Becoming a mother is a bit like being hit in the face by an emotional sledgehammer. Despite having been in labour for 27 hours, I was so excited by the birth of my first baby that I could not sleep all night. I had never felt higher before in my life. It was as if motherhood was a wonderful new drug and I couldn’t get enough of it. Three days later, swollen boobs feeling like they were going to explode, and a baby in the neo-natal unit, I came crashing down and cried for 6 hours straight. It’s not hard to see why parenting can sometimes feel a bit like being on a rollercoaster.
Eight years down the line and there are still the emotional highs and lows (I cry every time I see my kids’ school choir) but one of the feelings that seems to hang around like a bad smell, is guilt. Guilt is a sly and subtle mistress and if you blink you might miss her.
Guilt makes me feel as if I should be doing all the housework and then bad that I’m doing the laundry rather than hanging out with the kids. I didn’t have time to do most of the Christmas shopping this year so my partner did it, which just made me feel guilty because I was at work. Guilt makes me feel bad about working too much because I don’t see my kids and then bad when I don’t work enough and my husband is the breadwinner. It is a complex and utterly stupid emotion but it has a massive hold on me.
When I began to realise I was experiencing guilt, I suddenly noticed that it seems to be an emotion that affects women in particular. Women are socialised to feel especially guilty. From a young age we are told the story of Eve and immediately feel responsible for the fall of mankind. Never mind the fact that women in the Bible rarely have any agency at all – just remember that if it wasn’t for women we’d all still be living in Paradise. I think it is inextricably linked with the perception of our role in society. I often feel guilty because despite understanding rationally that it is not my job to manage the entire domestic sphere, I feel compelled to do so. This is often referred to as emotional labour and it is recognised in study after study that despite working outside the home more than ever, women still do my housework than men. My feelings of guilt are often caused when I reject this role and do what I consider to be the ‘selfish thing’ like going to work for instance or heading out climbing with my friends. My husband on the other hand regularly goes on tour as a musician and doesn’t seem to suffer from the same torment at all. He quite rightly enjoys his time off from parenting and uses it to recharge and reconnect with who he is.
The reason men don’t seem plagued by guilt is that they are rewarded generously by society for doing the things that women do every single day. Men who take care of their kids during the day are often asked whether they are ‘babysitting’ when actually they are simply parenting. They get admiring looks and credit from all around who think it is somehow more challenging for a man to wrestle a pair of tights onto a toddler than a woman. They get to feel good about being a parent because any involvement in parenting is an improvement on past generations. Oh, you know your kids’ names and don’t beat them with a slipper? Well done, you’re winning!
Women on the other hand seem to be expected to transform into some kind of Super Mum as soon as the midwife has sewn the last stitch. There you go love, sign here for a lifetime of managing the entire household. It wouldn’t be so bad if the unpaid work of being a Mother was taken seriously but until a man deigns to do it, it is hardly noticed.
So, here’s to a new start in 2016. Feeling bad because I can’t live up to the idea of what a woman should be is ridiculous and self-defeating. On the stroke of midnight I am going to welcome in a guilt free year and I hope you’ll join me.