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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Kneading Bread and Guilt

My mother emails to ask how “daycare” is going for the kids, and she may as well have rubbed salt into a freshly cut wound. “Day camp” has been hard enough to swallow. I am conflicted about these first two weeks of our Montreal adventure during which I’ve enrolled all five of the children in day camp, intending to hole myself up in a café to write. My knotted conscience throbs hard when I leave Andrew sobbing yesterday morning in the arms of his camp counselor, “MOOOOMMY!” echoing down the hallway as I hide outside the women’s bathroom. I am quite sure that everyone who passes me knows that I am the bad mommy who does not come when called.

There are a million rationalizations that I make, most of them depending on some kind of complicated mental algorithm. It’s as if I can only grant myself permission to do this when I’ve tallied the hours I’ve logged these past eleven years, enumerated the dinners I’ve made, calculated the value of past sacrifice. Yesterday afternoon, as I kneaded bread and prepared our family’s favorite chowder, best with sweet summer corn, I kneaded my guilt, too, telling myself that I was not the failed mother I knew myself secretly to be. And as the soup simmered, so did self-incrimination.

I know the issue is much bigger than whether the kids attend day camp or not. I’m not a good mother because I keep them home. I’m not a bad mother because I send them. But it’s that similar reflex of calculation I’ve heard done many times before, especially, for example, when it comes to school choices. In many Christian circles, it’s the women who choose to homeschool who are billed as committed, spiritual. And for those women who send their children to school, well, we know the better verb for “send” is “ship.” They’re “shipping their kids off to school,” their disinterest in their children revealing how they see them less like humans and more like Fed Ex packages.

It’s a bogus deal, all those calculations, mired as they are in the mathematics of culture and place. In Toronto, as in most big cities I imagine, more women work than do not. Living is expensive, and it’s not simply that families “need” their three-car garage and media room. Buying food, paying rent: many families can’t do these most fundamental things without the help of two salaries in cities like Toronto. And even for the moms who, privileged like I, can choose not to work, day camp is still for them a viable option to pass the long summer months; it doesn’t seem for them the threat to maternal credibility that I’ve somehow interpreted it to be.

And the issue is infinitely bigger than motherhood and day camp. It’s the inner algebra of the soul we all attempt as we work to find the equation that tips the scale in our favor, proving somehow that we are good enough. We are desperate to mute the stricken conscience, those screaming inner places that jeer how we are what we’ve worked long and hard to deny. Failure.

Forgive us this day our sins as we forgive those who’ve sinned against us. This is the only language of rescue I know for the predicament of striving and failing, for the knotted conscience, for the reflex of calculation, for the kneading and needing. Jesus loves me, me, mother who takes two weeks maternal hiatus in the summer to stare at a computer screen. Jesus loves me, me, whose ledger falls short, whose performance is mediocre at best. Jesus loves me, me, and not with gritted teeth and sighs of impatience, but delight. Sheer delight.

A husband and his bride.

A father and his child.

And that’s what I must knead into the sore places of guilt.