It was late Sunday night, I had been reviewing the speech in my mind all weekend. I probably should have written it down because every time I went over it, I changed a sentence here, a word there. I wanted to get it right, unsure how my husband would respond. The pit of my stomach felt wobbly, but in my mind, I knew it was the right decision. A decision, however, which rested not only in my hands. I could make it, if Neil was okay with it as well. I sat him down on our honey brown leather couch, muted the television and said the words he always takes very seriously: “Can we talk about something that has been on my mind?”. He turned and looked at me calmly, “Okay”. I told him, I needed a break from teaching and I think we could manage it financially. Teaching, the way I was doing it, had burned me out. I had a lot to learn about pacing, letting go of perfection and the need to stand out and be above everyone. He silently listened, waited until I finished and said, “Okay.” I stared at him for a beat, trying to find his judgement. How did he really feel? Was he annoyed, afraid, angry? But his face remained neutral, I unmuted the television, swiveled to face the screen as my mind spiraled in an unyielding slinky of guilt. Who was I to ask for this? Could we really afford it? Was I being frivolous? Would my marriage sustain this period? Was I being selfish?
The following twelve months were freeing, reflective, healing, and filled with guilt.
Because I was home all day, I told myself I had to do everything. From chores to fixing the house to cleaning to organizing our finances. Everything. Neil never asked me to, but I was certain he expected it. The guilt from not paying bills was so heavy I even ironed his scrubs–a task I don’t even do for my own clothes. I would punish myself for not earning money, not ever considering that I was bringing value to our household by tending to his and my basic human needs. I kept us fed, clothed, clean. I woke every day feeling guilty that I got to sleep in, while Neil had to wake up and go to work. Starting each day with guilt meant I was exhausted before I began. How was I to get the answers when I couldn’t even let myself be free?
The truth is Neil enjoys being cared for. It is easy and comfortable; and as man, it was the example he received growing up. And I. Well, I struggle to make peace with wanting to care for him and yet, needing to rest and feel free of household chores. This guilt which is unique to women, is constant. It is with me when I am writing and there is laundry that needs to be folded and put away, a sink full of dishes, dinner to be made, downstairs to be straightened. It is with me when I arrive home after a hard day, having ordered take out and the ingredients of my planned dinner are staring me in the face the moment I open the refrigerator. It is with me when I have two pups strapped to me, washing dishes, preparing food from them and us, and allowing my husband the half hour or hour of break he wants after work to transition between work and home.
Even worse, mixed with the guilt is resentment. Because while I am pushing myself to do it all–make his life easier because I do not want to feel guilty and because I love him. He as a man can be guilt free of these tasks, was never told what he must tend to. He was never told, “When you get married, you must cook, clean, do it all–have a career, kids, and a clean house with folded laundry.”
But here’s the thing about guilt. It is something that I make myself feel. It is a feeling I allow in by taking what others say personally and sometimes making up what others may be thinking or feeling. When a colleague nudges my elbow and says, “So you took off to get your grades done, huh?” Instead of laughing it off and thinking, “Wow,” that person doesn’t trust me. I blame myself and think, “Oh my god, people think I’m lying about taking a sick day; therefore, I should never take a sick day.” I mean when I read that back to myself, I, too, see how insane those thoughts are.
In my attempt to understand and get rid of guilt in my life, I have had to work hard on changing how I see myself and others. It is a new way to read my relationships. I first have to detach. Detach is an ugly word for something really beautiful. If I am so close to you that I can’t see where you end and I begin, you can control my feelings and thoughts with a look. However, if we are detached from each other, we can honor instead of control each other’s feelings. It is a beautiful thing to detach from your favorite people because instead of doing things for them out of guilt, you are doing things for them because you actually want to–what an honest way to live.
The first time I was able to put this theory into practice was a few months ago. [I know I’m a slow learner.] My father had called my in-laws and told them that I was depressed because I couldn’t get pregnant and could they please convince my husband to convince me to get IVF. After this, I needed and still need time to work through my anger so I asked him for space, which was extremely hard for him. He even got my mother to persuade me by saying how hard it is for him when I am not in his life, how they are getting old and who knows how much longer I will have them in my life.
My response? I have no guilt left for you (mom) and dad. I will call him when I am ready to call him. It was simple, but it also felt a little heartless at the time. Now, however, I see not having guilt is pure love. It means that I am finally free to have a real relationship with my parents. It means I can call or see them when I want to and it will never be out of obligation or worse–guilt. While I know it is not black and white, I still feel free of the heavy ass load I carried for so long.
A woman’s guilt is constantly fed by her family, parents, siblings. She is fed by the shows she is viewing. She is fed by the commercials and advertisements she is intentionally and unintentionally seeing. She is fed by the side comments of people she thought were friends who may joke about how she took the year off and has nothing to show for it–no book deal, no money, no nothing. She is fed by the thoughts and ancient beliefs of others which have taken residence in her mind.
When I initially came up with this theme, I saw the negative fruits that guilt bears. However, the writers for this issue have shown me guilt actually brings positivity. While on one hand, you may feel like it is controlling you, on the other hand you can name it, see it, and prove it wrong. Stand up to it and do what you believe is right for yourself, your family, your children. The strength in these women’s stories is inspiring and courageous.
A woman could be disabled by her guilt, sitting in a pile in the corner mourning the life she wished she could have if only the guilt would go away. Or. Like the writers of this issue, she could stand up in spite of the stigma and try to live a free life. So, this issue is for all the mothers, teachers, wives, sisters, girlfriends, caretakers in the world who are batting off each guilty thought with their freedom. You are a body of courage and inspiration.
Today, I present to you: A Woman’s Guilt!
Sonia Chintha is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Good Little Girls Zine.