The Burn of Parental Guilt


So. Yesterday, we did” Go for What You Know” for dinner. You want cereal? Have a bowl or two. Leftovers? Nuke it to your heart’s content. A sandwich and chips? Jordan and Kaelyn usually go for PB&J, while the twins generally prefer ham and cheese.

Kaelyn and Jordan to have ramen. Groovy. I put a pot of water on the stove and then went to do some editing while I waited for it to boil.

I got lost in the zone. I snapped out of it 15 minutes later by piercing scream coming from the kitchen. It was the type of scream in which you know from the second it stabs your ears that your kid is hurt. And not just a little hurt–it’s the degree of hurt that jolts your heart and moves you at light speed to your child. One second you’re where you were and the next you’re where they are, and you can hardly recall getting from Point A to Point B.

It was Kyra. She took the initiative to help me out and make the ramen, something she’s done a hundred times before. The wrong burner was on, and the pot was turned in such a way that its metal handle was positioned over the heat. I don’t know if Kyra accidentally turned on the second burner as she was cooking or if I did it and didn’t notice. It doesn’t matter, because it was my fault either way.

Her left hand (which is her non-dominant hand, thankfully) has very mild first degree burns, particularly on the tips of her first three fingers, the upper part of her palm, and the heel of her thumb. It’s not anything that needs professional medical attention. Basic home first-aid should heal her will over the next few days.

There were lots of tears and lots of hugs.

After I slathered her hand in cooling burn ointment and wrapped it in sterile gauze, I cried and snotted all over Kyra’s shoulder.

Ever the stoic, she said, “It’s okay, Mommy. I was a little scared at first, but I knew that I was going to be okay as soon as you put my hand in the water. See? I’m not even crying.” And she wasn’t. The girl never even shed a tear. She squeezed her arm around my shoulders and patted my back with her good hand.

Which naturally made me cry harder.

Because if only I’d been there, she wouldn’t have gotten hurt in the first place.

If only I’d made a real dinner instead of punking out with Go for What You Know, which is usually reserved for an occasional Friday or Saturday night.

If only my career paid a bit better, I wouldn’t have to pick up extra little writing/editing gigs here and there to help bridge the gap between the needs (which we can provide) and their wants (which are few, but we have to be choosy based on what we can afford).

If only Frank were already finished with school and our burden could be eased with the addition of a second income.

If only I were a better mom….

That’s the way it goes, isn’t it? We let the guilt of one parenting failure blow up into a trick mirror which distorts the things we do right into something disturbingly wrong. Everything we wish we could be for our kids waves a mocking finger and belittles us. We shame ourselves into believing that we’re not already good enough the way we are.

I didn’t say any of this, but I think Kyra sensed it in the way I hovered over her for the rest of the evening. “You’re a great mom, Mom. I’m going to school tomorrow, even though you said I could stay home tomorrow if I wanted to. Just put some more of that stuff on my hand and wrap it up. I have to beat my record on the mile run in P.E., I have a science project to finish, and I’m trying to get Perfect Attendance.”

I want to be like her when I grow up.


Photo Credit

30 thoughts on “The Burn of Parental Guilt”

  1. There is nothing scarier than a kitchen accident. I’m glad Kyra is OK – she sounds lik a trooper!

    1. Kitchen accidents are the worst. They can bring down the whole house if intervention does not come really fast. I am glad that Kyra is doing fine.

  2. I’m so sorry for you, Kym! That does feel horrible — completely and totally rotten, when something like that happens. he “if onlys” that follow just grip the heart.

    Kyra sounds like an amazing person. Wow. I wanna be like her when I grow up, too.

    1. Kyra IS an amazing person. I love feeling like she’s a better person that I was at her age (and maybe even at MY age).

  3. I’m sorry that happened, to both of you. I know exactly what you mean about the one little blip snowballing into all our shortcomings in the blink of an eye. There is always a way we could be better, an ‘if only’, something to blame. Of course those will always be there, the change as our lives change. That is why we have to let them go.

    I want to be like Krya when I grow up too.

  4. Glad that Kyra is OK. This reminds me about the debate in the NYTimes this week about motherhood and feminism. It’s so easy to see the things we do wrong … and feel like they define us. When really, we are all doing the best we can … and for the most part, it is nothing short of a miracle.

    1. I need to check out the debate. I haven’t done too much online reading this week.

      You’re so right about doing the best we can being nothing short of a miracle. I often lose sight of that.

  5. What an amazing little girl you have, wow. But of course you already know that! And it’s not surprising, given who her mom is. ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m glad she’s okay. We can’t be perfect parents 100% of the time. (Except this woman at our preschool, who apparently is completely flawless 24/7, and she can tell you all about it. Loudly.) But anyway, the rest of us are not able to be all things, do all things, and provide all things for our children at all times — it’s just not realistic, and holding ourselves to that standard just leaves us frustrated and guilty. When something bad happens to our kiddos, though, that truth is not very comforting, unfortunately. Hugs!

    1. Ugh – don’t you just HATE the know-it-alls who…umm…think they know everything? I can’t help but wonder if they’re trying to convince me or THEMSELVES that they’re grade A parents.

      Thanks for the love, Sunny!

  6. I’m amazed that you had cooling burn ointment and sterile gauze on hand! If you’re not a good mom then I don’t know what it takes;-).

    1. Weeellll, I had a tube of it from when I scorched my thumb in this post:, but I’d taken it to my classroom at the beginning of this school year because my hot glue gun and I always get into fights. Frank was out at the gym playing basketball, and I had to wait until he called me on the way home to see if I needed anything (as is his routine) to tell him that I needed a new tube of burn ointment. The sterile gauze, though, we DID have on hand. For the hour between the accident and the time Frank got home, I had her keep her hand submerged in a big bowl of cool water. I put a frozen ice pack in it to keep it cold.

      Restocking our First Aid kit is now on my list of weekend things to do.

  7. I would be so proud if Eggbert turns out like Kyra. That makes you a kickass mom in my books.

    I’m so sorry that happened to both of you. A burnt hand and a burnt heart. Not fun for anyone.

    1. You’ll be proud no matter what Eggbert turns out to be (except maybe a serial killer, which is soo not going to happen). I wish I could take credit for her good parts. I only nurture those few rough spots she has, but I think that strength is pure nature.

  8. I’m really glad she’s ok, I still remember the day my son fell down the stairs – because I forgot to check the gate was shut properly. I was still shaking long after he’d forgotten about it. He wasn’t hurt but my conscience was … for days.

    But at least you know she will never do that again.

    Not that she’ll get the chance because I’m betting for the forseable future you’re gonna be standing guard oh high alert every time the cooker is on.

  9. Alexicographer

    Oh, I’m sorry. I’m so glad she is OK. It’s a terrifying world and there is just no way we can … you know. Actually it amazes me … Amazes. Me. … that we have survived as a species because, OK, keeping a little one alive with, you know, a roof and a crib and stuff — even an electric range — is one thing, but how did we (do we?) manage it without all those luxuries? Often by the skin of our teeth, I do realize (and often not at all, of course, sadly), but somehow, on average, we managed — it boggles the mind that it is possible at all.


  10. Oh honey, don’t beat yourself up over this. When Gabe was little, I was holding him on my hip and had that side turned away from the stove. I was making soup. I turned slightly to put something in the sink and Gabe picked that moment to turn loose and lean back. He grabbed the spoon from the pot and pulled it out. He ended up with a second degree burn the size of the palm of my hand on his lower chest/upper abdomen. 4 1/2 years later, there isn’t even a scar left. I could have beat myself up over that but it all ended well.

  11. How horribly frightening! So glad Kyra is okay.

    I’ve had my own share of the “If onlys” — BLECH. About as helpful as the “What ifs.” But since those questions are really unanswerable (or the situations are not based on what is currently real and true), I’ll try to stick with what I do know and keep trying to do the best that I can. Now to convince my brain to play along…

  12. I’m glad she’s okay. A number of years ago, V and I were living in an apartment with a small wall oven. I was baking cookies or something and had the oven preheating. When I went to put in whatever I was making, i realized the rack was in the wrong position. I put down the item, reached in and grabbed the rack to move it….without an oven mitt…full hand grab. I definitely held it before my brain realized what I was doing. No scars, but I’ve never forgotten, and nor does V.

    Kyra is a warrior. Just like her momma. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Hug the warrior princess for us. ๐Ÿ™‚

  13. You can screw up with real dinner too, you know. Just ask the broccoli and asparagus that I put on the stove to steam last night (post-kid bedtime) then left there while I worked until a couple of hours later when DH asked, “What’s burning?” Every time Tamale opened the trash can today, she got excited about the charred broccoli and reached in so she could eat it.

    Not that I ever actually make a real dinner, just cook random foods, mostly for the twins’ lunches. But my point is that cooking errors happen with all sorts of food.

    You are obviously a great mom, Mom, or Kyra wouldn’t be so amazing.

  14. Oh man, I hate those situations where the parent cries more than the kid. I’m not a parent, but my mom can still tell you all about the time she bumped my head on the table and how terrible she felt. (I was fine!)

    Your kid is a total badass. As are you, my dear! Don’t beat yourself up too much.

  15. Oh, the sting of parental guilt. If it makes you feel any better, I shut one of the twins fingers in the door…the hinge side of the door. He started wailing and it took me a second to figure out what had happened, since I was herding the two of them in front of me precisely so something like this wouldn’t happen. I nearly took the tip of his finger off, and it did require a trip to the emergency room, stitches, and an X ray. I couldn’t even have him sit in my lap for the X ray because I was 8 months pregnant with his sister. I can still hear the screams…along with everyone that was in the emergency room that day I’m sure. Oh, the guilt.

    You’re daughter is amazing! And why shouldn’t she be? Her parents are amazing, too ๐Ÿ™‚

  16. Be gentle with yourself. You were working, not eating bon bons and watching The Real Housewives of New Jersey.

    And even if you had been (eating crap and watching BRAVO – what) your love for your children comes shining through in every word. It would have been simply an accident. Nothing more.

    Crap happens. Guilt in inevitable.

    And your daughter? Is amazing.
    Wonder where she got that from….

  17. Well I am not really sure how much effect this really causes, it should be temporary.

Comments are closed.