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Mothers’ Guilt

October 12, 2009

Julia over at The Jew and the Carrot explores how guilt shapes her choices as a mother. The topic is not new to me. A couple of years ago, I took part in a workshop together with half a dozen of my friends, all women in their 30s, raising 5-7 children and holding day jobs. Incredibly, when asked to talk about themselves, each one felt compelled to talk about a certain weakness, something she didn’t do so well. My next door neighbour (who in addition to teaching special education and rearing 5 kids was studying for a degree in speech therapy) knocked my socks off by saying she felt guilty because she was not sewing her family’s clothing as her mother had done.

Since then, I have noticed that guilt is especially prevalent in the experiences of religious Jewish women. Between bringing up kids, working, maintaining healthy marriages, contributing to the community, trying to grow as people, and keeping wits about, women feel just a tad overwhelmed. Augment that with a constant stream of newspaper and magazine articles showcasing super-achiever moms with dazzling careers, and the stage is set for a penetrating sensation of not being good enough at keeping up with such a huge load.

By necessity, something just got to give, so most women make choices and set priorities. But social pressure and an innate tendency to keep options open supply yet another reason for guilt. So long as we reproach ourselves for not devoting time to a certain task, we maintain an illusion of being able to get to it some day. It’s right there on our radar if not as part of the daily routine, than at least weighing down on our conscience. Although there was no way for my friend to spend time sewing, the remorse somehow kept that option alive.

The problem is that guilt is counterproductive. It eats away at our self-image and prevents us from enjoying positive experiences and successes. Moreover, it makes us doubt the choices we have made and undermines the conviction necessary to persevere with these choices.

Thankfully, it is possible to rid ourselves of the feeling of underachievement by asking ourselves some frank questions.

  1. What fuels your sense of not doing enough? (Does your guilt over not cooking homemade meals stem from the belief in their nutritional value or from your cousin’s bragging about homemade pasta she makes from organic wheat grown in her back yard?) The first step to dealing with guilt is getting rid of the measuring stick. You’ll never be able to keep up with the Cohens, and chances are they are busy trying to keep up with you.
  2. What price tag accompanies that elusive achievement? Superwomen do not exist, period. If someone appears to be a superwoman, she pays a personal price for something she does not have the time to do. Consider what your life would look like if you would make different choices. For example, if you are pining over your slow career progress, think about the effects of a promotion on your work-life balance? What would you need to give up to accommodate this change?
  3. If you feel that the missing part would answer a real need, is it possible to incorporate that task into your life even partially? Sometime, small changes can make a big difference. You don’t have to pursue a university degree or hold a full-time job to get intellectual stimulation. So if your household chores are getting the better of you, consider getting some help (or pushing them off for another day) and heading out of the house for an interesting lecture.
  4. Has guilt become a substitute for action? If you know your current choices leave out something truly important, it’s time to shut down the auto-pilot. When long office hours force us to miss our kids’ childhood years, it is possible to seek alternative arrangements.  A time-consuming parenting workshop could save hours of parent-child battles and improve the overall family atmosphere.

Finally, after taking stock of the choices you have made, concentrate on your accomplishments. A “can do” attitude will get you much farther than any feeling of guilt.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 18, 2009 7:12 am

    Great post, Leah!

  2. October 18, 2009 2:25 pm

    I think, the guilt unavoidably arises from the gap between parochial values the woman was educated in, and modern realities which preclude her from following them.

    • Leah permalink*
      October 18, 2009 5:45 pm

      Alex, I beg to disagree. In my experience, most women (including very liberal ones) feel tension between their roles inside and outside the family. The problem is in no way unique to women brought up on conservative values. However, since many Orthodox women do carry a pretty heavy load, the challenge of striking a balance is more pronounced.


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