guilt: the gift that keeps on giving

By Deb Baer Becker
Woman Newspapers

On Saturday, I was driving my daughter Kaylyn to the outlet mall.

The sky was blue, with popcorn clouds, my favorite kind of day. She wanted to buy two pair of pants because, at 26 years old, she had entered the workforce and needed to increase her work wardrobe. My baby girl, all grown up, and married, too, has her own sense of style, but she still likes shopping with me and values my opinion, which is about the best thing a mother could ask for.

We were talking about work, hers and mine, and I said, “I should write something about guilt, but I don’t even know where to start. I’m just not the kind of mother who makes her kids feel guilty.”

I glanced at Kaylyn just in time to see her jaw drop.

“Mom, are you kidding me? You dish guilt all the time,” she said. She looked away, mumbled OMG.

I yielded my way into the freeway’s center lane, looked ahead, and noticed a hazy line of gray clouds on the west side of the horizon, probably one of those pop-up storms the weatherman’s always talking about.

“Kay — I don’t believe you. Give me one example,” I said,

“How about all of the baby stuff?” she said.

“Baby stuff?” I said. I had no idea of what she was talking about.

“Every time we walk by the children’s department at Macy’s,” she said, “you dangle baby booties in front of my nose.”

“Oh, come on. I only did it once. They were soft and pink and cute as hell,” I said.

Kaylyn pushed her hair behind her ears and wound up the length of it into a tight bun. She was wearing the pearl earrings I gave her years ago, but her ears had gone red, and her cheeks were flushed.

“How many times have you pointed out some random pregnant woman and said, ““Just think how cute you’ll look when you have a baby bump!”” She mimicked my voice in a way that made me sound like an over-­exuberant fool, and maybe I was.

“Well,” I said. “You’ll have a bump someday, and you’ll look so darned cute, and we’ll shop for the prettiest clothes, and we can buy little things for the baby, too, and it will all be so much fun, right?”

“Mom, I’ve only been married since April,” she said. “We’re not having kids for five years.”

“I know. I’m sorry,” I said and exited the freeway and turned onto Premium Outlet Mall Drive. “It’s just that, well, you know, with my cancer scare, I just hope I’ll still be here in five years.”

The parking lot circled the outlet center like daisy petals, each one jammed with cars; we weren’t making any progress.

“Oh my god, Mom — you just dished the baby guilt again,” she said and turned away from me, to look at SaksOff5th, J. Crew, Ann Taylor, and maybe other sources of happiness.

Finally, I found a spot and parked the car.

When I look back over this past year, I’ve probably guilt-­tripped my daughter about babies every time we have been together. And yes, spiking that guilt with the threat of metastatic cancer to force the timing of a grandchild is really the act of a depraved lunatic. Why did these guilt-­loaded words fall out of my mouth so easily?

Suddenly memories of my maniacal manipulations popped up like Christmas sales at the outlet mall.

There was the time about nine months ago — before the wedding — when I was showing Adam, my tall and well­-mannered son-­in-­law, around our home. When we reached the hall bathroom, I pushed back the shower curtain and said, “... and this is the tub that I plan to bathe my grandbabies in — if I ever get any.”

They weren’t even married yet! I was a guilt-­spewing monster-­in-law!

It was just last week when I met up with my mom’s group for dinner, a 20­-year tradition, seven longtime friends from my old neighborhood, the happy hamlet where our kids grew up. We meet every other month and talk about our kids, just like we did all those years ago when we first met. My friend Denise passed her iPhone around and we gushed and fawned at pictures of her new grandson’s sweet baby face.

I was thinking of how quickly time passes.

“Now that my kids are grown, my role has evolved to wise confidant or experienced consultant,” I said to these women friends, with my hands resting in my lap and an expression of peace that only Mother Theresa could have imitated.

Let’s face it, if Mother Theresa had a daughter she wouldn’t have hounded the poor girl to give her Grandmammy Theresa a baby before the old lady drops dead.

How could I ever add a baby to the pile of expectations already heaped on Kaylyn’s silky-­haired head?

My girl just graduated from the pressure cooker called grad school to take up the stress of her first corporate job, to start her career — and here’s Mom-­the­-Wise-­Counselor blabbering about babies, when the truth is I don’t even want her to take on a puppy right now.

I was ashamed of myself. And then I felt guilty. You can’t dish guilt around without splashing it on yourself.

My kids are 26 and 23, and they don’t need me trying to manipulate their life’s path like a blind and deaf air traffic controller. What’s closest to my truth is that my kids are grown, my role has changed, and I still have the impulse to mother something. Maybe I should get a puppy.

And, yes, the mention of a cancer recurrence is almost unforgivable, except that it is my fear-­based motivator; I want to seize every moment, experience all the good stuff of life, all at once, which is nice way of saying I have no patience.

We’d shopped our way to the J. Crew store where Kaylyn had found the pants she was looking for and a turquoise cardigan, and gold bangle bracelets. I put my arms around her, gave her a squeeze, and said,

“I’m so sorry about the baby stuff.”

Kaylyn said, “Mom, don’t worry about it. I know you’re living your life on YOLO.”

“Yes,” I said, “I am, but I’m loving right now. Right here. This moment with you, my lovely girl.”