Coping with Mum Guilt

When negative things happen in my life I react very quickly and explosively, I shed my tears, my rage, my heartache and tantrums but then, I’m closed! The door shuts on that snippet of time and I’ve always managed to move on…..for better or for worse this is my coping strategy and I’m pretty good at forgetting.

One incident however, one single event has sent ripples through our family that still effect us today. It leads me to question my parenting methods, choices I’ve made and the impact of these on our children. It was one moment in time, but it is one that I cannot so easily forget, one that mostly I think I’ve learnt to live with and deal with…..but then suddenly it will resurface again,, seemingly out of nowhere…. a choice phrase, or a comment and I’m taken back to that time, to that place and consumed once again with feelings of helplessness, anger and self loathing.

It’s taken a lot of courage to share this. I wanted to write it so many times but I fear judgement, and I feel I’m justified in that assumption because I too have judged parents who have allowed something to happen to their child while their attention was diverted, you see, when the weather is this hot I’m reminded of an event that happened in the heat wave of last year. On a normal family outing last summer… beautiful Ernie nearly drowned.

We were visiting a little farm, H was with her dad and Roo, Ernie, hubby and heavily pregnant me, arranged to meet the in-laws in the car park. I must have been about 34 weeks but I was done! So done! I wasn’t moving very fast, my feet hurt and I was tired. I wasn’t really on the ball, I was hot and sticky and shuffling about. The kids seemed to be having a good time, I pretty much plonked myself from seating to seating, allowing the kids to burn off energy. Everything was enclosed, they were never out of sight. We had a picnic, saw some animals then decided to visit the hedgehog garden.

We walked through a little gate into a small fenced off lawn, there was a large row of bushes in the middle and a bench to my right…. I sat down while the others took a little walk around the garden. I watched them walk a few metres down one side of the hedge, then emerge ten seconds later up the other end towards me. They didn’t spot any hedgehogs.

Rupert asked to go to the toilet and Scott took him out of the garden to find the block. Ernie was playing peek a boo with me and his Grandma who sat next to me….hiding behind a tree then peeping out again, hiding then peeping. He went to run around the bush in the middle and I waved. I waited for him to emerge ten seconds later on the other side….. Scott approached me after five and said ‘you do know there’s a pond there don’t you?’

I didn’t! I froze! I shouted RUN!!!!! I heard my boy cry out as he fell, the shock in his voice. I couldn’t move I was rooted to the spot. You read about the flight or fight reaction, but not the freeze. I imagine that my whole being just knew, there was nothing I could do. I was 8 months pregnant, I couldn’t help him, but I certainly didn’t want to run away…. I imagined my boy reaching to grab something, his arms feeling for his Mama and my heart broke, it still does when I imagine him alone in fear.

Later, when talking through with my husband, he told me how he arrived within seconds of my dear boys head going under, how he developed the super-human strength to lift out our not yet three year old with one arm…. how our boy was shaking and crying. I needed to hear every detail but I did not wish I had seen it, maybe the freeze was self preservation also?

They approached me, still unable to move from the spot, I was crying ‘I didn’t know, I didn’t know’ because I didn’t know there was a pond, I hadn’t walked around the back had I?, I had plonked my lazy fat arse down on the bench and not checked. If I had been fitter in my pregnancy I would have been there playing with him, taking photos, I’d have seen the pond, and commented on how much the algae looked like grass, observed that a small log was the only thing between the lawn and the concealed water edge. I would have known. My mother-in-law, normally calm and composed, instinctively hugged me, our relationship over the years has not been easy, she’s not demonstrative with emotions and probably thinks I’m too much so, but that moment of motherly understanding means a lot to me even now.

Scott came towards us carrying E and I unfroze, wrapped my boy up in my arms, both of us crying, his hair awash with leaves and slime and in that moment I needed my husband to hold us, but he didn’t. The staff brought me a v sweet tea for the shock. Some towels and the accident book. I still kept saying ‘I didn’t know’ I wanted someone to tell me it was ok and of-course I didn’t know and it wasn’t my fault. But no one did. My husbands family are practical, I imagine they wanted to ‘do something’ so they set about walking the route, measuring the water with a stick, taking pictures…. I felt angry as my husband did this too, he didn’t stand with us he didn’t even touch my arm. He did tell me there was a sign on the gate ‘beware concealed pond’ it was a tiny sign though, no more than three inches high, they took pictures of that. I hadn’t seen it?! I didn’t know!!

The thing is, it’s not the event itself that has sent these ripples into our life, it’s the guilt, and grief that followed. To this day Ernie is still scared of water, we took him swimming the very next day to try and ensure there was no lasting damage but he has refused since, even staying on the sand at the beach recently and asking to go home at the sight of the waves.

But my own emotions can’t be shut away so easily this time. The guilt is unbearable and it often feels that I’ve had to bare it alone. Even writing this I flay about wildly between trying to justify and excuse my actions, to blaming myself entirely. I sometimes blame everyone else who was there too, for not telling me there was a pond, then I chastise myself for getting pregnant when I was near enough obese already, thus not being able to run around with my children. I also remember all the times Mums all over the world look away for a second (myself included) and nothing happens to their child. As parents we have always prided ourselves on our ability to asses danger, we hold hands in car parks, they have road safety awareness, the house has three stair gates, our internet security is fort freaking knox. We see others who’s kids dart into traffic, we know of babies left in the bath. Toddlers carrying around their baby siblings…. our children do test the boundaries when we are around others but we are far from absent parents.

Sometimes I feel confused, why am I the only one who feels it was her fault? Why was I the only one shaking and crying, worrying about it even now? is it because I WAS the only one to blame?!

My husband cleverly pointed out that I may not be the only one to feel it, just the only
one to show it…. but not one person that day said ‘it’s ok’’it’s wasn’t your fault’ I willed them to, not my husband, or my in laws or the staff, or the ambulance crew. The conclusion? It was my fault and if I keep making excuses, minimising or blaming others or the layout of the garden or the size of signs, I’m actually doing a disservice to my son!

I love having a busy house and so much love, I even imagine adding one final baby to our brood but this event shook us. A month later when I went into hospital I was away from the children for 6 days, It felt as though I was letting them down again, and, when the emergency cord was pulled in my second stage of labour, I though of Ernie in the pond….. of how if something happened to me I hadn’t done enough to protect my children or to build a strong support network around them. We could have lost Gulliver too and, for over a month after his birth I shut myself away at home, terrified I would lose my children….. at one point I had intrusive thoughts, wanting to spare my children from the pain of me as a mother. It was a dark time. I got help though, my husband, ever practical, called for support. I know now that the combination of Ernie’s accident and Gulliver’s birth could very much have lead to post-natal psychosis. I became paranoid that my scar would become infected, so much so that I didn’t bathe for three weeks following birth for fear of it getting wet. I was convinced that I did not deserve to take the health of me or my children for granted. For months I worried that my baby would just stop breathing if I fell asleep. Thankfully, with immediate intervention and medication we came through the worst.

Even so, this is one event that the door remains open on, I guess you’d say I get ‘triggered’ (if you were some emo teen), but maybe that’s not entirely a bad thing? Maybe it’s best not to forget every negative choice or experience ? And swiftly move on…..Because while those emotions weigh heavy, the moment we search to others to abdicate our responsibility by saying ‘it’s ok it wasn’t your fault’, however painful it may be to accept, is the moment we have stopped caring and learning about what it means to be parents.

Maybe I can be a better mother without needing to either assign or take on full blame? maybe I can share this story to show others, that when we make mistakes as parents it’s not always clear cut how we might feel. When we use poor judgement, act selfishly or fail to meet their needs, however intentionally, if our gut reaction is not guilt then how else could we possibly adapt to prevent further harm?


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