Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Passing the torch

There are all kinds of guilt. Italian guilt and Catholic guilt are what I know best, though. I was raised on it. It is important component of every mother’s arsenal of tools. I know this from personal experience.

My mother was a master at subtly deploying guilt. She used it deftly to mold my behavior. I only had to hear her say softly, “Oh Janet” with a dash of disappointment and I would dissolve into submission. Add in a concerned expression and I knew I was responsible for the fall of the Roman Empire. And worse. From afar she still has the power to manipulate my actions.

Guilt is powerful stuff.

When I became a mother, I wanted in. As generations before me, I expected to impart guilt (only in dire situations of course) to help Sam make the right choices. 

But here’s the thing. Guilt is a communication style with subtle nuances. I quickly learned it wasn’t so easy to use on a child with less than stellar communication skills. I sent periodic “guilt messages” only to find Sam was born with a seeming immunity to guilt.

How would I ever mold this child? Oh sure, there were other ways, but as the product of an Italian Catholic upbringing, I wanted him to understand our language: that being, of course, "language" of guilt. Of course I wanted him to understand facial expressions, body language and voice intonations, too, so I tried combining a little tutorial. 

I broke it down, insisting Sam look at my face. “What is Mommy feeling?” I asked. “Mommy is sad,” Sam invariably responded as he indifferently resumed his misdeed or infraction. I was a failure to my heritage.

Recently, though, Sam was foraging for cookies just before dinnertime. He ignored me as I asked him to put the cookies away. With a sad voice I absentmindedly said, “Oh Sam” and slowly shook my head. To my surprise, Sam turned and walked across the kitchen to hand me the package of cookies. Then he pulled my face close to his and looked into my eyes saying, “No sad. Happy Mommy. HAPPY Mommy!”

OHMYGOD! He got it! The torch has passed. I’m pretty sure I heard my mother and grandmother and all the generations preceding her singing praise like a heavenly choir.

I believe my work here is done. 

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