Ah, guilt! Mum guilt!
Guilt is the worst feeling we human beings are capable of feeling. However, this dreadful emotion is what distinguishes us from the other animals and makes us believe that we are the chosen species. Animals do not feel guilt.
YouTube might state otherwise, but it is scientifically proven that animals do not feel culpability. They just do not want to get in trouble – and that makes them look like they are expressing remorse. But do not be fooled, it is simply an act of self-defense!
Hegel claimed that animals “live in peace with themselves”. In a roundabout way, he was actually talking about human beings: how we are conscious of our being and how we are filled with so many complex emotions: anger, sadness, guilt… that we cannot be at peace with ourselves the way other animals are.
A new kind of guilt
Anyways, one has not felt real guilt until they have become a parent, and especially a mother with mum guilt. As a progeny, you may have experienced some guilt. For instance, when I was living in Singapore in my early thirties, I could feel that my Catholic mother was not highly impressed by my luxurious getaways, my never-ending drunken nights, and my dramatic dating life. I felt no guilt about my lifestyle and that worried her; I was accepting of and even laughing at the fact that I was a lost soul, the fruit of the capital sin and I couldn’t care less.
The Catholic guilt clearly wasn’t working, so she started with the Jewish guilt: I could do better, I wasn’t living up to her standards and expectations. And that made me truly feel ashamed. Nothing beats a Jewish mother’s terrifying serving of guilt.
Having said that, I’ve never felt more strong and meaningful guilt since having my daughter. I inhale guilt, I exhale guilt. I am constantly second-guessing my actions, afraid to leave her in the hands of some indelible trauma. Perhaps it will eventually happen regardless, but preferably not because I needed to visit the toilet. And when I hear her cry during these short moments of absence, I feel like I am cursing her with everlasting distress by doing so.
Before becoming a parent, guilt would always be opposed to moral values and intellectual standard; you need to act a certain way and you need to constantly feed your neurons. Guilt was a guide to becoming a better person and most importantly, its role was to rectify any mistakes. It was opposed to multiple and various references. And as a consequence of a specific action, it was nothing but temporary and fleeting.
The selfish mum guilt piece
But now this sentiment has another flavour: it is a constant reminder of how selfish I am and how I could do better. It’s boiled down; reduced to these two trails of thoughts. It is a permanent feeling.
If you were to ask me how I felt, I would answer: tired. But if you were to ask me what I felt, my reply would be: guilt.
I feel guilty about being unable to come up with 16 hours’ worth of topics to discuss with a human being who cannot talk back; I feel guilty about being bored sometimes because all my partner-in-crime wants to do is solemnly contemplate her hand and attempt to eat it; I feel guilty when I am staring at my phone screen instead of reading “Miss Piggy visits the slaughterhouse and then becomes a vegan” to her.
Upon taking a few steps back, I can understand that this feeling of guilt towards my Bebe is completely irrational – she has no frame of reference, she makes no judgment. I can even intellectualize this overwhelming sentiment à la Freud: the Jewish mother who is sitting on my shoulder and pushing me to do more and be more moral is my superego, and she coexists in conflict with the pulse of the id that represents my desires and pleasures. It is this very struggle that leads to my motherly sentiment of guilt.
I can try to intellectualize and rationalize as much as I want. The sentiment of guilt is so deeply rooted in me that I can feel it flow through my venous system. There can be no guilt if there is no feeling of responsibility. And I am endorsing the most sacred role: I am responsible for the sanctity of life.
Can you relate to these feelings of mum guilt? Do share in a comment below.
Valerie Rafat is a French expat mum who has previously lived fourteen years in Asia (Hong Kong, South Korea, Vietnam, and Singapore), a few years here and there (in Croatia and Belgium), but who wound up eventually in the Netherlands.
She has launched a blog that is especially designed for time-poor mothers with a desire to learn more about the world and themselves from a philosophical perspective. She takes theories from philosophers, like Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Kant to name a few, along with those from the HR industry, and bring them to life in a simple and humorous way. Read more at her blog and connect with her on Facebook.