Sunday, February 6, 2011

On making mistakes and feeling guilty

My 5 year old, E, has an injured fourth finger on her right hand. It's swaddled in bandaging, supported with a splint, and taped to within an inch of its life.

Inside the dressing is a first knuckle with a short but very deep cut, which has been glued together and (we are hoping) will knit itself if the joint stays immobolised with the help of the splint for a few days. We're trying to avoid the dreaded stitching, but if the wound comes apart when it's checked on Tuesday, there won't be a way to avoid it. Fortunately, there does not appear to be any nerve or function damage - and given how deep the cut was, that in itself is a mercy.

This injury was sustained yesterday afternoon, and at a meta level, you'd have to say it was my fault.

Oh, I didn't cut her, either on purpose (how horrific to contemplate) or even accidentally. Nor did she cut herself by using a knife or other tool unsuitable for her age group. No, she was cut with dressmaking scissors while she and her big sister were cutting up cellophane for a craft. I, very foolishly, left them alone cutting up the cello while I went into the kitchen to turn the sausages in the pan. Two small (ish) children, with a heavy, super-sharp pair of dressmaking scissors, sharing the cutting of one rapidly diminishing square of cellophane.

Less than two minutes later, the 5 year old screamed, the 7 year old burst into frantic sobbing, and there was blood all over the table.

We immediately swung into crisis-management mode, with me racing the 5 year old to the bathroom to wash and examine the wound while my husband tried to comfort the 7 year old. The 5 year old actually calmed down quite quickly once the cut was washed and pressure applied, but the 7 year old was distraught, inconsolable, at the thought that her little sister was hurt. "It's my fault!" she wailed, aghast. "I'm SO SORRY! Oh, E, I'm SO SORRY!"

The 5 year old was a star, both then and later at the doctors, as she reassured her sister that she was fine, allowed the doctor and nurse to clean, sterilise, glue and dress her finger without flinching, and took the whole business in her stride. Other than the first shock of the pain of the cut, she seemed to look on it as rather more an adventure than anything else, and is eager to show off her war wound at school tomorrow (where, very unfortunately, she won't be able to write or draw for three days until unsplinted, as she is right-handed).

The more upset of the two was the 7 year old, who was really heartbroken at the idea that she had caused this injury to her sister, however inadvertently. "I feel so guilty, Mum," she sobbed, hugging me tightly. I held her and said that I understood, that no-one blamed her but that I knew it still felt bad. And I do understand. It's always harder knowing you've hurt someone you love than simply being hurt yourself. Heart wounds are the hardest to heal.

I understand completely because I feel guilty about what happened to E. What's one of the first and most basic safety rules with kids? No playing with sharp objects. They make children-sized scissors for a reason, you stupid woman, muttered my Inner Critic. This is YOUR fault. YOU were negligent. And now see where it's landed everyone - E won't be able to write, on her first week of school! A is terribly upset because she thinks it's her fault! But it's not her fault, it's YOUR fault. YOURS.

I rang my mum after the kids were in bed last night and told her the whole tale of woe, noting that I felt guilty about it.

"What for?" riposted my mother. "It was an accident. Accidents happen."

"But I left them with the scissors!" I wailed. "I should never have done that!"

My mum made her little half-sympathetic, half-impatient tcha noise.
"OK, so you won't do that again. But it's not like they're tiny, you know. A is almost 8."

"Yes..." I sighed. "But they are really heavy scissors. And so sharp."

"I think you're overthinking this, love," my mum said. "No real harm was done, and it was an innocent mistake. Don't worry about it."

She is, of course, quite right. I know this and I accept it. But then why is it that when one of my children gets hurt in a way that greater diligence from me could have prevented, I feel guilty? (I am not completely OTT about this - I recognise and accept 'pure' accidents, that were neither foreseeable nor preventable, and I also feel no guilt for the multitude of times that my children injure themselves through their own curiosity, experimentation or exuberance).

I think maybe part of it comes from the baggage that I carry about what it means to be A Good Mother, some of which is personal, some cultural. Good Mothers, snarks my Inner Critic, don't allow their children to come to harm through negligence.

But what about the need for them to explore and learn? responds my Inner Logician mildly. We believe in that too, don't we? How will we know they're ready for a more difficult tool if we never let them try it?

Uhuh, snorts the Inner Critic. Very convincing, except NOT. This wasn't a decision to let them try, this was just forgetfulness and carelessness. You knew damn well A wasn't steady with those scissors. You saw it. You just ignored it.

So, it was a mistake, sighs the Inner Logician. Is it worth feeling guilty about, though? It's not the end of the world.

Yes, you can say that now, because no permanent damage was done, responds Inner Critic. Could've gone the other way, though. Couldn't it? And then you'd have to live with it. Forever.

And Inner Logician retires to lick her wounds, despite feeling that Inner Critic might be being a bit melodramatic, while Inner Critic does a victory dance on the summit of Mount The-Only-Good-Mothers-Are-Guilty-Mothers. (My mental topography is kind of weird ;-)

This isn't going to eat me up forever, or even for very long - E's finger will soon be better, and already today things are normalising. But today, I do still feel guilty. However irrationally. However unnecessarily. Because my child was hurt, at least in part due to my not paying enough attention.


  1. Hi Kathy, firstly, so glad your girl is ok. Secondly, this is such an interesting topic - the old debate between protecting our children and allowing them freedom to explore and challenge themselves. Where exactly is that perfect level of 'acceptable risk' that we're all aiming for?

    For me, I would never have imagined that my kids would have cut themselves in this situation. I actually don't know anyone who's been injured with scissors. I think I'm just trying to say that I'd have probably made the same decision you did.

    And I'm sure that neither girl will need to be reminded about scissor safety in the future!

  2. Tell the Inner Critic to go where the sun don't shine. We can't be constantly watching every move our children make. If they seem to be working safely while we're with them, we can only assume that they will continue to do so when we step away for a minute.

    I was innocently playing with my boys in the garden yesterday, swinging them around like an aeroplane. As soon as I put the 4 yo down he began writhing in pain, telling me "you hurted me!". He kept cradling his arm and screamed at any attempt to move it.

    I was convinced it was broken, so I iced it, put it in a make-shift sling and took off to find a hospital (we were away for the weekend). I also dosed him on Panadol.

    All the way there I was eaten up with guilt about playing "rough" with my son's "fragile" bones (they're not). Then, just before we got to the town with a hospital - a miracle! All the pain was gone. He could move his arm. All was well. All except my guilt... I still feel I should have known better...

  3. I love the way your write! I can identify with the Inner Critic and the Inner Logician and Mount The-Only-Good-Mothers-Are-Guilty-Mothers - I'm sure all mothers can. The Logician is definitely right this time, but boy can that guilt give us a lashing.

  4. This is a great topic! I would have done the exact same as you though, thinking it would be ok to leave them just for a minute or two. You can't predict these things and it was a accident.

  5. This dialogue had me nodding along so much! You've written this so well. Oh, and I think your mental topography is rather cool.

  6. Hearing what you're saying! You always question whether what you're doing is the right thing. Then when it turns sour, you beat yourself up about it. We are our own worst enemies, aren't we?1 For the record, I would have done exactly the same thing!!! So glad to hear she's OK too.