I was in Glasgow last week at the BSA (British Sociological Association) conference and as a result my head is spinning with plans and ideas for my research. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting lots of interesting people and have had some really good conversations. But as I sit here and reflect over the conference there is one thing that sticks out in my mind, and that is the word ‘guilt’.
It’s not that I or anyone else was feeling especially guilty at the time, although who knows, that is at least not what we were talking about. No, it came up as a recurring theme when talking about women, work, careers, and mothering.
Now I admit that I have a somewhat unhealthy guilt complex. I sometimes joke that if there is anything that I could possibly feel guilty about, I do, and if there is absolutely nothing to feel guilty about, I do anyway. I know this is completely irrational and I have gotten better at not feeling so guilty all the time.
One thing that seems to connect women, whether or not they have a career, whether or not they have children, is that they, or rather we, feel way too guilty about too many things. I know I probably don’t need to spell it out, but I will so that you know you’re not alone. Here are a few things that you possibly and probably often feel guilty about:
Not being with your kids enough; not being at work enough; not spending enough time with parents/friends/family/loved ones; not getting enough done; not being a good enough mother/daughter/wife/friend; not being attentive enough to others’ needs; not being ambitious enough; not exercising enough; not giving the kids food that is nutritious enough; not monitoring their screen time enough; and not getting enough done although we’re doing all of the above to the best of our ability (yes, really, to the best of our ability, stop beating yourself up) and feeling guilty about it too, which also takes a lot of energy.
I could go on, but there really is no point. The point I wanted to make when listing all these things, is that if you recognize any of these you will know that you are not alone, because unfortunately, this is something I have found in my research: women tend to think it’s just them. That every one else is doing fine, and many women ask themselves, why can’t I handle it when everyone else seems to be able to? The thing is, we’re just really great at keeping it together and putting on a brave face.
So why is this, you ask, why do we feel so guilty? Well, it’s complicated, but the main reasons are cultural and structural. With cultural I mean the way women are brought up and the gendered ideals prevalent in society. And with structural I mean the way we organize society, they way we define work, and the way we continue to put most of the care responsibilities on women. These two are very closely linked.
While women are taught to have it all – a family, a career, and to participate in public debate and policy making – we are also making it difficult for women to do this because of the contradictory messages we send them about femininity and what it means to be a good worker, citizen, woman, and mother. Simply put, women get extremely mixed and contradictory messages regarding what it is that they need to live up to.
Despite gender equality initiatives, which include encouraging men to take paternity leave and participate more in childcare, the change has been and is extremely slow, and women continue to be mainly responsible for care in society. Childcare is also actually only a small part of all the care done in society. Although we mostly think and talk about stressed and sleep deprived mothers of small children when we talk about care, we have other care responsibilities too. Not only are women mainly responsible for childcare, they are also mainly responsible for other care, like caring for elderly parents, spouses, or other ailing relatives and friends. And even though care is often outsourced, someone still needs to manage and coordinate it, and either way it can be draining and emotionally very difficult. Talking to a good friend and colleague at the conference, it really started to dawn on me how much women organize their lives and their work around care. This is also true for the women who opt out. A big part of their narratives, whether or not they have children, is about the people in their lives and the relationships they want to nurture, which the career they opted out of left very little room for. It may seem obvious, that we want to and should be there for the people who are important to us and need us, but this is just not the way work is organized. Very little room is left for care, which is one of the main reasons we tend to feel overwhelmed.
Now I’m obviously not saying that we shouldn’t care for loved ones, but we can be aware of how unequal the distribution of care in society is and work on that. And we can think about that maybe we need a society and a working culture that accommodates and makes more room for care and relationships, for both men and women. Either way, women have some pretty unrealistic expectations to live up to, and we need to realize this and we really need to not feel so guilty all the time. It is such a waste of energy.