Friday, June 4, 2010

That Tired Old Trope of Maternal Guilt

It is generally understood, in our culture, that mothers feel guilty.  It seems to matter not whether they have done something to feel guilty about, only that a cape of guilt is donned at the advent of a baby's birth, never to be removed again, or at least not for long, and presumably not without inviting dire consequences.

I often find myself wondering if this is really a malady that affects many mothers or simply a media construct.  I wonder because I do not feel guilty most of the time.  In fact, I rarely feel guilty.  If I do, I take it as a sign that I have done something to precipitate that feeling, and that I should correct it posthaste.  It seems to me that would be the point of guilt, if indeed it has any point at all.

Raised Catholic, I perhaps have a lower threshold of tolerance for guilt than some people.  Although my parents never went in for the ol' guilt trip as behavior modification, so it's not as if I rebelled against and later rejected it.  In fact, it was as a Catholic child that I remember deciding that guilt, as some sort of ongoing emotional state, made little sense.  Guilt should be temporary, because when it arises, you should change your actions, so as to avoid feeling it again.  It's a sign that something is wrong, that you have done something wrong.

Isn't it?  Isn't that what guilt is all about?  Because this mother-guilt portrayed in the media seems instead to be an all-encompassing vagary that settles permanently in the background providing ambiance for motherhood, with very little to do with the actual qualities or actions of the mother herself.

Women who love working feel guilty for working, while their children are thriving in care that is likely better than a mother forced from a workforce she loves, into full-time childcare she's not particularly interested in providing, would be in a position to offer, simply because there's a worn-out old story, tired from the twisting of the truth it takes to tell it, that all women should prefer to spend time nurturing new life, for free, than to express their creativity and intelligence in any number of other wonderful ways, and for pay.  Women who work because they have to, feel guilty about doing so, as if providing food and shelter for their children is doing them a disservice!  Women who pinch every penny and balance their checkbooks on the backs of their own labors because spending their days with their babies is what they want to do most, in the deepest recesses of their hearts, feel guilty because they're not pushing paper in a cubicle they couldn't wait to leave, lest the workforce moves on without them while they take a break, reevaluate, and do what they want to do instead of what some phony feminist figment of our cultural imagination tells them they ought to.

None of this makes any sense to me, and it's a waste of the supposedly superior emotional skills of our gender.  We could be taking down Dr. Phil here, with the combined force of female emotional intelligence, and instead we're feeling guilty, all the time, about every little thing.  Or are we?  Do you mothers out there feel guilty about your perfectly legitimate life choices?  Is this a real phenomenon?  Is it a story sold to a consumerist culture by a media hasty to jump on the quick and dirty pre-sold story line?  Or is it perhaps shorthand for stress?  For a certain female propensity to internalize stress and feel as if we ourselves should singlehandedly overcome the myriad sources of stress, rather than asking or expecting the world to change to accommodate our needs: for balance, for beauty, for a moment to breathe.

I'm curious about all you moms out there, and despite my focus on mothers in this post, about you non-moms too.  I think the guilt-industrial-complex is especially pronounced in motherhood, but it seems to target all females.  Ironically, in addition to mothers, it's sold especially hard to those who choose not to become mothers.

So women, I'm wondering: when it comes to guilt, what's your story?  I'd love to hear it.

1 comment:

  1. I don't feel much mother-guilt, and certainly not for working. I have confidence in the choices I've made so I can find them empowering. I think it's the women who second-guess themselves who fall most susceptible to the guilt complex.