It was 3:36 AM when we were awakened to the state police banging on our door to inform us that our daughter had been declared missing by the Lane County Sheriff Department, over 2000 miles across the country. The hours that followed were a jumble of chaos, confusion and terror. All four of us were on our phones, trying to text and call everyone–Abigael, the Sheriff Department, friends of hers–trying to make sense of this inconceivable THING. The lights were blindingly bright, my knees buckled as I tried to comprehend what the deputy was saying to me, everyone was pacing and I understood the expression “terror-stricken” in a newly intimate way as I watched my family absorb the gravity of the situation.
In the wee hours of that rainy morning, the house eventually quieted, and I went to lay in Abigael’s bed. It was then, staring at the same ceiling she had stared at just a few months prior, that I felt the cold, hard grip of guilt. Of course this was all my fault. My biggest fear had been actualized. I was completely inadequate as a mother, and as a result something catastrophic had happened to this beautiful, vibrant being that I was supposed to take care of.
I went to get blood drawn when I was pregnant with Abigael and as the woman who drew my blood walked away she muttered to another staff person “babies having babies”. I chalked it up to someone having a bad day, and shrugged it off, outwardly. But it fed the raging insecurity I was inwardly battling. Raising a child is monumental. I recognized that it would likely be the most significant thing I would do in my lifetime. And I was terrified that the tech was right, I was not prepared for the enormity of the task, and I would fail. Failing not just me, but a real, live human being. I had not even kept a plant alive before.
Man, how I have tortured myself over the past 22 years, laying awake at night, thinking of the all the “should have” moments, all those moments of regret. But knowing that I would get up the next morning, smile and kiss my little girl or try to make my sullen teenager crack a smile, or send my adult daughter a care package to brighten her day. Because I WANTED to keep being a better mother; because I love these people that call me “Mom”. When I was pregnant and reading every book I could, I was motivated to be a GOOD MOM because of my own fears of inadequacy. Over the years, my motivation changed. It was no longer about me. I wanted to keep growing and trying and striving to be a better parent because of how much I love these three girls.
Mom guilt is a common topic and catchphrase, and almost every mom I know would say that she has experienced it. When I knew my daughter was dead, I had to reframe the regrets I had about our time together. I regret many moments. I regret the time she left to fly back across the country without me hugging her, because of a huge blow-up fight before she left. I regret not letting her cook more for me. I regret tuning her out, making grocery lists in my own head instead of listening to her tell me about her newest thing (Mayan Galactic New Year…huh?????) that was hard for me to wrap my brain around. But, I don’t feel guilty about it. I can not.
Guilt is different than regret. Guilt is something that you feel in the midst of your actions, knowing that it is the wrong thing to do. I feel guilty about shoplifting the Zinc Pink lipstick…three times. I feel guilty about fibbing to my husband about what exactly happened to my bumper. Because I knew as I did those things that I shouldn’t; they were wrong. But regret, regret is a healthy emotion. Regret is looking back, reflecting on everything and then taking away a lesson. Regret hurts, but regret allows you to change and grow. Regret is productive, while guilt just eats away at you, often spiraling into shame. Guilt is something you internalize, but don’t have the power to vocalize.
Regret has caused me to invest more fully in my relationships with my daughters. Regret has caused me to do wild and crazy things like spontaneous trips to the beach, outside of normal vacation times. Regret has allowed messy, late night kitchen action to happen. Regret has brought my family closer together, because I have relinquished guilts’ control over me. Regret has ensured that I don’t make the same mistakes–plenty of new mistakes waiting to happen.
That guilt I felt, when all of my inadequacies screamed as I recognized she was gone, meant that I had failed her. But, a couple of days later, as I stood on the riverbank where her life ended and looked at the scene in front of me I thought “It is so beautiful here. Abigael would love this”. And she did; she did love it there. I wasn’t wrong. I hadn’t failed her by empowering her to choose her life, to choose where she lived, and where she wanted to dip her toes and where she wanted to swim. I danced with her in our living room and whispered in her tiny ear that she could do and be anything she wanted. I encouraged her to explore it all. She had not run from me into that river; she had grown from me, like a tiny little spider plant growing from their mama plant, who eventually gets plucked and re-rooted.
My mistakes as a mother are not a result of my innate inadequacies; they are an opportunity for me to learn. They enable me to be a better mother, a better person, each day. Abigael, in her life, allowed me to learn from every single experience that we grew from–together. Abigael, in her passing, has pushed me to learn from every single experience which has occurred as a result of her death. And nothing I did or could have done would have stopped my girl from doing exactly what she wanted to do in going swimming that early evening.
We are programmed by society to feel guilt, for simply not being enough. Society preys on our internalized feelings of inadequacies. Choosing to find the regret instead is the courageous path, the path toward a fresh tomorrow, with a kiss and a smile and doing the absolute best for the people you love…every single day, over and over. Choosing to regret without guilt is what frees us up to love more.
And you should see all the plants in my house, thriving. I am running out of space to put them.