I’m a firm believer that it is truly a useless and unhelpful emotion.
It drives me crazy that hardworking, capable, and loving women who are both amazing mothers and amazing colleagues spend so much time and energy feeling like they (rather, we) are “not enough.” And I’m usually chanting “Just say no to guilt!” as loudly as anyone.
But an experience I had this weekend changed my mind about how to treat that heretofore unwelcome friend.
Last Saturday, I attended a one-day conference entitled Achieving Optimal Health in Washington, D.C. (Note: it was Saturday, a day I’m normally home with my family.) The conference featured the inimitable Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction. During his one-hour talk, Kabat-Zinn managed to spell-bind me into awareness—if such a thing is possible. His state of being was pure calm, and his execution was so brilliant that at any given point, I wasn’t sure whether I was meditating or listening to a lecture.
I was also fighting the “G” word. Big, bad Guilt. It was a beautiful, sunny Saturday. I’d been at work all week, and my kids had been at school. I wasn’t home with them running around outside. Instead, I was in an auditorium doing something for me. For my life. For my business.
“You should leave,” Guilt whispered. “Bad mom!” she cried out.
And I told her to go away. That’s ridiculous. The kids are happily playing with their dad.
Yet she kept coming back. Again. And again. Unpersuaded that she should leave me the heck alone.
Then, Jon Kabat-Zinn recited “The Guest House” by the 13th-century poet Rumi, and I starting to think maybe, just maybe, I had it all backwards.
Here’s the poem:
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
She may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
Meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
— Jellaludin Rumi
What if I stopped kicking her out, I wondered? What if I took Rumi’s still-relevant if rather ancient advice, and invited Working-Mom Guilt in as a visitor? Told her to have a seat and make herself comfortable a while? Invited her to hang out and listen to this great lecture with me?
“You are the house,” said Kabat-Zinn. “You are not the visitors.”
When Guilt knocked again, I smiled and imagined myself inviting her in. She sat down in a “harumph” and glared. But she was quiet.
Didn’t pester me anymore.
And we simply sat there. Together.
Intellectually, we can understand how little those feelings of guilt serve us. We know that beating ourselves up over not working or “parenting” enough doesn’t change us for the better. But that understanding doesn’t necessarily make the guilt any less likely to show up in daily life.
Perhaps if we brought the feeling into the fold—like all the other uncomfortable feelings we know we need to sit with and breathe through—guilt, too, would lose its sting.
Do you experience working mom guilt? What are some of the ways you’ve addressed it? Any ways you’ve found effective in letting it go? Please leave thoughts below in comments.
This column is re-published with permission from Mindful Return.