Mother Guilt, Part 1: Why do I feel so guilty all the time?

I started writing a little blog about guilt, Mother Guilt, in particular. It was to be a quick couple of paragraphs about something we probably all feel every now and then. But the quick couple of paragraphs took on a life of their own and like guilt itself, they grew and grew, and started taking over everything I wrote. I know volumes have been written on the subject and years have been spent on therapists’ couches on guilt alone. So, I am not pretending to cover the subject, but I just wanted to throw it out for discussion. I broke it down into two parts because it is such a big subject for most of the mothers I know, regardless of the children’s ages. It has me baffled. I can’t figure it out and would love to sit on the counter in our virtual kitchen and kick this issue around. Maybe we can come to some understanding, or at least some consciousness about it. I need your help and insight. Okay, here we go.

Part One.
When my friend Sabrina and I started on Desperate Housewives, eight years ago, we both had toddlers, mine were 2 and 3 and her son was 4. Sabrina is a producer on the show, a wonderful woman, and we bonded talking about motherhood and where to find cool, cheap shoes. Our days were long and our weekends were filled with press for the show, especially in the first few years. But for me, it was a relief to go to work, it felt like a vacation from Mothering, and yet I was wracked by guilt. As a matter of fact, there was very little I didn’t feel guilty about. My kids would cry when I left for work and oftentimes cry when I got home. Even when I went to audition for D. H., I remember them crying as I scooted out, leaving my husband in charge of the evening bath. But I loved my job, still love it, and am lucky to have it. The first season flew by and we were shooting our second year and seemed to be busier than ever. One particularly bad day I was in a black cloud of self-recrimination and I asked Sabrina how she handled the guilt. “I don’t handle the guilt,” she said simply. “I have decided not to have any.” I was as dumbfounded as if she had said she decided not to have a vagina. “How did that happen?,” I said. “Can it happen to me?”

In the past, she said, she felt as guilty as I did, but then she happened to read an article in some glamour magazine that polled parents to see what percentage felt guilty about working.

Women: 87%
Men: 0%

That’s right. A huge percentage of the women felt guilty …and the men: goose egg. What struck her (and consequently me) was the zero, a unification of feeling. It wasn’t 10% of men or even 2%, it was zilch. Not one guy felt guilty. That is not a spectrum; that is a divide. Now, I realize the magazine may have interviewed a million parents or maybe just ten. We don’t know. But the effect on Sabrina was the same. That zero gave her the clarity of vision: if she were a man, no one would question what she was doing, MOST IMPORTANTLY HERSELF. The reality of the situation is that Sabrina is the sole provider for her family. She works and her husband stays home. She has to work, and she doesn’t have a choice.

Men don’t see working as a choice. As a matter of fact, if they are not working, they struggle and it can become an identity crisis, particularly if they love their job. It’s not something they want to give up when children arrive, and nobody expects them to. In the scale of home life men don’t weigh work as something that may be harmful to their child. It doesn’t even come onto the radar screen that way.

Okay, so Sabrina and I had this conversation five or six years ago, but I think about it a lot, because Mothering Guilt comes up for me daily. I wish I could say, like Sabrina, I gave it up, but I didn’t. I continue in this self-inflicted suffering that does nobody any good. Let me revisit the question: Why do I feel so guilty all the time? It starts because I feel completely and utterly responsible for my children’s happiness and wellbeing. As I write that sentence, I realize it is out of adjustment, and grandiose. But it feels like any decision that I make for myself is a decision I am making against them. There aren’t very many win/win scenarios in my mothering world. So it’s not “you AND me” it’s “you OR me.” If I take time for myself it is taking time away from my child. If I do something for myself, I am not doing something for my children. Yes, of course, there are those things that feed us both and we can do together… napping comes to mind. Actually as they get older our worlds become “you AND me” more and more. My girls and I take lovely hikes now, we love playing board games, and wrestling and tickling each other. But when my girls were little it really felt like an either/or situation.

Men don’t seem to have this emotional conflict. When they make a personal choice, it is not a problem. When I take the kids on an outing we go to the Natural History Museum or the playground or the Science Center. When my husband takes them out they go to Home Depot. He buys what he needs, they run around, and home they come; no muss, no fuss. Do they love these outings? No. Would they rather go to the Natural History Museum? Yes. But that is not the point we are addressing. He doesn’t feel he has committed an offense by bringing the children with him to do something HE NEEDS TO DO. Too bad if it is a bit boring for them, too bad if it is not enriching and fun, HE WANTS TO GO THE HARDWARE STORE, so off they go. I have a sneaky feeling when they grow up they will remember the Home Depot trips with as much fondness as the Natural History Museum.

I don’t blame my husband for this, I envy him. I want to be able to do what he does; in the manner he does it. He has always said to me (and it has often fallen upon deaf ears) “take care of YOU first.” He has used the analogy of airplane protocol; the video always tells you to put your oxygen mask on first, then your child’s. It makes so much sense logically, but I can’t seem to shake the guilt. So I looked up the definition of guilt in Webster’s Dictionary:

1. the fact of having committed a breach of conduct especially violating law and involving a penalty; broadly : guilty conduct.
2. the state of one who has committed an offense especially consciously.

Yes, if I take time for myself or do something for myself, I have committed an offense, a breach of conduct.

My husband tells me, “nothing good ever comes out of guilt.” Is that true? I need to take a poll. So that is my question. Does anything good come out of Mothering Guilt? Have you ever had good things for you or your children, come from you feeling guilty? It is not a trick question. I really want to know. And conversely have you had unhelpful, or unhealthy things come out of the guilt you were feeling?

Part two is coming next week. I can’t wait to hear from you.

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