There's enough work, moms don't need anyone to pile on a load of guilt, too

June 09, 1998|By SUSAN REIMER

PSYCHOLOGIST Harriet Lerner, who wrote "The Dance of Anger," "The Dance of Intimacy," and "The Dance of Deception," has just published a new book.

It is called "The Mother Dance: How Children Change Your Life," but she might have called it "The Dance of Guilt."

"I really could have written that book," Lerner says, laughing. She didn't, because the life changes brought about by having children are broader and deeper than simply shouldering on a fresh load of guilt.

But that might be the chapter of her new book with which we guilt-ridden mothers most identify.

"That's because we live in a very mother-blaming society," says Lerner, who has so skillfully plumbed the heart of women in her earlier books. "Mothers are viewed as responsible for all family problems. We're the first to be blamed and the first to blame ourselves.

"Mothers are held responsible not only for their own behavior, which is fair enough. Mothers are also blamed for their children's behavior.

"If your child is a moral, polite, tidy, little citizen, someone will say, 'Good job, Mom.' If your child is unruly and has problems paying attention and learning in schools, then someone is likely to blame the mother at the expense of looking at the larger picture.

"I want to remind mothers how important we are, but how little control we actually have."

Lerner believes the the national debate about the needs of children is actually not-so-subtle finger-pointing at women. The subtext is, "Mothers, solve this child-care business by staying home and doing it yourself."

The juggling of work and family is seen as the mother's problem, not the family's puzzle to solve. If she insists on working, she needs to be cheerful and organized and everything will flow smoothly.

When women fail to handle this by themselves, Lerner says, they feel guilty.

"There is good guilt and bad guilt," Lerner says.

Guilt is a basic human emotion and it helps curb our anti-social behavior. When we behave badly toward our family -- when we explode in anger, for example -- we feel guilty. And we should apologize. Kids, who have such a strong sense of justice, love it when we do.

"But mothers have to distinguish between useful guilt, which lasts for five minutes and helps us change our behavior, and culturally manufactured guilt, which keeps us in place and makes it more difficult for us to define the quality and direction of our own lives," Lerner says.

"I can't remember the last man who came to me for therapy because he wasn't sacrificing his career to be at home with the kids."

Lerner offers these things for a woman to consider when she is feeling particularly guilty, which is probably much of the time.

"Guilt is not terminal, you are unlikely to die from it." Repeat this phrase as a mantra: "I am responsible for my own behavior, I am not responsible for my child's behavior."

"Remember that other people can't make you feel guilty about your mothering, but they can really try." Listen to feedback that is useful and let the negative judgments float over your head.

"Avoid self-blame." We need to observe our own behavior and perhaps make some changes. But this is a task of self-love and it can't happen in an atmosphere of self-flagellation.

"Avoid perfectionism like the plague. Especially your own. It is the arch-enemy of mothers everywhere. The same is true of self-sufficiency."

"Avoid any expert or book that makes you feel more guilty. Mothers feel guilty enough and should not pay money to be made to feel more guilt."

Lerner is the mother of two grown sons who once tried to make her feel guilty for raising them in Topeka, Kan., where they were "culturally deprived," they said.

Did they succeed? she is asked, for nothing can induce guilt in a mother like a poison-dart comment from her child. Does she feel guilty?

No, Lerner says. She doesn't feel guilty. She feels worried.

"Guilt isn't my biggest struggle. Worry is. I did not know how frightened I could become and how quickly I could imagine disaster until I had children."

Worry? That's a whole other book.

Pub Date: 6/09/98

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