The Guilt We Cling To

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Photo by h.koppdelaney, via Flickr

No one has ever criticized me for being a work-from-home mom. Not even once.

And yet I go through a periodic…cyclical, perhaps?…festival of self-loathing. My house isn’t clean enough. My kids’ personal habits and academic/physical/fill-in-the-blank achievements aren’t enough. My flower beds aren’t pretty enough. My life is a long series of “should-have”‘s, and if only I had more…. (time, talent, time, money, time, are you sensing a theme?).

There is a segment of modern American society that clings to the idea that women should be little June Cleavers who do nothing except play with, nourish and nurture their children, even though that has always been an idealized, unrealistic picture. But it’s not a big segment. We’re constantly being reminded to put on our own “oxygen mask” first.

Why, then, do so many of us cling to this guilt that regards our efforts as not good enough? This sense of guilt that clouds any personal or professional fulfillment, enjoyment, or success? Is this another way we pervert our children’s inherent selfishness–that because they see themselves as the center of the universe, we feel we must do the same?

I’ve always regarded this side of myself as a necessary evil, a built-in check on my own selfish tendencies. Because I love what I do. Difficult it may be, filled with setbacks, littered with rejection, with what often seems like fruitless pursuit of an unattainable goal. And yet I could and would happily spend every waking moment in that pursuit, if real-life commitments, to husband, to children, didn’t force me to redirect. And all the publishing success in the world would be empty without the richness of the life I’ve been given.

So I’ve made peace with the guilt, allowed it space to roost and nest and put down roots.

But I’m beginning to wonder. Guilt might make me redirect my actions, but it doesn’t free up mental space for living in the moment and enjoying the things that are most important. Guilt just takes up all the vacated regions and stuffs them full of a different sort of pathological hangup.

I don’t have all this worked out. Conclusions are frequently the hardest part of blog posts to write. I tend to see life as process, and processes don’t lend themselves to neat packages tied up in a pithy, memorable parting shot. So for today I just send these thoughts out into the world, to see if they resonate with others.

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5 thoughts on “The Guilt We Cling To

  1. It has been many years since I have felt ridiculed or criticized for being a work-outside-the-home mom. I have criticized myself plenty, but I mostly gather acclaims from others for how I accomplish what they “just don’t know how” I do. My house is only clean after I take a couple of days off around a weekend to make it a 4-day project (happened in November). I have someone come and help one of my kids with homework and I rely on the same person to help me get my oldest to volleyball practice once a week. and, I still feel like I fail when I can’t provide exactly what one of my kids wants (this morning, Vincent asks me, “Mommy, will YOU pick me up today?” and I had to tell him that his dad would, and he whined, “but I want YOU to pick me up!”).

    I don’t have a tidy conclusion either. Just solidarity and support. Know that no one can really do it all, and humility is your friend. at least…humility has been my constant companion and I have tried to turn her into my friend.

  2. Yes, yes, yes! I struggle so much with feeling “good enough.” So much guilt and often it is not expressed from without, but comes from within. Sometimes it’s my perception that I must “do better,” when in reality, I am doing the best I can given my circumstances. No one judges me except for me. In my more compassionate moments I blame it on the Proverbs 31 woman that was so highly favored in my Protestant growing up years. On my less compassionate days, I blame God for some defect in my person that prevents me from being everything to everyone. I mean, why can’t I keep a clean house, have perfectly coifed hair, perfect make up, work out an hour each day, crank out 1500 words, put a healthy meal on the table, volunteer for the school capital campaign fundraiser, have my 30 minutes of quiet time with the Lord, and run kids to sports activities? Maybe it’s because I am a single mother of four, a couple with special needs, and I do the very best I can do, but I am not this idealized fantasy. Apparently I am the only one who didn’t get the memo that this would be an impossible feat because no one else chides me for not doing this whole laundry list of “shoulds.”

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