Why We Mothers Earn The Right To Feel Guilty

24/03/2011 12:49 | Updated 22 May 2015

mothersEveryone knows that mums feel guilty all the time. It goes with the territory. We make the best decisions we can, and then torture ourselves wondering if we should have done something different.

We feel bad if we work (we should be at home) and bad if we don't (we should be earning money). We lose our tempers, say the wrong thing, forget vital information - and then lie awake at night worrying whether our children will ever forgive us.

This feeling of being responsible for everyone else's well-being extends to friends and family, too.

We feel guilty if we forget to ring Mum, or a friend who's going through a divorce. We feel guilty if we don't call in on an elderly neighbour. We even feel guilty if we get a fantastic job offer when a close friend has been made redundant, because it doesn't seem fair that she should be having a horrible time while we're jumping up and down with joy.

In fact, we've become so used to feeling guilty that we sometimes - and this is, admittedly, weird - feel guilty about feeling guilty.

Endless articles tell us that we should stop running round after everyone else and worrying ourselves to a frazzle, because we're not looking after the inner woman. (I think this is where yoga and aromatherapy come in although, quite frankly, most of us turn to chocolate.) You have to recharge your batteries because, so the argument goes, you can't be a good mum/friend/daughter/lover (guilt, guilt) unless you attend to your own physical and mental needs first.

All in all, guilt has become a dirty word.

I was thinking about this the other day - I had got up to number 30 on my URGENT TODAY list when I remembered, with a terrible pang of guilt, that I'd forgotten to post my niece's birthday present - because I began to wonder whether men feel the same way.

Most men I know argue that guilt is a waste of time. There's no point beating yourself up about something you have or haven't done, they say. Instead, do something practical to change the situation. If, for example, you say to your partner, 'I feel really bad that I haven't rung Mum this weekend,' he will probably answer, 'Well, ring her now.' It's a sort of Gordon Ramsay, 'Job done' approach. Don't go on about it. Do something.

mothersBut some of the problems women feel guilty about don't really have immediate practical solutions. Perhaps you feel guilty that you don't see your sister enough. She's not been well and could do with a hand with the kids. But if she lives in Edinburgh and you live in Totnes, what are you going to do?

Perhaps we wouldn't need to feel guilty, either, if we had enough time to get everything done. (Or a huge staff. Imagine that - living in Downton Abbey and giving your URGENT TODAY list to a housekeeper or a butler.) Maybe you only think, guiltily, 'I must ring my Mum' when you finally have half an hour in which to do it. (Which may explain why, when your partner says, 'Well, ring her now then', you feel a flash of irritation. I know, you think. I'm going to. But until now I didn't have time.)

If guilt is a prick of conscience, a way of reminding ourselves to look after other people, a feeling of empathy for others, it's not surprising that women have brains pitted with holes like dartboards.

As we race from home to work via the school playground and the supermarket, there is bound to be the odd moment of panic - aka guilt - about whether we've let someone down.

We are, after all, holding a huge number of people's lives in our heads at the same time.

There's an American academic called Arlie Hochschild who's looked at the way that women are somehow expected to be responsible for other people's emotional well-being in a way that men aren't.

mothersNo one ever really spells it out, but our job is to take care of the tiny details - sending a text wishing someone good luck, ringing up a friend who looked a bit down at the weekend, checking everyone's got clean socks. In fact, it's so engrained in us all that this is what women do that we end up looking after everyone at work, too. Someone's crying in the stationery cupboard? Send in a woman.

The reality of the situation is this: we wouldn't feel guilty if we weren't trying to do the impossible - that is, keeping track of the tiny joys and sorrows of other people's lives both at home and at work, and trying to keep everybody happy.

Maybe women shouldn't have to do this. Maybe we should try to change the assumption that it's only women who should look after other people's emotional well-being. But that might take a while. Big social changes often do.

In the meantime, let's give ourselves a huge pat on the back for being so bloody brilliant. Because we are.

Guilt? We've earned it.


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