16″ x 20″ Oil on Board 2013

I was the oldest kid in a large family, and I did a lot of watching over my younger siblings. I don’t think this is unusual, and it had its benefits and drawbacks. With my Possum Mama painting, the mind-state I intended to portray was about feeling responsible for the wellbeing of others. It’s not necessarily a bad thing unless I overdo it until I’m worn out and am resentful over it. In that case I feel alternately selfish (for not liking it) and trod upon (for not meeting my own needs as well.)

A possum, with babies crawling all over her, was the first animal to come to mind for this piece. A possum carrying her babies can look pretty cute; my version looks like she’s got her hands full. I wanted her to look like a mom in a normal neighborhood, and I chose to place the setting at twilight, always a bittersweet time of day, to me. She’s doing that thing that possums often do—crossing the road when it’s hard for drivers to see. The obvious implication is danger, or at least some negative possibilities.

This piece, although somewhat benign at first glance, turned out to be most difficult in terms of what it brought up emotionally. I hadn’t expected it. Because motherhood has been mostly a joy for me, and because I never felt sorry for myself in regards to my role as the oldest in a big family, I’d never thought of the toll this role had taken on me, and of the expectations I’d carried of myself and others in the process. It forced me to face something I didn’t think I was familiar with. Guilt.

I haven’t mentioned that I took on this piece just as my daughter was going off to college. Her impending departure had roused in me all of the emotions and behaviors that I’d heard about from the experiences of “empty-nesters.” I chalked up the discomforts and concerns of this part of life to the normal process of seeing your baby off in the world. And that was good. But I also found an unwelcome worry that kept nagging at me. What if I hadn’t prepared her well enough? What if she went out there and fell apart? And the corollary to those questions: What if it’s my fault?

After digging deeper, I recognized these guilty feelings from my previous relationships with my siblings. My overblown sense of responsibility implied that my siblings needed to turn out OK, too, or I was accountable. These were some pretty dreadful feelings, but after bringing them to the surface a great relief came over me. As an adult it seems pretty obvious that, as a child of age 17 or younger, I was never the parent of my siblings, had no abilities to take on the job, and shouldn’t be held responsible for how they turned out. (Quick note: they are fine!)

A feeling of release washed over me as I looked at my daughter through very different eyes. It dawned on me that I had very intentionally, from her birth to age 18, made every parenting choice with her interests in mind. There was no doubt in my mind that I had made mistakes. And I was positive I’d taught her plenty of good stuff. At this point it was too late to change a thing. For better or worse, I’d given her what I’d given her, and I had no power to change any of it. It was done. I adapted the attitude that her life was her own making from this point on, and that was as it should be. Even if I had made a mess of things, it was still up to her at this point to go forth and do what she could with what she had.

I realized that carrying guilt for the outcomes of other’s lives comes with the assumption that I had an awful lot of power over people. I looked back on my relationship with my parents and the effect they had on me, and while it is true that they did wield the most influence of anyone in my life, I know I am ultimately responsible for what becomes of me. Hanging on to old patterns formed by dealings with others is wholly my problem, no matter how it started. I am ultimately trapped if I choose to believe that others are answerable for how I turned out. And if I know this for myself, and can let others find it out for themselves.

I came away from my Possum Mama painting with my load substantially lessened. It’s interesting how a buried wound can seem non-existent until an event in life triggers a way to take it out and look at it. In the process I got to forgive myself for possible mistakes during 18 years of watching over siblings and 18 years of child raising. It helped bring to mind all the things I know I did right, which, in the grand scheme, were a good bit to go on. I was able to celebrate my contribution and let go of its outcomes. I felt gratitude for the amazing people my charges became, and quietly honored for the role I played in their life.