Is it possible to feel guilty about feeling guilty? If so, then I’m guilty. OK—I’ll give it a rest. But in all seriousness, guilt is a topic that interests me because, well, it’s a biggie in the lives of mothers and most women I know.
The things that can trigger my ultra-sensitive guilt reflex are numerous. With my two boys, this reflex seems to know no bounds. I feel it when they eat junk food or drink soda, when I yell at them (sometimes even when it’s very much justified), and especially when I make promises I can’t keep. For example, telling my 7-year-old that I’ll read him a bedtime book “in a minute” and half an hour later, finding him fast asleep clutching said book. Ouch. Another kid-caused guilt scenario involves my own unkind thoughts. Such as silently wishing my Chatty Cathy youngest would please STOP TALKING incessantly and my laconic oldest would SAY something already.
Then there’s the “other mom” guilt that hits when I hear about such enviable women doing intricate crafts or art projects with their children while mine are zoning out on the X-Box.
Even if you take away Mom-Guilt, I am not free of it. I often feel guilty for taking a nap (but do it anyway), for having that second glass of wine (justification: “hey, at least it’s red so it has heart-healthy benefits”), for snapping at my poor unsuspecting husband because I’m hormonal or for reading the latest best-seller when my to-do list is a mile long. There is also TV guilt (“Dancing With the Stars," anyone?) and calling-your-mother guilt.
Growing up Catholic can definitely add to one’s guilt quotient. But that’s a topic for another discussion. As you can see, me and guilt have a close, personal relationship.
According to Webster’s Dictionary, guilt is defined as “feelings of culpability, especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy.” Hmmm. Sounds about right. But another theory could simply be that my expectations for myself are out of whack. As Bill Murray famously tells another recruit in the hilarious Army movie “Stripes": “Lighten up Francis!”
Experts have some positive things to say about guilt. Turns out a little guilt is a good thing but too much is, well, not. It’s finding the balance between going through life like a sociopath and flogging yourself over every perceived infraction.
There is a vast well of guilt to be tapped into when it comes to women who work and those who don’t. For years working women have been lambasted for following their dreams, being “ambitious” and “selfish” and leaving their kids in daycare, just to name a few. Then again, we stay-at-home women have our share of guilt too. For me, it manifests itself in failing to show my kids that I am an independent, self-sufficient woman. I also feel a little guilty for not bringing in a paycheck (though to his immense credit, my husband never makes me feel badly about this).
Guilt certainly has its place in the human psyche. When used appropriately, it can act as a moral compass guiding us to do the right thing. There are times when one SHOULD feel guilty because that feeling will hopefully precipitate some sort of action to help right whatever went wrong, and caused the guilt in the first place. For me, a few of those would include hurting a friend or family member’s feelings, taking my bad mood out on loved ones or, God Forbid, jeopardizing my kids’ safety in some way. Too much guilt can make one a hand-wringing mess but too little isn’t optimal either. People who say they never feel guilty scare me a bit.
I think self acceptance is the first step to curing the excessive “guilts.” I will never be a perfect or even near-perfect mom, and that has to be OK. Ditto for my role as wife, friend, sister, and daughter. Accepting these facts mean being alright with serving frozen waffles for dinner, sleeping in instead of racing to yoga class, and the fact that raising my voice at my boys once in a while won’t scar them for life. Punishing myself mentally for weeks afterward will scar me, though.
On that note, I think I’ll go call my mom…