not complain too much about the tree not being up, at least not until the end of the school term, because FATHER CHRISTMAS IS WATCHING, young lady, and there will be no presents for you.
I had, of course, forgotten to buy Piglet an advent calendar. One more notch on the chart of below-par mothering. Gina Ford is out there somewhere keeping score, and she’s got a hotline to Father Christmas, and there will be no presents for me.
I had also forgotten to buy Piglet a new toothbrush for several days, after he flung the last one wilfully out of the window at the end of a tooth cleaning session; which, by the way, left me in a quandary. As someone with a no-shouting policy, what does one do when one’s toddler hurls their toothbrush out of a window? How does one convey the seriousness of the issue? And what could this lead to? A successful career as England’s next fast bowler, or a future spent confronting riot police as a professional agitator with a keenly aimed molotov cocktail? Banning the use of toothbrushes would definitely not win me any points from Gina, so all I had was the admonishment that no he would NOT be permitted the privilege of standing on the toilet seat to clean his toothy-pegs in future. He would have to stand on the floor, chastened, and hopefully well out of the range of any open windows.
So to summarise, the last two days have been ridden with guilt. Guilt at not buying a toothbrush straight away, guilt at forgetting the advent calendar until all the local establishments had sold out (a run on advent calendars as all the good parents buying advent calendars on time, obviously) and guilt at Piglet having a full-blown meltdown at bedtime for the third night in a row and my mother making disapproving noises at me as the voice of a woman I once spoke to at a conference echoed in my head, warning that if you “have a good three year old, you have a good thirteen year old.” I fear I may have failed on all fronts, and I by the time Piglet is thirteen he will be in borstal. All thanks to me of course.
There are some parents who do not appear to be afflicted with the Guilt. Parents like the young man on the bus today, who sat there with his three year old in an easily foldable pushchair, apparently oblivious while the bus sailed past two women in wheelchairs, one of whom argued with the bus driver pointing out-rightly to my knowledge-that she had priority in the eyes of the law. Meanwhile Piglet and I were sat at the back of the bus, without a pushchair at all as I now feel so guilty about taking it on the bus that Piglet has to walk to and from swimming. The last time I was on that bus with a pushchair and a wheelchair wanted to board, I immediately rushed to the front to fold the pushchair like the good citizen I try to be, so that she could do so, only to be criticised by another passenger who apparently felt I was being unreasonable because I had failed to fold my pushchair before I even boarded the bus in the first place, despite the fact that my not doing so at that point had affected precisely no one. I had to fight the feelings of guilt that washed over me, and remind myself that I had done nothing wrong. I was on the bus, a wheelchair user got on, and I folded my pushchair as any decent person able to do so would. Yet there was still someone there trying to make me feel as though I was some sort of ogre who should never have been allowed to procreate.
I have no wish to be like that young father on the bus. Better to have a guilty conscience for no reason than to be entirely inconsiderate. Perhaps it is my gender, for us women seem to feel the guilt so much more than men do. Perhaps it’s our years of conditioning; that it’s our fault if we get raped, or assaulted, or catcalled, because we shouldn’t have worn a short skirt or been out late at night. It’s our fault if our children grow up to be less than model citizens. We were too harsh with them, or too soft, or too cold, or said the wrong thing once and those words must have stuck. Or perhaps we worked too much, or too little, or not at all, and our children were too cosseted, or we were too aloof and we didn’t love them enough, or too much, or we simply did the best we could and it all went wrong. It was our fault, us mothers. We should have been better.
So I went to the shop today, and I bought that advent calendar. They were reduced to clear. Piglet was happy with his bumper crop of three chocolates in one day, and he’ll never know the difference. Until he’s thirteen, and in borstal, having counselling for that time his mother forgot the advent calendar.