The to-do list circling around my mind felt like a noose: defrost breast milk – empty the dishwasher – handle two conference calls – deal with my inbox – go to the store – talk to preschool teacher – make dinner. Last but not least: shower before bed so my greasy hair and leg stubble don’t make my husband question his life choices. It was enough to leave me paralyzed and on the verge of tears. I wondered, when did I sign up for this? What would happen if I just checked out for a while, and didn’t do any of it?
The answer: Guilt.
Guilt is endemic among women – it is an affliction that befalls those who buy into the notion that we must not only take on a multitude of roles in society, but excel in them all simultaneously. We are wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, employees, maids, counselors, and household CEOs. The traditional roles that women fill, (modeled for us by our mothers and grandmothers) clash head-on with a modern lifestyle that requires a two-income household led by partners who share the domestic load. The pressure to play these parts well builds without us being aware of it. We scramble to keep our heads above water. We lose our individuality. We let the roles we assume become us, subverting our identities.
Guilt prevents us from living mindfully, making us unable to realize the best version of ourselves. Instead of excelling as individuals, we spread ourselves thin to be everything to everyone. How do we immunize ourselves against this invasive, life-destroying condition? Prevailing wisdom suggests that the only vaccine is perfection. Endless articles and Pinterest boards have been dedicated to absolving you of guilt by showing you how to throw “perfect” kids’ birthday parties, have dinner ready in “15 minutes”, and hundreds of other “life hacks” that make perfection seem possible. I didn’t buy into all of the hype, but I embraced just enough of it to make myself miserable. When I napped with my baby, I felt guilty that my husband would come home to a dirty house. Taking on an extra project at work meant guilt over spending less hours with my family. Instead of unplugging and unwinding on a run, I envisioned my husband alone with a crying child and cut the workout short, arriving home more stressed out than when I left.
My awakening came in the winter, in the wee hours of the morning. I found myself in the fetal position on the floor of my six-month-old daughter’s room while she blinked at me in confusion. I could hear my husband’s heavy snores echoing from the bedroom over the sound of my own sobs – his early commute and lack of breasts were the golden ticket to a good night’s sleep, while I faced yet another long day at work on four hours of broken rest. It was only after reaching that low point and weeping on the floor of the nursery that I began to ask myself a very important question.
Where is all this pressure to be perfect coming from?
Was it from my husband who, awakened by my dramatic sobbing, came in to soothe the baby and gently told me to go back to bed without a shred of irritation or judgment? From my dearest friends who visit and don’t give two shakes if my house is a mess? From the articles that stated I was phoning in motherhood by sending my child to day care? The truth is, my guilt stemmed solely from the fabricated standards that I imposed upon myself.
I’ve made a conscious effort in the past few years to heal myself from the ravages of guilt. The cure was not found in a hypodermic needle, but was found in my own mindset. Instead of letting the expectations associated with the societal roles of women guide and define me, I stopped to consider the real needs and expectations of the important people in my life – especially my own. When I aligned my priorities and actions more closely with my core values, the pressure began to abate.
I no longer feel guilty if my house is a disaster. My worth is not determined by the cleanliness of my toilets. I do not believe all the beautiful Instagram pictures of working moms with spotless homes and feel bad that I don’t have my life together. If I wanted to, I could take pictures like that – all it takes is a pretty filter and shoving junk out of the frame.
I no longer feel guilty about sending my child to day care. While there, she has learned to love and trust other adults, to interact with children of all ages, and, thanks to the variety of stimulating activities they do every day, to have confidence in her ability to learn new things. I emphasize my unconditional love for her every day, but do I believe that I could have done a better job engaging her ever-expanding mind and satisfying her need for social interaction if I stayed home with her? No. That is not my superpower. I love working, I excel at it, and I feel good about the example I am setting for her. There is no room here for guilt.
I refuse to feel guilty for taking time to pursue my hobbies and interests. I step out every Sunday morning for a run. I take painting classes. I write in coffee shops. I am an introvert, and time alone is essential to my sanity.
My husband is fully supportive of me protecting my time, because he knows that I come home renewed and ready to tackle all the responsibilities of home. He keeps the house running beautifully, and I realize that by denying myself a few hours of personal time I would be belittling my husband’s parental abilities while simultaneously heaping unnecessary responsibility upon myself. Freeing myself from this guilt has had an unexpected consequence as well – I have more respect for, and faith in, my partner.
Speaking of my partner, the wife guilt has been the most difficult to eradicate. Yes, our husbands sign up for better or worse, but you can’t help feeling guilty when “worse” begins to manifest as a lukewarm sex life and sketchy personal hygiene. I doted on my husband in our early years of marriage, beating myself up if I fell short of spousal perfection. While I still make it a point to work on our marriage and show my love through service to him, these days I take responsibility for my own happiness. If I don’t feel like being touched at the end of a long day, I say so. If I need the dishes done, I ask. And in doing so, I find that I no longer have a husband – yet another responsibility – but a true partner and understanding friend.
There is no pill, no needle, to alleviate the guilt that seems inherent to womanhood. Instead it takes a lot of self-examination and honesty to cast off those ingrained expectations. I started defining my life for myself and found, beneath the roles and pressures and judgments, a new confidence. I can have a career and be a good mother. I am not less of a woman because I hate housework. Taking time for myself does not equate pushing my husband away. Life really is too short to be unhappy because you’re striving towards someone else’s ideals. Identify your values. Have the hard conversations. Eliminate unnecessary guilt. Vaccinate yourself.
Read more of Kathleen.