On Women And Guilt

I’m on the board of a small, parenting-related nonprofit organization, a board comprised of smart, thoughtful women who are mostly mothers of small children (and one dad, though our father pool is growing). In addition to our full-time parenting jobs, pretty much all of us have professional jobs, or are students. We’re all juggling a lot of balls, and we all take on this additional volunteer job as board members because we believe that the work of this organization is world-changing.

Recently, we’ve endured a spate of board resignations. Each ex-member articulated a variant on the same theme, something to the effect of:

“I just can’t take the guilt anymore. I feel guilty in all parts of my life for not giving enough. I care so much about this organization, and I just can’t face caring about something so much and not do it well. I’d rather just not do it at all than do it poorly. I’ll let someone else step in who can give it her all.”

The trouble is that there’s no one who can give it her all. Smart, capable women who care about our organization? They abound. Guilt-free women with boundless energy who will consistently give all that they’re capable of? Uh, yeah. At last count, I knew exactly zero of them.

My suspicion is this: The future leaders of our organization are out there, consumed by a state of guilt paralysis. They’re out there examining their inboxes crammed with un-responded-to messages. Eyeing a pile of unwritten thank you notes. Trying not to glance at the choc-a-block family calendar. Perhaps reading this article. Writing this piece. All of us out there, relentlessly measuring and grading the attention we’re giving to the many things we care about. And failing to measure up. As a friend of mine once said, “feeling less like we rock, and more like we suck.”

(Disclaimer: If you’re thinking, “Is the writer some kind of guilt expert?” The answer is no. I’m no psychologist, evolutionary biologist, or anthropologist. Guilty as charged. Still, I’m going to engage in some pop versions of all three, to try to explore this jagged terrain called guilt.)

Guilt in our culture is a particularly feminine affliction. Its paralyzing effect on women is something I suspect we’re all familiar with—whether from first-person experience or from loving a guilty mother, sister, friend, or partner. For many of us, becoming a mother only exacerbates the guilt. As a parent, you’re now responsible for something particularly fragile, precious and dependent, and the buck couldn’t stop anywhere closer than right here.

As a guilt-ridden gal and mama, I’ve got a small library of books about women, motherhood, and guilt. Motherhood in the Age of Madness, by Judith Warner. This is Not How I Thought It Would Be, by Kristin Maschka. The Motherhood Manifesto, by Joan Blades. They all describe the phenomenon by which American women are stuck with outdated cultural expectations and support systems, while being served an ever-increasing helping of responsibilities in the name of opportunity and equal access. The contemporary expectation is that we’ll be both breadwinners and cookie bakers; professionally successful at meaningful jobs, with excellent, infallible childcare; ever-present parents who have endless patience; and also modern women who take care of our partners’ needs and our own, too. And that’s the short list.

While the division of household labor has radically shifted in the past 50 years, the emotional caretaking and relationship work is harder to redistribute than the obvious tasks, like who washes the dishes or puts the kids to bed. To the degree that emotional caretaking is still, in many cases, the purview of women, guilt about not giving enough to others is still a particularly feminine legacy.

The different relationships that men and women have with guilt have been explored ad nauseum, usually to the tune of “why are women so guilty and men aren’t guilty enough?” A number of studies suggest that men are “guilt deficient,” while women suffer from “destructive guilt.” Most studies come to the unfortunate conclusion that guilt is biologically based, and take the analysis no further. Others ask the cultural question, “How do we get men to be more guilty, and women less so?” Which also doesn’t seem like the right question to me. 

I don’t know about the value of more guilt for men. That’s a topic for another day. Instead, I want to address what women do with their guilt. If guilt can be paralyzing, what antidotes actually give us momentum to be the sorts of women and mothers we want to be?

After three months of maternity leave, I remember dragging myself to work intensely sleep deprived, struggling to focus my brain and get through each day. I kept waiting for someone to give the lie to my less-than-stellar performance. But months went by, and it became apparent that: 1) All the other new parents were doing exactly the same thing; and 2) More amazingly, no one even seemed to notice. It turned out that the implied expectation of consistent, top-notch performance at all times isn’t possible—for anyone—and also that giving whatever you’ve got, however much that is, is sometimes just plenty.

Back to the nonprofit board: When our organization would be so much better off with even a fraction of what these amazing women are capable of giving, why is it so hard for women to imagine that we might give less than we want to, but less might still be good enough?

To date, I’m aware of only one practical, momentum-giving answer to feminine guilt: the “good enough” approach. Good enough means striving not to reach our maximum potential in all things, but instead to be a “good enough” partner, worker, citizen, mother, and self, and to be honest with ourselves about how little is really needed to make a difference sometimes.

It’s exceptionally hard to do. We are calibrated to measure ourselves against the scale of perfect performance—not the “good enough” scale. Recalibration goes against the grain of culture and the world around us. The terms we have for talking about good-enough-ism are all about mediocrity, or lowering our standards.

But I’d say that good-enough is about realism. It’s about allowing us to unevenly distribute our personal resources, and to find a way to feel good about that. To continue showing up for the things we care about, and to consistently make peace with the mismatch between our personal potential and what energy, time, and attention we really have to give. Because just working through the guilt paralysis in order to show up is sometimes—maybe even most of the time—good enough.

Misty McLaughlin is a parent by vocation, a nonprofit web consultant by trade, and a writer and seamstress by fits and starts. Among other topics, she’s passionate about exploring issues of gender and generation, helping other households to find cultural loopholes that allow them to make their own models, and promoting institutional support for rebooting our roles. Follower her on Twitter @mistymclaughlin.

Photo credit garryknight/Flickr

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