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The Sound of Guilt Crashing Out my Window

In 2012 a Gallup Health and Well-Being Index revealed that women approaching midlife had the highest levels of stress among all age groups and genders. What’s worse, according to the study, they were far more stressed out than previous generations of women, and there didn’t seem to be any relief in sight. Today’s women are raising children, working, caring for aging parents, and tending to their partners (or trying to), while doing their best to remain fresh and youthful. And as a result, they feel too stretched, too overwhelmed, too exhausted, too unappreciated, and way too weary.

In fact, the study highlighted the fact that among a range of emotions experiences by these over-worked and under-appreciated women, the most pronounced was guilt. No matter how much they worked, no matter how thinly they were spread, no matter how caring, giving, and sacrificing (and no matter how damned good they looked while engaging in all of their service-related activities) it never felt like they were doing enough — there was always more they believed they could/should/needed to do.

This perfectionism is eating away at the mental and physical health of today’s women, and oftentimes at the core of many women’s souls lurks a fear that they are failing not only themselves, their employers and their partners, but their children as well.

I am the mother of a college-aged son who I parented alone for most of his life. I worked throughout his childhood in a high pressure job as a college professor, which afforded me a decent income and a fair amount of flexibility, but was also a source of almost non-stop pressure. On the outside I appeared relatively put-together, and I consistently received positive feedback from my friends and family who were in awe of how much I could handle — teaching a full course load, while working on a PhD, while being an active and engaged parent, while traveling around the world for research, while still managing to attend virtually all of my son’s baseball games and a range of school-related activities. And as age (and stress) began to take a mutual toll on my face and body, my self-esteem on any given day teetered between “just a mom” and “the invisible woman.”

Now, while I loved being a mom more than I can possibly describe, and while I appreciated the flexibility and adventure my career afforded me, most of the time inside my head I was a complete train wreck, and much like my female counterparts from the Gallup index, I was riddled with the type of guilt that comes from the perfectionist belief that nothing I did was ever going to be quite good enough. I felt guilt when I was at work and not at home. I felt guilt when I was at home and not at work. I felt guilt when I was at school, and neither at home nor at work. I was stretched out, maxed out, whacked out and guilted out on an almost constant basis, fearing I was stretched so thin, that I wasn’t giving my best in any domain in my life.

And the worst part? I had no one to talk to about my feelings and my fears because from my vantage point, everyone else seemed to be doing just fine – swimming effortlessly through their day, without a care or concern in the world. And in an attempt not to burden anyone, or destroy my image of the all-together-have-it-all woman, I kept my lamenting and angst to myself and forged ahead with twirling baton in hand.

Now that my son is away at college and I’ve had some time to reflect on those early years, I realize that my opinion of other women having it more together than I was likely based on the same false premise as their inflated opinions of me. The reality is that no one in my world, not even my female friends, were willing to openly admit their feelings of insufficiency and insecurity and talk about their guilt. It seemed as though we were all trying to live up to some perfectionistic pioneer reality that dictated days spent spinning from task to task, with seamless timing and effortless coordination. And yet nothing could have been further from the truth — at least for me, and I strongly suspect for all of the other women in my life as well.

So now that I have surpassed the stage of daily parenting responsibilities and have reached the point in my life where I’ve proactively chucked my guilt right out the proverbial window, I thought I’d do my younger sisters a favor and cough up some confessions, so that they can take a collective breath, let down their guard, and with all the strength they have remaining at the end of the day, chuck their own guilt right out the window as well. So here goes:

  1. My son never went to bed on time during his entire childhood, not ever, not once. So every once in a while when I sensed that I was near death, I imagined I saw a rash brewing on his chest and gave him a li’l dollop of Benadryl, put him to bed, and then took a bubble bath, with wine.
  2. I would rather fry my head in a microwave with an aluminum foil cap than attend Curriculum Night, so I didn’t.
  3. I proudly watched my son play baseball for one entire season from the warmth of my car (with heated seats) because it never rose above 40 degrees. During warmer seasons I often sat on the opposing side because I could pick up a wireless signal on my laptop more easily.
  4. To this day I remain very proud of my Egypt and Rock projects.
  5. I rarely, if ever cooked. Rather, I let Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods do the cooking for me.
  6. All those occasions when people popped over unexpectedly and I apologized for the mess claiming I was in the midst of giant reorganization project? I lied; that was my home’s normal fare.
  7. My son once caught two praying mantises and they laid an egg sac in a screened cage in our living room. One morning to my son’s glee and my horror there were at least 3000, if not more baby praying mantises jumping around the cage. The next day I noticed the cage door open and virtually all of the babies were gone. For months I’d see a random 6 inch praying mantis scurrying across the living room floor — in the middle of a dinner party, a work-related meeting, or a holiday gathering. I always acted shocked in front of my guests, so as not to let on that there were another 2999 giant stick bugs looming right under their noses (and pant legs).
  8. I worked for three weeks using a calendar from the wrong year. I finally figured it out when I kept showing up to meetings on the wrong day.
  9. Some days I only had time to shave one leg.
  10. My son graduated from high school with an average GPA and an average ACT score and still managed to get into a really great college, and now he’s having the time of his life.

Despite winging it all of those years, and despite spending 18 years running 30 minutes late, and despite the days when showering before noon was the biggest accomplishment I was going to have all week, and despite losing track of my son’s homework more days than not, and despite driving to work far too many days with a coffee cup on the roof of my car (and my son’s homework in my backseat), my son turned out just fine, great in fact. And my career survived, and my family and friends survived, and I survived – no we actually flourished. And although we didn’t have a traditional life, and while I certainly wasn’t a traditional mom, we made it work, and every day we experienced joy — wonderful, spectacular unscripted joy.

So what is my message to all the women out there trying to balance it all and feeling too much self-deprecating and perfectionistic guilt in the process?

  1. Chuck the guilt out the window, once and for all.
  2. Don’t ever say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to your best friend.
  3. Whatever you’re doing, it’s enough.
  4. Perfection is boring.
  5. Take more bubble baths (with wine).


About Michelle: Dr. Michelle Martin is an author, blogger, consultant and single mom of one college-aged son. A “recovering academic,” Michelle is now a contributing blogger for the Huffington Post where she writes about her life as middle-aged, empty-nesting single mom re-entering the dating world after a two decade hiatus. Michelle has an Master of Social Work and a PhD in peace studies. She is the author of three books and is currently working on her fourth book, inspired by her blogs, exploring ways in which women can have transformative experiences in middle age. Michelle lives in Chicago with her two dogs, a Golden Retriever and Toy Poodle. Follow her @drmconfesses