Is Shame A Woman’s Default Emotion?

Many women feel ashamed of their bodies, their sexuality, their parenting skills, and even their pain. Is shame so ingrained in us that it’s become our default response to practically everything?

Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day was earlier this month. I wouldn’t have known, if not for the fact that my Facebook newsfeed included several shares from friends and acquaintances who I never knew had lost pregnancies or babies. I had a miscarriage myself four years ago, before I became pregnant with my identical twin boys. We never saw a heartbeat and I was only nine weeks along, so some part of me thought it was indulgent to mourn the loss. But mourn I did.

For months, I couldn’t even look at babies. For months, I could barely face the day. Every morning, I’d wake up and wonder if I’d dreamed the miscarriage, if my baby was still in there. Sometimes, I’d wonder if I’d dreamed the pregnancy. It was real though, and that baby was gone. I often did have dreams though about a little girl, one with caramel-colored eyes and dark, curly hair, like mine. I’d think I saw her in butterflies that flew too close or hummingbirds that would linger outside the window. I couldn’t seem to make those dark clouds pass, so, ultimately, I went to see a spiritual healer, and asked her to help me clear away the darkness and let my baby go.

Even now, recounting that time, I’m embarrassed at how maudlin I was. The pain was so real, and yet, I felt like I wasn’t really allowed to be as sad as I was. I felt like I was supposed to be stronger, put on a brave face, and not mourn for a baby that never could have been. That was really just a cluster of screwed up cells, really.

For so many reasons, I couldn’t talk about it, except with a handful of people who had been there themselves. I didn’t really want to talk about it anyway. Besides, what was there to say? I either felt badly about being such a downer, or felt silly for making such a big deal about it. My pain—this very common, very real thing for many women—was shrouded in a thin layer of shame. Shame over my own honest, raw feelings.

Of course, as many women who’ve suffered pregnancy loss know, I also felt another kind of shame—guilt. Even though I knew better, I felt responsible for the loss. I remember frantically calling my doctor one day, over and over, trying to get him on the phone. When I finally reached him, I was tearful and panicked, begging him to tell me the truth, “Did my body do this? Did I do something wrong? Is it my fault this happened?”

No, it was nothing I had done.

As I read some of these women’s confessions on my Facebook newsfeed, or just “liked” their acknowledgement of the day, I noticed similar language being used over and over. This idea that those of us who had suffered pregnancy or infant loss should, in a sense, “come out of the shadows.” As though we were hiding this part of ourselves. As though there was something shameful in what had happened to us.

How sad is that? That even our tragedies make us feel embarrassed and ashamed.

As it is, we’re ashamed of our bodies, whether too big, too small, too voluptuous, too skinny. We’re ashamed of our sexuality, whether we flaunt it or conceal it. We’re ashamed when we’re too assertive, and ashamed when we’re too meek. We’re ashamed when we accept praise and ashamed to receive it. We’re ashamed that we’re not better mothers, and ashamed if that’s all we are. We’re ashamed for not wanting children, and ashamed if we physically can’t seem to have them. I could go on, but you get my point. It’s as though a woman’s default response is to bow her head down, curl inward and let the shame in.

It has to stop. We have to just stop. There has to be a more useful emotion to help us navigate through the highs and lows of our lives. Pride? Steely resolve? Acceptance? I know, I know, it’s all easier said than done, especially since the shame response seems to be ingrained in us.

I do have one idea though: That we women talk to each other more. Not about our job woes and partner troubles and shaky friendships—I think we’ve got that covered.

No, I think we need to tell each other the tough stuff, share those stories that are hard to tell. When women reveal themselves to one another, honestly and openly, we realize we’re not alone. That whatever it is we are feeling is normal. That someone else has been there before.

Our stories are what unite us and when we share them, we free ourselves from whatever shame we’ve attached to them. When the women around us say, “Yes, yes, me too,” we suddenly feel justified in whatever it is we’ve thought or felt, we are able to take ownership of our own experiences. And just like that, we don’t feel quite so sad or angry or guilty. We realize that whatever we have been through, whatever trial or tragedy or test of will, we have nothing, nothing to be ashamed of.

Jennifer Benjamin is an LA-based freelance writer and editor with over thirteen years of experience writing for national magazines and websites like Cosmopolitan, Women’s Health, SELF, Parents Magazine, The Stir and Daily Glow. More important, she’s a Mommy to identical twin boys, as well as an avid cook, a terrible housewife, and a loungewear enthusiast. Find her on Twitter @JennyBenjamin or Facebook.

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