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'My childhood anxiety has evolved into parental guilt'

Bill Linnane

No more nights out for Bill Linnane


Bill Linnane

Bill Linnane

Bill Linnane

It is time to speak of parental guilt. This is because it overshadows much of what I do in my day-to-day parenting, and it was something that I was never prepared for. Few Hollywood depictions of parenthood portray the sheer weight of guilt that you have to drag around behind you once you welcome a child into your world, while even fewer touch on the fact that this guilt increases exponentially with each new child.

Granted, there is a blanket sense of your own failings that comes with being a parent - a guilt quilt, if you will - but there is also a very specific, targeted guilt for each one of your children. That's not to say that this is in any way their fault - I am, after all, responsible for their existence, and their innocence in my guilt creates even more guilt, to the point where I am now locked in some sort of Moebius loop of guilt. It is exhausting.

I would imagine that this is not something which is unique to me, and that almost all parents feel a certain amount of it. It shows that you care, that you know you can and should do better. Perhaps it can be used, in the right quantities, to make you a better person or parent.

I am now at the point where much of my life beyond my kids and my job has been eroded as I feel guilty heading out for the night, not just for those couple of hours, but also knowing that I will be tired or possibly a tad delicate the next morning.

Long before lockdown, I was socially distancing myself from just about anyone who wasn't either my wife or kids, because I feel guilty when I go out. My wife has also suffered because of my unhealthy attitude to family - we rarely go out for a night, because I feel bad leaving the kids behind, or leaving them in the care of their sister. Socially at least, I am paralysed by the sense of guilt.

I love spending time with the kids, and love going places with them, but as soon as I leave them and go somewhere that is just for me, I start to feel like I am being selfish.

I think it is partly fuelled by how inept I feel as a parent - I was doing OK with the first two, reading books on parenting and really being enthused about the craft of raising children. Then the second two came along and those little tugs on the heart and occasional pangs of guilt became a sensation more akin to being hung, drawn and quartered.

The worst guilt is not that which comes from just feeling like you could be doing better, but the guilt of knowing that your kids' struggles are simply what were once your struggles, which you shoved down deep inside you, but they bubbled back up to the surface in this smaller version of yourself.

We had this recently when I realised the extent of my eldest child's issues with anxiety.

It was simple enough - we were going to get some pizza. She was going to go in and get it in the fast-food outlet. Except when we got there, she was not. She told me she couldn't do it. I expressed frustration with her, and she got upset. And lo, here comes even more guilt, for not only did I get angry at her for being anxious, I also failed to accept that her anxiety is largely inherited from me.

There is no comfort in telling her that hey, it gets easier, and that hey, in three decades or so you may be able to channel your scattered, perpetually worried brain into some creative outlet, as she is a teenager and right now she goes through periods of her life where she is not comfortable in her own skin.

When I was a kid it was called shyness and was almost seen as a virtue, now we can see it as something that makes you vulnerable, that keeps you down, that stops you from fulfilling your potential. But all my childhood anxiety and self-doubt has just evolved into parental guilt.

I wonder if there comes a time as a parent when you can look back and think, yeah, I didn't do too badly. Or if, as Voltaire put it, every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.

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