A recent study in the March 2011 Journal of Health and Social Behavior found that women tend to feel more guilty about work behaviors at home than do men (such as taking phone calls, answering e-mail, etc), even though they were no less effective than men at juggling these responsibilities. “Guilt seems to play a pivotal role in distinguishing women’s work-family experiences from men’s,” says the lead investigator of the study and a graduate student in sociology at the University of Toronto.” Women are taking on more work at work and continue to do the lion’s share at home, but struggle with our feelings of guilt.
How can we as women let go of this unnecessary guilt? It doesn’t make us more productive and it definitely interferes with enjoying life outside of work; in fact, the guilt may more directly affect our family members than does our actual work! If we are unhappy or negative, others in the family pick up on these emotions. Moreover, we demonstrate confusing and conflicting values to our daughters: be successful, but don’t enjoy it, making it harder for our daughters to own their own ambitions and goals.
Perhaps we can transform the guilt into a positive emotion through recognizing the core of guilt as deriving from care and compassion, which is a strength of women. If we can let go of unhealthy perfectionism and the thought that we are doing something wrong, perhaps we might recognize our uncomfortable emotion as one of concern for doing well at work while creating rich family lives for ourselves, spouses, and children (instead of framing it as “guilt”).
In letting go of this guilt and perfectionism, perhaps we can establish routines and boundaries that derive from our values rather than from the notion that we have to be superwomen or supermoms. For example, if having dinner together at night is an important value for your family as it is for mine, you can establish a plan that (all other things being equal and thus many if not most nights), you will sit down together at the main dining table and eat dinner. This means that cell phones and TV are off and that whether you are eating sandwiches, pizza, a gourmet dinner, or the lasagna you froze last weekend. You and your family spend 20 minutes or so talking about the day, discussing what’s happening in the world, and generally laughing and connecting. Perhaps on days where work creeps into family time, the kids can help more or dinner is a simpler affair. And if once in awhile, you have to take a call at dinner, so be it. Oh well.
Getting stuck in guilt (and its “cousin” perfectionism) saps us emotionally, which prevents us from being good role models to our daughters (and sons). It also interferes with our success at home and work. Though the research above found no difference is men’s and women’s effectiveness in balancing work and family responsibilities, women’s guilt can take a toll on our mood, our health, and ultimately on our children.