These thoughts have been weighing on my heart and lately, I can’t escape them. As close as my daughter and I are now, as much as we’ve been through together and as much as I know she’s genuinely happy, there’s this constant feeling of guilt and shame that still haunts me.
The guilt comes from so many different places. Guilty that I had her as a teenager and didn’t know what the heck I was doing. She endured years of moving from one place to the next, us living with my cousin, back and forth from my mom’s, me working low-paying part-time jobs and barely affording any kind of life past the necessities. I hate even thinking about those times. It makes my heart ache.
I feel guilty that I left her for four years and accepted a university scholarship hundreds of miles away from home. She was only 1. I’d see her for a couple weeks over the summer and listen to her mumble into the phone every week from my dorm room, but I didn’t even feel like a parent. That guilt still rattles me because I could’ve been home helping her live a better life. Even at the toddler stage, she was asked to be resilient.
Guilty now that she’s 16 and I’ve only in the past few years become somewhat financially stable. Guilty because I’m still pursuing my dreams instead of already living them out. I should be farther ahead by now. I shouldn’t be in this small apartment even though it’s in a wonderful neighborhood. We should be in a townhome where there’s actually some separation between the kitchen and the living room.
And that’s where the shame comes in. Because it doesn’t matter what I do, I can’t go back in time. She happened. When I was still in high school, still naive, immature, and overconfident, thinking that raising a child in a maybe 350-foot basement seemed logical.
I’m ashamed that I had to borrow money to buy her birthday gifts. Ashamed when for some reason my mother brought my daughter to my job at a discount shoe store. My daughter thought it was so cool seeing her dad at work. I nearly cried and then blasted my mom for thinking that was OK.
I lie about how long ago I opened her college fund, and now I’m frantically depositing every dollar I can spare to spare myself the shame of not being able to support her education.
I’ve always known my potential. That’s what makes this even worse. I knew that I’d get to where I am right now. But there’s this thing eating away at me, telling me that it’s too late. Everything’s too late. She’ll be off to university in a year and a half, and I can’t help but think: what have I really done for her? What advantage have I given her so she could be more successful than the next person?
But I had to put myself first. That’s the ultimate guilt and shame combined. I wasn’t completely selfless. To this day, I feel strange spending thousands of dollars to go to a writing conference in New York, or thousands of dollars to fly to L.A or hundreds of dollars on marketing — all when my daughter’s at the age where she could use some of that monetary investment.
And yes, I have enough money now to put her in weekly sewing class and send her to fashion camp in California, but trying to justify chasing my own dream while watching her figure out hers is part humbling and part upsetting. Humbling to see the young woman she’s becoming and upsetting that she’s still looking at a work in progress.
I guess I’ll always be a work in progress. There shouldn’t be any shame in that. And in my more positive moments, I tell myself she’s better for having gone through all of that chaos in the early years. We’re better. We’re certainly closer, especially now that I’m the only parent she’s got. There’s guilt around that, too, but I’m not ready to go there yet.
I’m not sure why this guilt and shame is popping up so often now. I don’t know what’s triggering it, especially since, as I mentioned, we’re both in a great place. But expressing it helps. Writing this has lightened some of the weight. It’s also pushing me to find the trigger and squash it.
These feelings also feel selfish. I actually don’t know how my daughter feels about her upbringing. We make off-handed comments about some of the things she witnessed or been through but never dive deep into how it affected her. All of this guilt stems from my own assumptions.
What I should do is sit with my daughter and find out how she interpreted her early life. I should ask her what it felt like then and what it feels like now that it’s just the two of us. Seems simple enough, but teenagers aren’t exactly the most forthcoming with their emotions. Plus, I’m not sure I’m prepared to hear what she has to say.
I’m happy that right now she’s happy. For now, I’ll live with that while I try to quiet my failures as a father.
Kern Carter is a writer and author of two novels, Thoughts of a Fractured Soul and Beauty Scars. He also has a blog at medium.com/cry-mag, which curates inspirational and educational stories for writers.