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Guilt

By Justine Dorton

GUILT. An emotion that has driven women to nervous breakdowns for hundreds of years. Women excel at guilt. We grow it, sell it, broker it, horde it for ourselves. We try to give it to other women, often unwittingly, sometimes intentionally; even on occasion, we dole out the guilt with envy and malice.

For the most part, though, we dish up guilt on large, beautiful platters and serve it to ourselves. Once served, we pick up the good silverware and eat every last bite. I often try to walk away from this plate full of pain and uneasiness, only to find myself coming back to the table for more.

I wonder why I do this to myself. And why is it mostly women who plague themselves with these feelings? Oh, I know my husband has felt it before, but the differences in how we deal with guilt are worthy of scientific study. My husband feels guilt as a casual participant, much like a casual or weekend drinker. I feel guilt with all the pitfalls of an alcoholic: hiding my guilt from others, sucking the last drop of guilt out of the bottle, keeping a stash of guilt in the bottom of the closet.

Paramount to all this is my ability to deny my feelings of guilt to those around me. I can pretend with the best of them. I put on the face, confident and secure. I act as if I’ve got it all together, living with no regrets, no mistakes. Inside, I wallow in my bowl of remorse and worry, wondering when there’ll be seconds.

Guilt comes from many of the choices I make daily, most of which are of very little consequence to the world. I doubt very much if anyone cares what I feed my little ones for lunch, whether I require them to take naps, whether they must make their beds in the morning. No one cares if I nibble a piece of chocolate that’s hidden away in my nightstand drawer, or if I stay up too late mindlessly surfing the Internet. Any one of those choices, though, can bring the guilt flush into my face. Am I feeding the kids enough whole grains? Do they need more sleep? Are their days too structured/unstructured? Am I keeping secrets from my children by eating that chocolate? Am I corrupting my mind with meaningless drivel? All these questions, along with thousands more, enter my mind at some point and tend to take up residence there.

Feeding this guilt are all the wonderful women in my life. Playgroup moms, friends, neighbors, casual acquaintances, all these people in my life unwittingly grab the serving dish and fill up my plate. Caring people in my life, sharing their own experiences, offering their own version of hope, unknowingly bring it on. Casual conversations about how you get all the laundry done, how long you breastfed your last baby, what kinds of food your kids will eat, how the kids are managing school, or how much you’ve been out in the garden this summer can trigger those feelings. Innocently enough, the guilt grows into huge mounds on my plate and stays there until I’ve somehow licked it clean.

I’ll admit the issues have changed. No longer do I care about when my eldest son learned to crawl. No longer do I worry that my daughter hasn’t independently read C.S. Lewis before kindergarten. The issues now are more intensely focused on me—my decorating abilities, my ability to keep the house immaculate, my ability to walk out the door to church with six combed heads of hair, my ability to offer something to the world that doesn’t involve the word “children.”

Although my guilt centers on issues within the walls of my home, it’s foolhardy to dismiss the pressure as not part of the real world. Let’s face it—it’s very real. Whether we feel it’s important or not, there are standards of care, standards of taste, standards of accomplishment, and standards of perfection that are fundamentally expected of women in the world today. We are expected, mostly by each other, to “meet the bar.”

I don’t believe the mantra that women can have it all. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to have it all. In my private space, I can admit that I don’t even want it all. In this private space, it is easy to accept that having it all is stressful, unrealistic, and not even really desirable. In my public space, though, my story changes. On goes my face of perfection, my impenetrable fortress of confident womanhood.

“I am happily having it all!”

I shout this, taking all the actions necessary to show the world that I am self-managed, self-made, happy, healthy, and wise. By so doing, I, in my own way, heap the guilt onto someone else’s plate. Someone is watching my pretend-show, then running home to her own plateful of guilt. She has certainly not lived up to the standard I have set, nor could she ever, for neither have I.

Wouldn’t it be great, even if for only an afternoon, we women got together, without makeup, without Prada, without shiny new cars. Wouldn’t it be nice to talk about being broke, creative ways to serve Ramen noodles, how to get everyone out the door dressed each morning, or any other of a thousand topics? I’d like to share with someone some of my reality. More important, I’d like others to share their reality with me. I’d like to know there are people like me. I’d like to learn from the people that aren’t like me. I would like to understand someone’s priorities and strengths without feeling the weight of my own weaknesses. I would like to talk about raising children without the heavy glare of those who aren’t.

But are they really glaring? Are the women who manage to sew all the most-darling-outfits-ever for all of their ten children really staring at my on-sale-at-Target ensemble? Or do I just think they are? And really, do I want a world where no one cleans their houses? Do I want to live my life thinking that no one has ever successfully managed a household of five children? Someone’s got to be good at it. If there isn’t someone good at it, I’ve got some seriously reduced odds of ever getting good at it.

Dang it, I need those women. I would like very much to not need them. I would like very much to feel constant validation for my poor decisions by watching the poor decisions of other women. But really, how rotten is that? Having no hope? No role models? No chance ever of getting better? This really stinks.

As much as I love finding women who also use ponytails to hide terribly messy hair, I also need that friend who can gently show me that making a hot breakfast for my kids every morning is actually possible. I want to find a way to learn and teach and share and be at peace with where I am, regardless of the people around me.

But who knows, maybe while I’m learning how to keep my car clean, I can show someone else how to save enough for retirement. Just don’t look at me too judgmentally. I’m really fragile. I suppose you are too. Let’s just smile the next time we walk into church. There may be someone there a little drunk on guilt. And it might be me. But if you can smile, I’ll try too.

Maybe there is a way to get that guilt off my good china.

About Justine Dorton

Justine is a mother to five children, and has a husband lodged somewhere (probably in the den). She is not very fond of speaking of herself in third person.

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