Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Guilt Hormone : An appeal to women to stop revelling in guilt!

(Published in The Statesman, 6 February 2006. Copyright Gowri Mohanakrishnan)

Why do we women feel guilty about so many things? We almost seem to enjoy taking the blame for anything that goes wrong, and we constantly try to appease those whom we imagine we have wronged. Invariably, these feelings arise in connection with our husbands and our families!

I just spoke to a fifty something grandmother who is an amazing woman, mother and sister -- my sister, in fact. She is brilliant at her work and at home, and she makes new friends every day--and keeps them. She built her career from scratch, starting to work full time for the first time at the age of thirty-six. She is now an expert in her field and works six days a week when she's not working seven, for about ten to fourteen hours a day. She travels extensively, inside the country and out, and sometimes does four trips a week if the need arises. Her work centres around cancer patients, and she brings hope, happiness and very often a chance of life to thousands of people. She was feeling guilty that she doesn’t spend enough time at home!
As someone who hasn’t worked full time in the last twenty years, I've always admired her drive, her energy, her discipline and her sense of commitment. Also her confidence and her complete lack of vanity. She can do with three hours of sleep in a night if someone--friends, family or anyone connected with work--needs her. She keeps in touch with patients over the phone and answers every call with a smile in her voice, no matter what time of the day or night the call comes in. And there are scores of calls in a day.

I'm amazed at the complete absence of the self congratulatory in her character, but I am stunned at the way she pulls herself up when she feels she has hasn’t done enough. I sometimes think that if she'd been a man, she'd have come home grouchy, stomping and yelling at everyone to keep quiet, switch off the TV and answer the damn phone for a change! I can’t understand why she feels guilty about anything. Once, she told me she felt bad that she didn’t make all her Diwali sweets at home as she used to before she started working. I asked her how many women she knew who made their Diwali sweets at home had done even a fraction of the things she did, and how many women made Diwali sweets at all when you could go out and buy them. And were Diwali sweets that important anyway?

It isn’t silly or funny that cooking-- or not cooking--is one of our greatest guilt trips.
I have apologised to one or the other of my children at the end of a meal which didn’t really taste just like mother (and gosh, in some cases my mother, not theirs) usually makes and I have actually promised to make it up to them! Now the important thing here is that the guilt doesn’t arise out of an accusation, it comes from within. What gives birth to it? Generations of voices in our blood, telling us we have to be good, we have to take care of home, husband and children, and put ourselves last? Possibly. The woman I'm talking about is loving, caring and competent and doesn’t have anything to reproach herself with. But the guilt has woven itself into our characters and really, life seems to lose something without it!

Guilt alone is pardonable (Oh great, now we have to feel guilty about feeling guilty!) If we feel a twinge of it, we can pull ourselves up and tell ourselves to snap out of it and quick. It's appeasement we've got to watch out for. Sometimes you slave and kill yourself over something that nobody really wanted or expected. And you end up feeling that no one appreciates what you do. That leads to a whole new set of complications.

Some solutions:
Tell yourself -- and others, when required -- that you are a person, not a service.
Remind yourself that no one is paying for the service, it is all about caring and sharing in a family.
If it must be called a service, well, then somedays service can and will be lousy; it tends to be in so many places. Everyone is entitled to make mistakes.
If some people are impossible to please, stop trying to please them.

And last, put your feet up once in a while and reflect.


PentaTwo said...

Some of what you wrote reminded me of an old movie, good one too, called Five Easy Pieces. Jack Nicholson, immediately after his Easy Rider debut. The following dialog has been the subject of many hundreds of doctoral thesises in various disciplines ranging from Communications to Sociology.
Debates have ranged from, "Was the waitress rude?' to, "Was she at that time of the month?"
What is more amazing is that so many people can get a PhD on a topic like this. Thought you may enjoy this...

The movie's most famous scene takes place in a roadside restaurant (a Denny's, just south of Eugene, Oregon), where Bobby tries to get a waitress (Lorna Thayer) to bring him toast with his breakfast, which is not on the menu. Despite appeals to logic and common sense, the waitress adamantly sticks to the rules of the restaurant, so Bobby comes up with a plan of his own:

Bobby: I'd like a plain omelet. No potatoes, tomatoes instead. A cup of coffee and wheat toast.
Waitress: No substitutions.
Bobby: What do you mean? You don't have any tomatoes?
Waitress: Only what's on the menu. You can have a number two — a plain omelet. It comes with cottage fries, and rolls.
Bobby: Yea, I know what it comes with, but it's not what I want.
Waitress: Well I'll come back when you make up your mind.
Bobby: Wait a minute, I have made up my mind. I'd like a plain omelet, no potatoes on the plate. A cup of coffee and a side order of wheat toast.
Waitress: I'm sorry, we don't have any side orders of toast. I'll give you a English muffin or a coffee roll.
Bobby: What do you mean "you don't make side orders of toast"? You make sandwiches, don't you?
Waitress: Would you like to talk to the manager?
Bobby: You've got bread. And a toaster of some kind?
Waitress: I don't make the rules.
Bobby: OK, I'll make it as easy for you as I can. I'd like an omelet, plain, and a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast, no mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce. And a cup of coffee.
Waitress: A number two, chicken sal san. Hold the butter, the lettuce, the mayonnaise, and a cup of coffee. Anything else?
Bobby: Yeah, now all you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, give me a check for the chicken salad sandwich, and you haven't broken any rules.
Waitress: You want me to hold the chicken, huh?
Bobby: I want you to hold it between your knees.
The waitress then indignantly orders them to leave, to which Nicholson knocks the drinks off the table with a sweep of his arm.

Back in the car:

Hitchhiker in the back seat: Fantastic that you could figure that all out and lie that down on her so you could come up with a way to get your toast. Fantastic.
Bobby: Yea, well I didn't get it, did I?
Hitchhiker in the back seat: No, but it was very clever. I would've just punched her out.
The scene is iconic as a metaphor for the rebellious, free spirit of the youth of the late 1960s and early 1970s, a strong theme in the film as a whole. Thirty years later Nicholson would perform a scene in the movie About Schmidt which directly drew from this scene (available as a "Deleted Scene" extra on the DVD release). Nicholson's character in About Schmidt, an emotionally downtrodden retiree, in contrast, humbly accepts the waitress' "no substitutions" rule.

Kamini said...

Bravo Gowri! I showed this one to Aditi, who has the Guilt Hormone coursing through her veins, who is always wringing her hands about not being a good enough friend or daughter/sister/granddaughter. This is such a hard one, though - where does one draw the line between selflessness and selfishness; the male response you wrote about is hardly the ideal to strive for! Thanks, and keep up the GREAT writing. I've missed it!

kat said...

thanks fr reminding me that i am not a service !! one needs that once in a while

Sivakami said...

enjoyed reading "The Guilt Hormone." not only nobody wants or expects the hard work put in but the criticism will be ready at the end.