Saturday, January 26, 2008

A Taxonomy of Guilt

I'm a member of a book club, which I credit with getting me reading grown up books again after Pumpkin was born. It reminded me that I needed more intellectually stimulating things to read than Leo Lionni's A Color of His Own (an early favorite of Pumpkin's). January's book was Liars and Saints, by Maile Meloy. One of the themes of the book is guilt and its impact on the family at the center of the story. This got me thinking about the guilt in my life. I think there are several distinct types:

  • Mommy guilt - this is probably the most frequent type of guilt I experience right now. It is due to the disconnect between the idealized Mommy in my brain and the real Mommy that I am. I feel this when I want to go back to bed (or read a book, or do anything else, really) rather than play with Pumpkin. I feel this when I work a little late and get to day care to discover that she's had another bottle rather than waiting for me to nurse her. I really felt it last night when I realized I'd put Pumpkin to bed without her final nursing. (We'd messed with our routine, due to her eating a late dinner. I was supposed to nurse her after her bath, when I usually nurse her before her bath. I completely forgot, read her stories and got her down in her crib (she fell asleep in the crib! Not in my arms!) and left feeling quite pleased with myself, until I realized, while looking at the unusually large volume of milk that I'd pumped out in my before bed pumping, that I'd never nursed her. What kind of mother does that?)
  • Feminist guilt - I feel this guilt due to the disconnect between the idealized career woman and role model for future female scientists/techies in my brain and the real woman that I am. I've been feeling it a lot more frequently since Pumpkin came along. The primary cause of this guilt right now is the fact that my life completely revolves around Pumpkin (which is certainly how my Mommy Guilt thinks it should be) and I haven't been very good about keeping up with the networking/professional society type things I used to do. I can usually stamp this guilt out by reminding myself that feminism was about giving women choices, and that I probably still look like a reasonable role model to the occasional up and coming female scientist I meet. She doesn't know what a wreck my house is (see Homeowner's Guilt, below) or that I think 9 p.m. is a late bedtime. Besides, I remember wishing there were more female scientists with families when I was an up and coming female scientist. It seemed like all the successful women were single, or at least had no kids.
  • Enviro-guilt - this is another common form of guilt in my life right now.
    It is caused by the disconnect between the environmentally friendly lifestyle I feel we should be living and the real life we are living. In fairness, we aren't doing too badly. We have two cars, but one is a Prius. We try to use cloth shopping bags and reusable containers. We recycle religiously. Hubby is spending a lot of time enviro-fitting our house (the current project is putting insulation on the hot water pipes). But there is so much more we want to do. We want to replace our front yard with a low water use garden. We want to set up composting. We could use our gDiapers more. You get the idea.
  • Social guilt - this is closely related to enviro-guilt. It is caused by the disconnect between the things I think I should do for the community and the very little that I actually do. I write checks to charity, and we adopted a family for Christmas. And that's about it. I always think about doing the outreach programs the local chapter of the Association for Women in Science runs. I think I should volunteer at the retirement home down the street. I think we should write bigger checks to more charities. In short, I think we could be better global citizens.
  • Homeowner's guilt - this guilt is caused by the disconnect between the nice, clean, organized, beautiful home I want and the sort of messy, really rather disorganized home we have. This is one of the easiest forms of guilt to ignore, which is why our home office is such a wreck that Pumpkin isn't allowed into it, and why when I lifted the toilet seat to flush Pumpkin's gDiaper tonight I was a bit disgusted by what I saw. (Hubby has confessed to peeing in the dark when he gets up with Pumpkin in the middle of the night. I can't really argue, since I do it, too. I don't think I make quite as much mess.) However, Hubby's boundless energy for home improvement tasks tends to make me feel that I should muster up some more enthusiasm for the items on my homeowner's to do list.
The types of guilt battle for my time and remediating actions, because the things that would assuage different types of guilt are often contradictory. For instance, my Mommy Guilt tells me that I must do whatever it takes to get Pumpkin the naps she needs, but my Enviro-Guilt tells me not to spend an hour and a half driving around in the car, even if it is a Prius. My Feminist Guilt and my Social Guilt think that I should volunteer some time with one of AWIS' outreach programs, but my Mommy Guilt points out that this would undoubtedly cause me to be away from home when Pumpkin "needs" me. My Homeowner's Guilt would like to buy some new furniture, but my Enviro-Guilt thinks we should buy fewer things and my Mommy Guilt points out that we should save the money for Pumpkin's college fund.

When I stopped and thought about the guilt I've been feeling, I was a bit surprised by the amount of it. I wasn't even raised Catholic! The guilt easily fades into the background, forming a sort of constant back drop for my life, occasionally prodding me into cleaning the bathroom when I would really rather read my book. Still, I don't think it is doing me any good. I think I should try to let some of it go... hmmm... if I am not careful, I am going to end up with Zen Guilt (the disconnect between the stress-free, live in the moment sort of life I think I should lead, and the crazy, over-planned, sometimes quite stressful life I have)....


  1. Let go of the guilt. Children are enormously time and energy-consuming. You need all your energy for Pumpkin and keeping your career afloat right now. Learn to politely say no. "I am flattered, but my plate is very full right now; ask me again in a couple of years."

    Try to get some help around the house to lighten the load. Instead of feeling guilty about that, remind yourself that you are training someone to fill in when one of you goes on work-related travel.

  2. The Zen guilt! That totally got me. But of course, I recognize so much of what you're saying here. I wish I knew what the answer was (last year around this time, I was writing about how I would go to work and forget to pump ... is breastfeeding guilt a particular sub-type of mommy-guilt, do you think?)

  3. I hear ya. For my list, I'd have to add work-guilt, wife-guilt and family/friends-guilt.

    I've been working to let go of it with my therapist, especially the mommy-guilt and homeowner-guilt. Lately, I've been able to translate what I'm learning from the therapist to other guilt areas. It's really helping. Who knew that having PPD would lead me to be more zen?

    Oh, and I love the zen-guilt! HA!

    Good luck with it all. I think you know the right path for you, you just need to follow it.

  4. Caramama, you're right- there is wife guilt, family guilt, work guilt, financial guilt... once I started I was surprised about how many different types of guilt I have.

    And Mimi is right, Mommy guilt comes in so many different subtypes!

    Grace is right, we just need to let go of the guilt.

    Except maybe the Zen guilt. Maybe that will be the one that frees us from all the others.... (:


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