This article first appeared on Role Reboot and has been republished with permission.
I am very good at talking about my anxiety disorder like I have it under control. I can clearly identify all the cognitive distortions, the unrealistic standards I apply to myself and no one else, the ways in which my panic can be traced back to specific traumatic events. I can understand, logically, the gap between what I believe about other people – that they’re flawed but worthy, working hard and deserving of love regardless – and what I believe about myself – that I’m unforgivable. But self-awareness is not a cure.
“You have to learn to forgive yourself,” chorus a line of therapists, as though that’s just a thing people can do. How? What is the mechanism of forgiveness?
I apologize too much. I understand that it’s annoying. I’m sorry about that, too.
Ask me how I should be a better mother, a better partner, friend, writer, a better cat owner for Christ’s sake, and I can offer you an endless list. I don’t know how to unwrite the litany of wrongs, the many ways I have been careless or neglectful or irresponsible at someone else’s expense. I don’t know how to let go of the mistakes I’ve made when there’s no undoing them, how to walk away from what’s broken and cannot be repaired. I don’t know how to love myself in all the ways I’m not who I wish I were.
When I told my father that my partner was pregnant, he – not usually emotionally demonstrative – jumped out of his chair and burst into tears. He hugged me hard and said, “You’re finally going to understand how much I love you.” I thought I knew what he meant.
How does anyone write about their child without being maudlin? How do I tell you about her little hands, her constantly dirty fingernails, the tuneless joy of her singing voice, the way she rubs her nose when she’s sad – the way she is so very much herself, and no one else. The irreplaceable specificity of her.
I love who my daughter is, not what she does. I try not to fall into the trap of romanticizing parenting, which I think is mostly an evolutionary defense against the despair of sleeplessness and having sippy cups thrown at your head, but I don’t think I understood what it means to love unconditionally before she was born. Failures, frustrations, injuries, even triumphs are irrelevant. Her actions, her mannerisms, all the things she’s learning and becoming every day – as much as I delight in them, they’re not why I love my daughter. I loved her the second she was born, before anything, before everything. Beneath and beyond it all.
And maybe this is what it means to forgive. Maybe it’s not actually a process, but a feeling: a compassion that doesn’t excuse mistakes but simply doesn’t concern itself with them.
I never want my child to doubt herself the way I do myself. I never want her to feel the anxieties that weigh me down, though I know she already senses them. “How Mommy feel?” she asks most days, the way I might check the weather forecast. I remind her when anxiety sets in that it isn’t her fault; I never want her to think that it’s her job to manage my emotions, or, for that matter, anyone’s. As much as I apologize for my own outsized reactions, as embarrassed as I am by the times I’m incapacitated by dread, I want my daughter to feel entitled to her full range of emotions.
And she’s 2, so that range is immense. Bringing her a toy stegosaurus when she wanted a triceratops can trigger a brief but devastating fury. She sometimes weeps when my partner leaves for work in the morning. But her joy over a new toy or a fresh blackberry is every bit as expansive.
In Barrie’s original Peter Pan, Tinkerbell was so small she only had room for one feeling at a time. That’s what being 2 is like. When she’s sad, there’s no space for anything else. While my negative emotions are always mixed with shame and anger, berating myself to get over it, stop making a scene, my daughter’s tears are pure. She cries until she’s done crying. She’s scared until she’s comforted. She’s angry until she’s distracted.
Although I am sometimes overwhelmed by the ferocity of my daughter’s feelings, I find a measure of compassion for her that I’ve never been able to apply to myself. When she’s so upset that she can’t find the words to explain, instead of what I might tell myself – what the hell is wrong with you, getting so worked up for no reason? – I can often find my way to an unprecedented patience. When she is furious, I can hold her and say “It’s safe to feel your feelings. I love you. I’ve got you. I love you even when you’re mad at me. I love you no matter what.” It’s a mantra that helps me stay calm at least as much as it helps her.
So I wrote it down for myself in the form of a letter, something to get me through the worst days. The days when it doesn’t matter that I can see the inconsistencies in my own logic; I can’t debate myself out of the way I feel. I don’t have room for any other feelings.
But I can hear my own voice telling me, I love you even when you’re mad at me. It’s safe to feel your feelings. I can imagine, in little glimpses, what it might be like to love myself the way I love my daughter: not in spite of my failings, but beneath and beyond them, at a level that nothing else can touch.
I’m not there, but I can see it more clearly than I ever could before.