Can shame make you sick

Can shame make you sick?

[A micro-blog]

I drove up to my house one spring evening when my sons were little. I don’t remember where I’d been, but my husband wasn’t home and I’d hired a neighborhood teen to babysit.

The sitter sat on the front steps holding Stephen, nine or ten months old, and watching Matthew, five, ride his bike around our dead-end street. It was sunny but chilly. Matthew should have worn a jacket, but he was old enough to handle the cold and working up enough of a sweat to stay warm.

Stephen, however, should have been bundled in a sweater and hat.

But I didn’t know how to say something to the babysitter without making her feel bad. I didn’t want to give her a guilt trip. I didn’t want to chastise her. I didn’t want her to feel like she had screwed up. I didn’t want her to think I was mad, although I was.

It was classic people-pleasing mentality.

I made it all about her, about protecting her feelings.

So I said nothing.

I took Stephen from her and sat on the steps for a few minutes, acting as if nothing was wrong. Then, as if it just occurred to me, I mentioned that it was getting cold and I’d better take the baby inside to dress him more warmly.

Stephen didn’t get sick. Nothing bad happened. But I feel such shame and guilt about letting him “suffer,” it’s hard to write this over 30 years later.

Now a solution seems so obvious–I could have simply asked the babysitter to get a sweater for Stephen as soon as I got home. No blame. No drama. No shame–for the sitter or for me. And maybe she’d have learned to pay more attention to her charges.

Maybe I’d have learned, too.


  • Karen DeBonis

    Karen DeBonis writes about motherhood, people-pleasing, and personal growth, the entangled mix told in her memoir "Growth: A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor They Survived" forthcoming in spring 2023. Subscribe today to receive Chapter 1: A Reckoning.

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