If you read much literature on women, work and life — and I confess that I do — the topic of guilt comes up a lot. Too much, really. We definitely get listener questions for Best of Both Worlds about guilt, and so this week we decided to address this topic.
Sarah and I based the episode on a question we got from a listener who works 3 days a week, and feels profound guilt about this. When we probed this topic more, we learned that it’s partly because her husband works long, irregular hours, and her social circle is mostly women who are at home with their kids. In her telling, they post on social media about how “blessed” they are and ask why on earth she works when her husband earns a good salary. She noted that one of her kids has some behavioral issues (although it sounds mostly like he’s just a spirited, high-energy kid) and so after reading a book called Being There, she’s been beating herself up that this must be her fault.
(To which I ask…why isn’t it her husband’s fault? He’s the one who’s gone a lot! She’s possibly gone 27 hours a week, max.)
Anyway, she was looking for practical solutions, so amid our lamentations that this is even an issue, we threw out a few suggestions.
Read different books and get new friends. Call me naive, but if I’m going to cry about a book, I’d like it to be an epic novel exploring the human condition. And if I’m going to have friends, they shouldn’t make me feel bad about myself. Time to expand the social circle! Maybe a book club? New people from the kids’ school? .
Track your time. One upside of my time logs is that I can see how much time I spend with my kids. I highly recommend time tracking for any working parent who feels guilt. You might be spending more time interacting with your kids than you think.
Choose the right comparison. I mention being on a BBC program with a father who was asked about guilt. He didn’t really feel much because he was comparing himself with his own father. How brilliant is that? Not only is he more professionally successful, he’s spending more time with his family as well. Maybe instead of comparing herself to other people’s social media feeds, our listener should compare herself to, say, a 1950s father who never changed diapers. I mean, why not?
Ignore social media. The dirty little secret is that some of the most over-the-top posts are inspired by insecurity.
Realize guilt comes in many forms. Case in point: we had a listener question this week from a woman — who was mostly home with her kids — who felt guilty about doing more activities with her 5-year-old than her 2-year-old on weekends. The truth is, people can talk themselves into feeling guilty about anything. It’s possible many of our listener’s friends who don’t work outside the home feel guilty about not contributing financially to their families, not using professional certifications or licenses they earned, not showing their daughters that women can be professionally successful in jobs outside the home, etc.
Think about how good your kids have it. Guilt is an emotion that evolved because it helps us repair relationships. If you hurt someone, you feel bad about it until you make amends. This allowed tribes to stay together. But key to the usefulness of guilt is that someone must have been hurt. My kids — and most likely your kids if you are reading this, and our listener’s kids — are among the luckiest kids on the planet. They are financially well-off, they have so many opportunities, and they have stable families.
Use the word ‘wistful’ rather than guilt. This is from Sarah. It’s just a better word, because it doesn’t carry the emotional baggage of doing something wrong.
Focus on the good you’re doing for the world. Curiously, our listener never said what kind of work she does. Many forms of work do much good beyond the income earned by the worker. For instance, I’m very glad that my kids’ teachers and physicians chose to continue to share their gifts with the world beyond their families after having children.
I’d love to hear from podcast listeners how you feel about the topic of guilt, and any advice you’d have for our listener.