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SINGLE MOM FEELING THE GUILT

Dear Carolyn: I am a single mother to my 1-year-old daughter, and I work at least 45 hours per week to support us. (FWIW, I have plenty of friends and some family who help on a regular basis.) I love her so much, but can't stop feeling like a bad mother. When I get home from work, it's so hard to spend quality time with her, because I'm so tired! I feel like I fail at giving her the attention she needs. Also, she pulls my hair, hard. I get so frustrated, sometimes I slap her hand away when she doesn't listen to my more gentle "no-no's." Is this wrong? It feels wrong. I need suggestions. I love her, and I'm feeling really torn up inside.

-- Washington

A: Cut your hair and call your pediatrician.

Slapping her hand away is wrong, as is expecting a 1-year-old to take "no" for an answer. Especially when most adults' grasp of this skill appears to be shaky at best.

But feeling frustrated, tired, inadequate and torn up inside? The only people who feel this as acutely as working parents do are stay-at-home parents. And parents who work part-time.

It's not you, it's the nature of the job. To weigh this without all the extra emotional freight, recall how you felt in school when you had a term paper due. You could have worked on that paper from the moment it was assigned to the moment it was due, right? Excepting for meals, classes and sleep?

And the harder you worked on it, the better it would be. And so when you weren't working on it -- and you weren't in the midst of a meal, classes or sleep -- you were always aware that you could be working on it. And that if you could be working on it then you should be, because otherwise it wouldn't be as good as you were capable of making it. And then you'd eat a sleeve of Thin Mints and hate yourself.

There's no such thing as doing enough. So, you work hard, you acknowledge your limits without making excuses, and you do your best.

The only difference with kids is that your term paper doesn't care how relaxed you are. But if you feel like you're failing as a parent, then you churn inside, and then you get tense and snap at your kids. I know, cruel.

That's why the first thing you need to do is accept your limits. You work. You get tired. You love your little girl. These three things are not mutually exclusive.

So stop trying to cram quality -- i.e., maternal perfection, that nasty modern canard -- into your baby time, and just spend time with your baby. Put your hair out of reach, and structure your evenings around the assumption that you'll be tired. Set one goal a night, not 10; feel competent, not crazed. Slow down to a 1-year-old's pace.

Next, the doctor. Because any parent can feel overwhelmed, and because an overwhelmed parent can threaten a child's health, a good pediatrician "treats" parents, too, with advice and referrals. Call, please.

Invite a friend over, too, if you're losing it. Then hang up the phone, get on the floor and fold clothes while your baby unfolds them. Cures everything but a cold.

He wants out
Dear Carolyn: I need help. I've been in a relationship for seven years. I want out. No major problems between us, she is an incredible woman. It kills me to hurt her.

My problem is I just want to live on my own, always have. We've (I've) separated three times before but she so completely falls apart that I end up returning mostly out of a feeling of responsibility. I know prolonging this indefinitely isn't fair to either of us and if I make a clean, permanent break she will end up finding the right man for her. How do I end this with finality?

-- Arizona

I'd just tell you to stop being a wuss, but that's never helpful.

So, I'll tell you why you're a wuss. You're fully aware of, and right about, your need to break up -- you don't want her, and she can't really want a guy who doesn't want her.

That means your going back to her whenever she falls apart is not an act of responsibility, but of selfishness. You're unwilling to suffer the short-term discomfort necessary to a long-term cure.

Stop being a wuss. Break up, have spine.

And cheer up: Her collapsing is extremely manipulative and, therefore, just as selfish. "Incredible" people show love by declining to pile on the guilt.

Write to "Tell Me About It," c/o Washington Post, Style Plus, 1150 15th St., NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or e-mail: tellme@washpost.com.

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