Guilt. It's the single most crippling emotion in a mother's life. One needn't dig into fancy psychological studies to know that guilt is something that all mothers learn to accept as a part of their life. The stay-at-home mums feel it because they might be setting a poor example for the daughter who dreams of becoming a doctor; the working mums feel it because they might not be spending enough time with their kids, the work-from-home mums feel it because no matter how much they practise the juggling act, there always seems to be one ball in the air that they've missed.
Last week, a yowoto mother, Shilpi Sengupta Jain, told us the story behind the hardest choice she's ever made: to quit her job to raise her daughter. So she's there every time her daughter needs her, she's there to put balm on her wounds, to listen to her many stories when she comes back from school, to bake the chocolate cake for her birthday… But Shilpi isn't happy. Because fabulous mother as she is, she's also a career girl in her heart. There it is again, the omnipotent guilt.
The fact that she doesn't need the money made the choice harder. If the money was an issue, there would be no questions, no recriminations. I know a lot of mothers who secretly wish they had that excuse to hide behind. But why does a mother need an excuse at all? Why can't it be a decision she made for herself? For her own sanity?
"Easier said than done," my sister snickered when I discussed this issue with her. "You're basically trying to tell a mother to put herself above her baby," she said. "You must be out of your mind." 'Am I?' I wondered. "Do you think you'd have felt a little less pressure to be perfect if mum had been a little bit selfish?" I asked her. Silence. I know it's true. My sister knows it's true. Our mum is a Sanskrit and history whiz, but she gave it all up-a scholarship, a shot at a fabulous career, fame, money-to be a full-time mum.
Sure, there were many more hot meals, visits to museums and weekend vacations because of her decision, but there's also that nagging guilt about shortchanging our kids of the kind of childhood we enjoyed. Maybe my sister wouldn't have given up her practice if mum hadn't set such a high standard to uphold. Again, the guilt.
"What about all the milestones and the memories that I'll miss out on? How does a mother not feel guilty when she isn't around to see her baby take his first step? Or when he clings to your neck every morning until you step out?" asks my sister, the devil's advocate. I don't have all the answers, just like all the mothers I know. I just have a plan, and not even a fool-proof one, at that. All I know is that some choices I simply have to make for myself. Even if they don't make sense to the others. I've always played by my rules, done exactly as I pleased... Then why must I let someone decide the rules of motherhood for me?
Today, now that we've grown up and have our own lives, families and careers that occupy every waking minute, the guilt is still there. But this time, it's ours. Because we have nothing more than quick phonecalls and a few hours every week to give to the woman who gave us the best years of our lives. I wouldn't want any daughter of mine to feel this guilt when she grows up. She'll have her own wars to fight, her own demons to battle… I just don't want mine to be added to her list. I wouldn't want her to feel guilty for not being perfect, because she'll know that her mother wasn't perfect either. Far from it. There's a certain liberation that comes with the freedom to be imperfect. I want that freedom for myself. And for my kids… Don't you?