Welcome to ‘Positive Parenting Without Guilt’! This morning, we will discuss why we feel guilty and how to move beyond that guilt toward meaningful relationships with our children.”

Ugh—what was I saying?

As I heard myself introduce the workshop, I felt like a charlatan. Yes, I’m HIV positive. And yes, I am a parent. But here’s my dirty little secret: I didn’t feel guilty. They exposed me soon enough.

One mom—who, like me, had a positive kid—raised her hand. “Shari, you must feel guilty because you gave your child HIV.” I paused, then came clean. “No, actually I don’t. Should I?” After all, I hadn’t known I was HIV positive when I got pregnant, back in 1992. Perhaps if I had known, I might feel different now. Determined to break me, she persisted. “Well, don’t you feel guilty about what you did to become positive?”

Another pause.

“No, actually, I don’t. Should I?” (I’m sorry, but I just can’t feel guilty about having consensual sex with someone I loved, even if that did give me the virus.) By the end of this little blamefest, though, I was actually beginning to feel guilty that I didn’t feel guilty.

I did tell the workshop I was leading that my 14-year-old son had tried to play the HIV guilt card when I made him skip his first class field trip for a doctor’s visit. “If you didn’t give me HIV, I would be able to go!” he shouted. I stood strong. “Listen, son, I did not ‘give you’ HIV on purpose. If I could somehow take away your HIV, I would. You have it; I have it; and nothing can change that. What we can do is everything possible to stay healthy. Today, that means we have to go and see the doctor.”

I meant what I said, and the admonishment silenced him. But my workshop testimony bordered on perjury. I didn’t tell them that after that long day at the hospital, I gave him 20 bucks, treated him to dim sum (his favorite lunch) and a shopping trip.

Recalling this while flying home from the retreat, I began to reconsider my not-guilty plea. Was I in guilt denial? I thought about the lunchtime lattes I’d sacrificed from July to October to make payments on the $150 shoes my son outgrew in two months. The compensatory toys I’d bought for every fight my (HIV negative) husband and I had had in front of him, every swear word I uttered and every time I broke a promise. I remembered last year’s Christmas tree, loaded with goodies, though he’d stopped believing in Santa five years ago. Was I unknowingly assuaging my guilt by giving outrageous gifts and special treatment?

My doubt grew as I drove home from the airport and pulled into my driveway. My son greeted me with a hug. And then this: “What did you bring me?” The other day, he presented his new Christmas list: 1) a BlackBerry (an upgrade from the cell phone I bought him last year); 2) a laptop; 3) scuba lessons. All kids, positive or negative, have a talent for materialism. But was he exploiting my HIV guilt—guilt I hadn’t even sensed myself? Or is he just spoiled rotten?

When I look back on my own childhood holidays, it’s not the gifts I recall. (OK, maybe the Easy-Bake Oven.) It’s the family time; baking cookies with Grandma or building a snow fort with Dad. This year, I admit, there will likely be a laptop or scuba certificate under the tree (not even I have a BlackBerry). But, more important, our family will celebrate being together for yet another year: healthy, laughing and making new memories.  

Come to think of it, why don’t I have a BlackBerry? Are you there, Santa? It’s me, Shari. And I haven’t been feeling so hot lately....