One of the things that tips petrol onto Mum guilt, turning it from a glowing ember into a ferocious fireball is the belief that we ‘should’ enjoy every moment. Here is my battle:
On the one hand I’m trying to live in the moment with my boys, fuelled by the very truthful platitudes of:
‘Make the most of each day’
‘You never know what’s around the corner’
‘One day, when they’ve flown the nest, your heart will yearn for these days’
‘You’re so lucky to have them. So many can’t’
But on the other hand, I’m stretched by the reality that amongst the heart-warmingly lovely, the beautifully mundane, and the ‘can this moment last forever’ it’s tough being a mum. The days can be long, meeting your needs becomes so second place that it can be hard to articulate what they are. There’s teething and whining, and snot for miles. There’s fighting and warring and sleepless nights. There are dark afternoons and tears and rage and loneliness.
These two things co-exist together in messy heap of mum guilt. We feel something negative, or moan about tiredness, and then there’s an internal stab of ‘well, you’re lucky to have kids that can make you tired. Because it means you have kids’. This is immediately followed by a familiar wave of silencing guilt. Nobody is telling me this, apart from my own mind. How can we balance the truth that having children is a wonderful honour, a miracle and ultimately a joy, with the day-to-day trials, the ups and downs and exhaustion? It’s hard to always live in the moment when the moments aren’t always breezy. It’s hard to exist in this tension of ‘it’s good, but man it’s hard’ when it’s so loaded with guilt.
I remember the tragedy of my sister’s cancer diagnosis at the age my boys are now. We lost her. I bet my mum would kill to watch us scrabble and fight for toys, I bet she’d sell a kidney to hear Emily whining at her legs for dinner. This adds clout to the shadow of guilt I’ve felt during the days of being irritated and exhausted by kids in tricky moods. How dare I wish for bedtime, when I have the living and loving kids that many have yearned for or lost? How dare I bemoan my kid-sapped energy when my own sister’s voice has long become a distant echo that I struggle to put tone to.
Even in the days we knew Emily had cancer, it wasn’t possible to swim around in a sickly sweet cloud of #soblessed. That’s not real life. We were living in an in-between time, the waiting room of her loss. It was painful a lot of the time, but not all of the time. Amongst the tears and the heart wrenching knowledge, there was joy and laughter, there were childish words and rough play, and there were tantrums and naughty steps.
I did have stabs of clarity, I did have moments where I looked at her and I just felt the weight of the future, the ripples of grief that touch you even before the loss happens. I remember our last family holiday to Centre Parcs, a family friend had generously paid for us to go. I remember waking early, excited to go and swim with my siblings in the kid-heaven pool. I went to her room and saw her sleeping peacefully, her face puffed by steroids, polka dots of historic cannula marks on her outstretched six-year-old arms. I gazed at her, I was a ten year old who knew that life was going to change in the most unimaginable way, and I thought I would NEVER fight with her again. I would never say a cruel or impatient word. I promised myself, and her sleeping form that I would spend the rest of her short life only loving her, being kind, and letting her monopolise my treasured Polly Pocket collection.
And then she woke. And we played. And we swam and we fought and I’m pretty sure she pinched me. Because that was real life, and that was living in the moment. Because that’s what kids do. They don’t suffer this existential weight of guilt that we’ve picked up along the way, like a downhill snowball building momentum, layered with ‘shoulds and ‘coulds’.
There will always be someone better or worse off than you. There will always be a heart aching tragedy to hear or read about. Oh man, and don’t they hurt even more when you’ve got your own children? You can’t help but slot yourself into the story, imagining what it might feel like when you hear of missing children and heartbreak. There will always be a reason to cast a shadow of pettiness over your feelings of irritation and your rants over the disappearing naptimes. If we negate and squash our human feelings with a constant stream of ‘yeah but’s then we will never process them, we will never reach out for help, we will never allow ourselves to be affected, impacted, changed and shaped by our circumstances. You are not a robot.
You see, even in living in the moment, you’ve got the invisible pull of the future and the weight of the past. Living in the moment isn’t about devouring it, swallowing it down, tattooing every word and smile into your memory. No, living in the moment is about being authentic to your experience, letting yourself feel even if that feeling is ugly or resentful. Even if that feeling is to wish that very moment away.
Living in the moment it’s about trusting that ultimately, you know you are grateful, you know you love and you know that those feelings will always be an undercurrent to whatever is going on. Living in the moment was about fighting with a sister I knew I was going to loose, because I trusted that I loved her, and she trusted that I loved her too. And in that moment, we were mad, and that was real, but it was fleeting as it mostly is.
Practice gratitude when you can. With practicing gratitude you’ll strengthen a trust that you have cultivated that undercurrent of ‘I am grateful’, like a stream that flows no matter what the surround is, or how bad the day is. You can trust that you don’t have to reprimand yourself every time you shout or glance at the clock wishing it would tick a little faster to bedtime. Something can be good, and hard, wanted and tough. A blessing and a trial.
My memories of being with my sister, Emily, are unsullied by the sense of pressure to enjoy and absorb it all that I seem to struggle with now. They were the rich spectrum of emotion that comes with relationship, the loving, the fighting, the impatience, the hugs, the highs and the lows. I think we could learn lots about living authentically from our kids. They feel what they feel in an authenticity that I seem to lack. They don’t seem to fear the fleeting feelings because they know that the foundation on which they can feel them is strong and unchanging. I love them. I can be mad and tired and frustrated, but I love them and that river rages stronger than any flitting sense of anything else, that in time ebbs like the waves receding from the shoreline.
That’s living in the moment.