Ditch The Guilt

Household cleaning tools on a blue wooden floor

During the same weekend that I grit my teeth when the Duchess of Cambridge spoke about mother’s guilt  ( I tried to imagine Prince William ‘fessing up to the same thing – no me neither ), I read another article in the Observer by the goddess, Mariella Frostrup about tackling her insomnia. I don’t suffer from insomnia but have many friends who do and go to incredible lengths to try and ‘fix it’.

The big reveal was on its way:  what was Mariella going to attribute it to?  Hormones, the menopause, too much sugar, not enough sex… I can’t lie, I felt deflated when her answer did come.   For while anxiety and regular insomnia are synonymous with hormonal change in a woman’s 50s, it didn’t explain the nocturnal struggles experienced by younger women. On closer inspection she discovered, a picture starts to form that’s recognisable to any women who is knee deep in the mothering, marriage and career years.

“For every right we’ve earned, every advance we’ve made, every career we are now free to embark on continues to coexist with our new full-time engagement in the oldest job in the world: keeping the hearth and home. Despite a century of emancipation, women still do most of the backstage work that it takes to keep the show on the road.”

In other words, it’s great that men and women are increasingly equals in the work-place, the reality is that it sucks that women are effectively taking on twice the load at home. And if wise Mariella is still enduring this (she also informs us her husband cooks, adores playing with the kids and can put up a shelf) then what hope is there for the rest of us.

It’s something that is further aggravated by a change in family structures which during the last generation and a half have shifted from an extended one to a nuclear one adds Russell Foster, Professor of Circadian Neuroscience at Oxford University. Women, she concludes, are basically sacrificing sleep in order to get everything done.

I do wonder at the incredible burden that many women take on, who unflinchingly assume the role as primary, all-knowing caregiver. It takes a village – something that many of us have forgotten. I am also constantly amazed by the number of gutsy go getting women who fall eerily quiet on the subject of who does the lion-share of chores. Smart women hooked up with kind, accomplished reasonable partners who still end up doing it all at home. Where do these Herculean levels of guilt from? And how has guilt become our modus vivendi?

Radical thought here but what if it isn’t men holding women back but women shackling themselves with a myriad “shoulds” – impossibly high expectations and the inability to priortise what is truly important. Why women wish to forever be assigned with the “mental load” – that is, the burden of remembering, and usually also executing the many tasks required to keep a household ticking over- is utterly beyond me.

Instead, what so many women feel is guilty. When I had babies, I was struck by stories of new mothers who said they never had time to shower or felt guilty if they stopped their lunch. How did we get to the point where a basic daily routine became an indulgence? Sleep and food power you through your day. How long do you expect to run on empty?

It’s international Women’s day shortly: those glass ceilings are not going to be smashed if we assume it’s always our responsibility to do everything, if we continue to bogged down in this never-ending daily minutiae. So please ditch the control freakery? I ask you to stop infantalising your partners because there really isn’t a “bad way” to load the dishwasher or do a supermarket shop. I don’t think I need to point out that there is a glaring hypocrisy in demanding equality on many many levels and then treating your partner as if he’s too thick to sew on a name tag. And what sort of blue print are you offering to your children?

It’s worth examining that guilt. Does it spring from a belief that there is something you should change and you are not doing what you believe is the best thing for you and your family. Or is it, because you have internalised ideas from a judgemental few.  Perhaps a list of reasons you work – sanity, salary, satisfaction – are a helpful reminder when work prevents you from attending the Year 2 play.

Likewise, I don’t know anyone over the age of 35 whose parents ‘played’ with them, who organised a chocca itinerary throughout every summer holiday or who felt the weighty expectation to turn up to every school concert.

Of course our children are central to our world but it doesn’t need to evolve around them. Nor do I believe it would serve them any better if it did. Loving them the most means not doing for them what they can do for themselves. I don’t know when we bought into the crappy idea that one person has to be everything to them. When you pick it apart, it’s quite screwy in its neediness. Not to mention its relentlessness.

I’ll never forget a nugget by the American time management guru, Laura Vanderkam, the author of “I Know How She Does It” which came out a few years ago. Vanderkam promise less to change your life, than to stop you feeling quite so bad about it. Having persuaded many over-achieving women to keep time logs of their days, from early morning gym workouts to solving work crises at midnight, she observes that actually, their lives didn’t look that bad. Very busy perhaps but full and rewarding. Our culture’s doom-laden focus on the tough bits, she continues, risks obscuring a bigger truth about working parenthood, which that it makes many women feel very fulfilled, if stressed.

We live in a society where, if we aren’t racked with some mystical self-loathing, then we are probably doing something wrong. Ultimately what works for you, you partner, your family dynamic is right. It matters not a jot what anyone else is doing. It might not work for anyone else but there is no one-size-fits-all answer.

I also think we owe it to our children to be honest about what it takes to run a busy household, that the daily grind is not your idea of fun either. We roll our eyes at the snowflake generation in the work place, but how much grit are instilling in our children? And who says six year olds don’t love chores. You’ll find a very adept floor sweeper if you ever visit me in South London.

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