by Jennifer Sey
I’ve been a tad ponderous lately. Perhaps it is turning 40. Perhaps it is just having kids that are old enough to ask: “Are you sad mommy? You seem a little down.” Perhaps it is merely a normal cadence in life; there are times for enjoying, there are times for self-reflection. Regardless of the why, I’ve come to a truly new insight about myself.
I’ve come to understand that shame triggers sadness, even depression, of pretty significant proportions in me. This has been a light bulb moment of the tallest order, one that officially materialized when I read Ayelet Waldman’s essay “Rocket” from her book, “Bad Mother”. In this piece she acknowledged the utter self-reproach incited by choosing to terminate a pregnancy in which there was potentially something wrong with the baby. She chose herself over the unborn child.
For me, shame brought on by choosing myself over anyone else, incites the absolute depths of despair. It sends me into a swirling spiral of doom. It knots my stomach, clenches my jaw and generates an anxiety of such intense energy it could clean my house in seconds flat (and does on occasion). It chokes me in a manner that makes it hard not to cry at inopportune moments. When shame hits, tears threaten to invade the most placid and unassuming moments.
It has taken me many years to understand this about myself, but it has been present since I was conscious. I felt shame in the first grade when my new class sat in a semi-circle and I read the words out loud that the teacher wrote on the blackboard, without having to string the letters together in rudimentary fashion. I quickly became aware, when I heard my voice and mine alone, that not another child in the room could read yet. I wished that I could’ve sucked the words back in my mouth. It seemed boastful – as if I was trying to make the other kids feel badly - to have made sense of the letters on the board. I blushed and tears, inexplicable to my new teacher, poured from my eyes.
In the fifth grade, I was caught cheating on a test. I slyly (or so I thought) gave someone else the answers, currying favor for just a lick of popularity. I was not very slick in the breaking the rules department and was called out and scolded by the teacher. “We’ll need to tell your mother.” I nodded sick with worry that my dedicated stay-at-home mom would feel like a horrible parent for having such a dishonest child. I was shocked when I received no punishment.
She knew that punishment of a child steeped in the ways of shame is unnecessary. I punished myself with anxious lip gnawing and finger picking, not to mention stomach aches and sleepless nights, more than any parent ever could. I know this to be true about my youngest child. I don’t need to send him to his room. When he knows he’s done wrong, he hides in the closet, inconsolable. He’s inherited my shame gene. No punishment necessary.
I’ve been trying to understand the root of this shame as I watch my son suffer its effects. His seems to be caused by simple humiliation. For now. Perhaps that is the 6 year old version of what I experience. But mine has evolved over time into something more specific. My most intensely shameful experiences are wrought from choosing myself over someone else. For women, I think, there can be intense guilt in this. A simple act of self-preservation. Or, less intensely biological, an act of self-determination.
When I quit gymnastics at the age of 19, after training for over a decade and a half, my mother lost her bearings. I kept going for quite a while after needing, being absolutely desperate, to retire. I kept working, training on broken bones, so that my mother wouldn’t suffer. It was ok for me to suffer. But if I quit, which I ultimately did when continuing became an impossibility, I would be choosing myself over my mom. Shame.
When I struggled to nurse my children because I’d chosen to have a breast reduction in my early twenties, I suffered intense shame that led to depression. I’d selfishly chosen myself, my own physical comfort, over my future children’s health.
I’ve long left employees in roles in which they were clearly ineffective. I’ve filled the gaps myself, worked faster, harder, longer to prevent causing another the humiliation of being fired. When it finally became unavoidable, when the work so shoddy, attendance so poor that NOT firing this employee would put my own job at risk, I followed through. With deep and abiding shame to follow.
When my mother got sick a few years ago - lung cancer – and I flew home to be with her my internal response (on top of the shock, terror and absolute ragged despair) was that it was my fault. I’d been so self-involved that I was being a taught a lesson to put my family first. I shouldn’t have moved to California, so far from my parents. This karmic lesson was being heaped upon me because I’d made choices in my life that prioritized me. I preferred the Bay Area, I kept the grandchildren 3,000 miles away from my parents. Truly shameful. (My husband promptly reminded me that it was this response that was self-involved not choosing to live my life the way I was.)
I’m on a plane returning from a visit to Philadelphia with my kids for a little grandparent time. I just spent 5 days with my boys going to the Jersey shore, building sandcastles, fishing, swimming. When my youngest asked if we could see a movie when we get home to California, I said: “I can’t take you on Monday. Maybe Daddy will.” He frowned and pouted as he spit the words: “Why do you always have to work?” My mom shot me a similarly pouty look indicating how sad it was that my poor children were denied a mother that could take them to movies on weekdays in the summer because she worked too much. As ridiculous (and likely unintended) as I know that suggestion was, I felt pretty badly for being that kind of mommy.
I choose to go to work because I like it. Sure, I have to go to work because we need money. But I like it too and that - liking something that has nothing to do with my kids, sometimes working late because I’m enjoying the work I do - …well. You know.
I think it is time to tackle this one. I’m at the beginning of my fifth decade. Feeling badly for choosing myself from time to time is no way to spend the second half of my life. I’m not sure I’m up to banishing this deeply rooted response, ingrained since childhood. I’m not even sure it can be prodded into submission. But I think I might be able to temper its intensity.
If I can raise two boys intuitive enough to ask mom if she’s blue, crafty enough to trigger the guilt with pouty lips and crocodile tears, well…I think I might be able to kick shame to the curb. Of course, once I do, I’ll feel just awful that I wasted so much time, took precious time away from my children, indulging in such self-involved, dishonorable, and YES shameful, behavior.