If the Olympic Games had been founded by modern American moms (rather than ancient Greeks with chariots and time to kill), the prize for Most Abject Guilt would be a coveted gold. I refuse to compete. I like to say I was born without the guilt gene, but after reading Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bebe, I’m thinking I was born in the wrong country. Frenchwomen, Druckerman reports, don’t express guilt over their choices to work or not, nurse or not or – this resonated most with me – over wanting to remain fully themselves after becoming mothers.
It’s not that average French mamans don’t feel conflict. But they appear to believe that since perfection isn’t possible, it’s not desirable, making guilt irrelevant.
But in the thoroughly American circles in which I run, if you’re a mom who’s not actively feeling guilty about something you’re doing (or not doing), you can’t compete in the games, and often the competition is all. Because the trick to racking up degree-of-difficulty points is not just to experience guilt, but to make it evident, with words and actions, that your guilt is bigger and badder than other moms’.
Let’s say you work outside the home, and Monday mornings make you sing like the proverbial lark, anticipating that even the worst work stress might be offset by such sweet spots as draining an entire cup of coffee while it’s still warm. You can go ahead and feel that way, but if you say so aloud, you better do so minus the lark-song, and with the addition of a self-deprecating “OMG, I can’t believe I admitted that. I feel so guilty for leaving them.” In other words, working for a necessary paycheck is worthy if you’re appropriately guilty about it. But you don’t even pass the qualifying round if own up to working because your career is a part of your identity you refuse to relinquish.
Let’s say you stay home, and you have let the phone go to voice mail every single time the class mom has called, because you simply cannot sit in on another meeting to decide which craft project the second graders will do for the Valentine’s Day breakfast. You don’t admit that, except if accompanied by a pefect-10 of a backflip: “OMG, I feel so guilty that I’m not doing enough to contribute, so of course sign me up.” Bonus points if you skip Zumba class in favor of being a Girl Scout leader.
You’re supposed to feel guilty if you get your roots touched up or your highlights highlighted without tossing in “but I let it go for so long because who has time?” Bonus points if you indicate your grays or split ends with a rueful, knowing, “it’s okay because I’m just a mom” smile; points deducted if you breeze happily into the salon or call a graying, greasy ponytail a temporary condition, not a badge of motherly honor.
You’re supposed to feel guilty if you didn’t sign up your kindergartener for t-ball, so now that he’s in fourth grade, he “can’t” try Little League (your fault!). You’re meant to feel guilty if you tell your daughter that tap and ballet are enough, that you can’t afford (much less finagle time in the schedule for) hip-hop and Broadway.
Gold-medal guilt gets its sheen from the visible strain for perfection, which no one wants to admit doesn’t exist (even Michael Phelps smoked pot; and didn’t Nadia Comaneci have an eating disorder?).
But what if we all just, you know, stopped? Admitted that we don’t feel guilty for (just to use one example) telling our 7-year-old that Chuck E. Cheese doesn’t do 8-year-old birthday parties, when the real reason is that there’s not enough Purell (or Xanax) for you to book a party there, so how about bowling, kiddo? Admit that we work because we want to feel important and interesting and connected to the world outside our homes, as much or more than because we have to for economic reasons? Admit that being home all day with a toddler or two makes you feel like a hamster on a wheel, or that commuting to work with a breast pump and a bunch of half-finished reports make you feel like a different kind of hamster on a different sort of wheel?
What if we all just had a café au lait and a croissant and sighed in a Gallic sort of way, and left the competition to the ancient Greeks?