Is guilt-tripping hereditary?

These days, we’re not supposed to shame our kids or nag them. Our mothers part of the early Boomers generation didn’t know that.

Published: 05th June 2022 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th June 2022 05:37 PM   |  A+A-

These days, we’re not supposed to shame our kids or nag them. Our mothers (my friends’ and mine)—part of the early Boomers generation didn’t know that. As a result, we went on plenty of holidays but took far more guilt trips. 

“You’ve come back from a picnic. You’ve had your fun. Now don’t you think it’s time to study?” Or “You’ve spent the day with your friends. Now don’t say we never allow you to enjoy yourself”, were familiar comments at home when we were growing up. 

The way our mothers made it sound, you’d think pleasure was a deadly sin. That too, pleasure that emanated from making phone calls to friends, or going for a film or maybe a cycle ride in the rain. (God knows what they would have done if lust had entered the picture).

Is it any wonder that we internalised the guilt-tripping and became prone to taking responsibility for things that weren’t even ours to own? Try as we might, we could never quite rid ourselves of the feeling that we were never studying enough or working enough or, later, as mothers ourselves, cooking or cleaning enough.

I had a hardier lot of friends that responded to the guilt tripping very differently. They adopted a “I’ll show you real fun!” attitude, and raced down the highway to hell in highly-questionable company. 

Both outcomes were understandable, if undesirable. Psychologists today say our parents might not have realised that they were manipulating us. Or, they may have experienced something similar as kids and fallen into the same trap. Whatever it was, their guilt-tripping was extremely powerful. We learnt to seek our mothers’ approval as children, and never stopped.

I’ve been a working mother all through my children’s lives, without a minute’s guilt about leaving my sons at home while I worked through the day and late into the night. But when my ageing mother came to live with me, my life took on a hunted edge again. A quiet “What time will you be home?” voiced just as I was leaving home would be enough to have me glancing at my watch every half an hour while out for dinner. 

A friend, in her early 50s, has it even worse. She’s so worried about what her mother will say that, when out partying late, she has her maid put on her heels, tread upstairs noisily and put off the light on the landing to make it seem like she’s home by midnight.   

As young parents, my friends and I resolved never to walk in our mothers’ footsteps. We would be caring and self-aware, we declared. I kept my word all these years. But yesterday, when my adult son refused to wear a T-shirt I’d bought him from Estonia, I heard myself say: “Do you know how many hours I spent in the cold looking for that tee?” I’ve spent the whole day sheepishly googling “Is guilt-tripping hereditary?” Haven’t found the answer yet.

Shampa Dhar-Kamath

New Delhi-based writer-editor


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