What if guilt is not a warning after all? What if guilt is actually a harbinger of progress, of revolution, of meaningful change?
Two and a half years ago, I sat across from my therapist. I was oozing guilt. My daughter was three years old and in daycare for a bigger chunk of the day than I’d ever intended. My son was five months old and with our nanny. Daycare. Nanny. Through my guilt, I could barely even say those words. I was just so sure before I ever had kids that I’d never need daycare or a nanny. I didn’t need to work full-time in order to survive like many mothers do. And I didn’t have a high-powered career that I couldn’t put aside for a few years.
I was supposed to be happy wholeheartedly investing in early childhood — those first few years of life I believe are so crucial to developing secure attachments that will affect my kids and the way they relate to others for the rest of their lives. But my guilt was telling a different story. This should be enough for me, I thought. Why doesn’t it feel like enough?
My guilt also came from my sense that I was not living up to unspoken cultural expectations. Staying at home with my kids was what my mom did. If I didn’t do the same, I felt like I was disrespecting my parents. I was already rejecting their religion. Could I really reject their family model too? Models of acceptable living were not explicitly laid out for me. But it was strongly implied that I had two main options to live an adequate life. One option was to succeed in a respectable field (i.e., a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer), which would make worthy the time spent away from my someday-children. Or, option #2, I could marry a man in one of those respectable fields and stay home and raise those children.
Before having kids, I was working as an actor, which is notably not one of the respectable fields. I worked with some regularity, but hesitated to call myself a “successful actor.” I remember calling my agent when I was starting to show in my first pregnancy. I asked whether he wanted some pictures of me with my baby bump, for auditions. “Why don’t you just let us know when that baby is out and you’re ready to come back?” My agent’s cheery voice couldn’t mask the underlying message. I just wasn’t worth that much to them as a pregnant actor, or as an actor with a baby. And was he also implying, or was it just what I secretly believed, that I must not really take my acting career that seriously? That this must just be the end of my pursuit of the dream? Just one more actress who couldn’t make it in L.A.
My agent’s cheery voice couldn’t mask the underlying message. I just wasn’t worth that much to them as a pregnant actor, or as an actor with a baby.
And somehow, unintentionally, I succeeded in fulfilling option #2: I married a man who became a lawyer. To my Chinese parents, this might be my biggest life accomplishment. After I’d been away from home for years, my mom ran into my piano teacher of over a decade. She proudly recounted to me that, in response to my teacher asking how I was doing, she enthusiastically replied, “she married a lawyer!” My selected career wasn’t worthy of mention, more evidence that acting didn’t fall under the respectable life options. My husband could now do what so many narratives about families tout as “the dream.” He could provide for us with only his salary. I didn’t have to work. What overwhelming privilege. What was wrong with me that it didn’t feel like enough?
My selected career wasn’t worthy of mention, more evidence that acting didn’t fall under the respectable life options.
There I was, sitting guilt-ridden across from my therapist, my boobs swelling against the inside of my bra, a reminder that my son was somewhere hungry and without his mother. I was teaching a handful of children’s music classes each week, something I truly love to do. But the money I was making didn’t even cover what it cost to have someone else take care of my kids while I taught, or while I went to therapy appointments.
I looked at my therapist. She was a mother too, one with kids who were slightly older than mine. She’s doing something worthwhile with her life, I thought. She’s a successful therapist. It was a career I thought I might have at one point in time, but I didn’t stick it out. Maybe if I were a therapist, I thought to myself, then I wouldn’t feel guilty about being away from my kids. She validated my feelings, and then said something that has permanently shifted my mindset. “You need a new blueprint,” she said. “You need your own blueprint for motherhood. You don’t have to use the one you’ve been given, you can make your own.”
Making a new blueprint is letting go of an idealistic version of my life, whether it’s my ideals or someone else’s, and giving up the useless practice of “should-ing” myself. These past couple months, in particular, I’ve been updating that blueprint.
I gravitated toward performance opportunities. I rehearsed and acted in two productions. I practiced and sang with a chorale. I added these things on top of what I already considered a full and rich life. When I found moments to write, I felt pulled toward working on something that I might eventually perform. I let my column-writing take a backseat. And I’ve felt more frequently disappointed in myself as a parent these past few months than ever before on this journey.
Familiar feelings of guilt took up residence somewhere between my stomach and my throat. Guilt for not spending more time with my kids, for not being more patient with them. Guilt for not spending enough time with my husband. Guilt for not cooking enough healthy meals, for missing too many bedtimes, for not getting enough sleep. Guilt for not being a good enough actor to justify pursuing acting. Guilt for not making enough money. Guilt for openly sharing that I have a therapist in a public column, thus bringing dishonor upon my family.
Oh guilt, that source of power at the core of many a culture’s folklore.
Oh guilt, that source of power at the core of many a culture’s folklore. Conversations with dear friends from Jewish, Mormon, and Chinese backgrounds, just to name a few, often circle back to ever-present struggles with guilt. Guilt motivates so many of our biggest life decisions, it leads grown adults to do things they really don’t want to do.
I used to think that guilty feelings were a warning to me that I was doing something wrong. But lately I’ve noticed something about guilt. I find it shows up when I’m feeling restless, when I’m considering something different, when I’m sketching out a new blueprint. Maybe I’ve been misinterpreting guilt all along. What if guilt is not a warning after all? What if guilt is actually a harbinger of progress, of revolution, of meaningful change?
So I hereby give myself permission to live the way I want to live. This is a reminder, self, that I’ve committed to making my own blueprint for motherhood. It is messy and challenging and scary. I constantly feel as though I don’t have a right to claim any of the space I’m taking up. I feel awkward and new and out of place. I search for role models and I don’t always find them. But it is okay. To my guilt, I say, I see you there. And I take your presence as a sign that I’m really onto something. Now step aside as I get to work. I will be okay. I’m doing this armed with a very big eraser, and a lot of extra paper.
– Lynnette Li
Featured Image Credit: it’s me neosiam from Pexels.