Balancing Act

Guilt is a poor foundation for a gingerbread house

Working mom guilt inspires an ill-fated gingerbread house on a sick day from school

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Gingerbread house

Gingerbread house (Bonnie Trafelet / Chicago Tribune)

Allow me to re-create for you a heartwarming holiday scene that unfolded a few nights ago in my home, darkened by night, warmed by love, seized by the flu.

Two hours into a fitful, codeine-induced sleep, I was shaken awake by the sound of my son retching his little guts out all over his room. I leapt out of bed and bounded toward the ugly scene. I stripped him and his bed down, scrubbed the floor and retrieved clean pajamas, while my husband hauled away the bedding, towels and other casualties.

There's no place like home for the holidays, which is where three of us spent the next day — my son and I legitimately sick, my daughter predicting a flu onset at any moment. (My stepson escaped the bug this time, and my husband was healthy-ish enough to head to work.)

A wide-open Wednesday in December with no place to go. No school, no work, no rehearsals, no recitals, no open houses, no fundraisers.

Something in my flu-addled brain read this as a gift. An opportunity that must not be squandered. A day to look back upon and remember for its crafts involving green construction paper; and its baked goods that we would, eventually, feel like eating; and its unparalleled sense of togetherness, punctuated by hugs, woven with peals of laughter.

I have working-mom guilt. I rarely admit it and, to be honest, I rarely actually feel it. I think my kids benefit enormously from my career. Our babysitters have become like family members. My son and daughter love my cubicle and my co-workers and my office anecdotes. I am a wiser, fuller person and parent because of the particular work I get to do. My salary provides them luxuries like food and a house.

But I have my moments. And every single one of them has to do with time and there never being quite enough of it. Surely, I have myself convinced, I should be reading them even more books and helping them (OK, watching them) assemble even more Rainbow Loom bracelets and chaperoning even more of their field trips and, well, you get the point.

Guilt is a ridiculous, useless, pain-in-the-neck emotion. I don't plan to stop working any more than I plan to stop paying my mortgage. And I don't read or loom or volunteer as much as I do out of guilt. I do it out of love and whole-hearted investment in raising good, curious, fulfilled people.

But wide-open Wednesday? On wide-open Wednesday I let guilt rule the day. Guilt forced my kids off the couch, where they were happily watching alternating episodes of "Power Rangers" and "Good Luck Charlie," and marched them into the kitchen to make, of all things, a gingerbread house.

We would assemble it, I thought, and decorate it and gaze upon it and remember our day at home together and say a silent prayer of thanks for family and blessings in disguise and good health, which would have returned by then.

Then we started actually assembling it. A load-bearing gingerbread wall tipped over and the roof collapsed. The nonpareils that were supposed to adorn the lawn kept escaping and rolling onto the kitchen floor, and the fondant that we were supposed to shape into a snowman's scarf refused to cooperate, and I found myself yelling at the gables (honestly, who do they think they are, including gables?).

That's when I apologized. To the children and to the gables and to myself. Back to the couch, you guys. I'm sorry. Back to the blankets and the mindless entertainment and, hey, save me a spot.

Guilt is rarely grounded in reality. It feeds on imaginary scripts and breeds impossible-to-live-out scenarios and infects our minds with foolhardy ideas, such as erecting a gingerbread house with your sick children.

Families live in reality. And families, in reality, take care of each other. Sometimes that means baking together and sometimes that means cleaning up after each other and sometimes that just means sitting on the couch together.

I'm learning. It's slow going and it's messy. But I'm learning.

hstevens@tribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13

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