(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.
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.