There are those numerous days of my life when I wake up and go to bed with guilt. This is true for most women; just that, the reason and the extent of that guilt varies. Having had a working mother, I know the numerous times she felt guilty about not spending enough time with me, not being around when I came back home from school, not being able to miss office meetings at times when I was sick; and that’s a never ending list. However, I have never felt neglected, and neither have I seen my father complain. Although my mother is an extremely strong and rational person, this self-created guilt of hers has always tagged along.
My mother-in-law’s list is slightly different, today she feels guilty when she does not feel well enough to cook for the family, when she forgets to pack her son’s evening snack, when by mistake she misses the alarm and oversleeps on a Sunday morning. However, her quotient of guilt I think, has been much more, in the past, because it made her quit her teaching job. One day, she was late from school and returned home to see her 4 year old son waiting outside their locked house. One of her neighbors, an old lady, reprimanded her saying that she is not a good mother. Why, only because one day her son had to wait for 15 minutes outside? Her guilt was so strong that she could not go back to work ever again in life. Unfortunately, no one ever told her that it’s not her responsibility alone to take care of the child.
She spent her entire life taking care of her son, husband and the house. However, to get over one set of guilt, she ended up creating another. She feels equally guilty at times about giving up her career, and her passion (she is a trained classical singer). I think, this is true for a lot of women. The trade-offs we often make in life are not always the best choices and they end up haunting us forever. I know for sure, her story is not really different from that of a thousand mothers.
My reasons for guilt are again different, I feel guilty when my father-in-law prepares the morning tea because I am a late riser, when I spend more time at work than in the kitchen, or when I want my “me time” instead of watching TV together. Although no one has ever nitpicked, I find it quite difficult to avoid this self-created guilt, this unconstructive emotion, at most times. There are also instances when guilt is imposed upon me by the society (especially when they think I prioritize travel over having with a kid!). Another set of guilt occurs at workplace, when you have to take a leave due to an ailing child, when you need to ask for a raise, when you need to counter a colleague or even when you get a well-deserved promotion.
We, as women, have been hardwired, it’s in our DNA to feel guilty, to be apologetic and to regret bold decisions. The patriarchal society has engrained in us the value – “service before self”. As if we have been born to serve others, and if for once we prioritize ourselves (our likes, dislikes, dreams, or aspirations) over others, then this vicious circle of guilt creeps in. Often, not just our actions, even our thoughts make us guilt-ridden.
A lot has been researched and documented about dealing with this negative emotion; therapists have turned to cognitive behavior theory to challenge and alleviate guilt. In most cases it’s just us being hard on ourselves. We have built this imaginary expectation set – we are always expected to perform and outperform. What if we don’t? What if we do not pass on this “guilt gene” to our daughters? We have to stop parroting what our ancestors have passed down to us generations after generations. Also, it’s about time we create that support system that reassures us that there is no need to be so unforgiving to yourselves, it is acceptable if we do not meet expectations, and it’s okay to be imperfect.
I am making a strong effort to overcome this. It is like a courtroom drama that goes on in my mind every time; it’s like waiting for the verdict – guilty or not guilty. Every time the soul screams “I plead not guilty”, but who really listens? Am I the only one who goes through this dilemma every day, or do you relate with this too?
P.S.: I am still trying not to feel guilty writing this piece, while my mother-in-law is cooking in the kitchen