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Unlearning Our Guilt

The Next Step For Equality Is Confronting Our Own Expectations

Photo by Edu Lauton

“Especially when you’ve only eaten one meal all day.”

My partner had praised the dinner I had made the three of us, and this was my father’s response to that compliment. We were staying with him, and though I had never really cooked for him as a child living under his roof, I had been making us all two meals daily almost since we had arrived.

Not today though. Today I had emphatically slept in. Nudged by arthritic aches and a tickle starting in the back of my throat, I had shunned my self-prescribed duties. I rolled over. Let them eat sandwiches.

In time I had gotten up and gone about my day. Answered emails. Plodded through a sorry workout. Cooked dinner. I hadn’t given it another thought until now. Now that my father was teasing me about not having been fed his lunch.

My partner looked confused. Whether because I was feeling a little unwell or because I thought his joke had crossed the line into ungrateful, I spoke up. I explained that he was complaining about me; ridiculing my poor performance.

My father’s eyes widened. “No! I ate. I made myself something. I just assumed J didn’t eat because I never saw him in the kitchen.”

I have a loving partner who cooks for me regularly, does the dishes without asking, folds both of our laundry. Growing up, my father would make dinner for us just as often as my mother would. These aren’t men who lazily fall back on misogynistic stereotypes. These men are our allies.

Neither of them is helpless. Far from it, my father is currently building the cabin we’re staying in. Yet I had been subconsciously guilting myself over not making him lunch in his own house, the one he literally knew inside and out.

I have always supported myself. I’m childless by choice. I hardly prescribe to the model of the doting housewife. Yet I constantly find myself trying to do-it-all. Or more often, my partner points out that I am once again attempting to do all the work. Even now I feel the need to excuse my behavior by explaining that I felt unwell.

The reductive idea of “having it all” has largely fallen out of fashion, yet women are still setting unattainable expectations for themselves. Instead of devoting half of one’s energy to each area of the work-life dilemma, they are consistently trying to give 100 percent to both. When overwhelmed, they are more likely to fault their own inability to complete the task then find its parameters unreasonable.

Some of this can be attributed to years of fighting to prove we’ve earned our place in the workforce. However, this doesn’t account for our control issues, and subsequent feelings of failure, in our personal lives. I had allowed my guilt over not making lunch for two grown men – a job that nobody had even asked of me, to make me defensive. And I’m not alone.

Many successful women struggle with feelings of inadequacy. It’s not that they fear they are imposters. Running a business makes one secure in their decisions. It is a nagging belief pushing them to enhance productivity, goading them to do more than their fair share. No matter how capable one is, no matter how much they cross off their list, there is a sense that they have not lived up to the ideal. They aren’t reading a book a week. They missed a day in their gratitude journal. They can’t get their eating under control. They still haven’t started a Roth IRA. For mothers, it may be worse.

How did a generation empowered by a vocal (if imperfect) feminism get here? My mother certainly wasn’t the only mother I knew working outside the home. But she wasn’t exactly a role model either. Our house wasn’t like the ones I grew up wanting to emulate. After grade school, there was cleaning and laundry and bathing and feeding toddlers. We babysat and helped process orders and worked at the store on weekends. And none of this did anything to slow the inevitable implosion that would eventually result in divvying up weekends and holidays.

Like generations before us, we were told our lives would be better. We believed it. A college education and a career and a family, however we chose to define one, would be ours. Our partners would be invested and engaged. But we were following the wrong blueprint.

The perfectly constructed lives of our television heroines were no less flawed, just less obviously so. It’s easy to reject a standard in which a mother slaves over a stove all day while the man of the house drinks in front of the television. Unappreciated, the servile woman is a pitiable figure. Love complicates the issue.

Though different in race, education, and socioeconomic status, Roseanne Connor and Claire Huxtable undeniably ruled their households. They had partners who loved them and respected their opinions. Yet I don’t remember Dan or Cliff being especially concerned with helping in the kitchen or managing the children’s affairs. After an easy day at the factory, or restaurant, or law firm, these women would simply continue their work at home, in the service of their families. I’m exhausted just watching 22 minutes of it.

When taken literally, these lessons create a precarious image of attainable womanhood. They mask antiquated ideals of perfection beneath the guise of empowerment. It is unrealistic to model life after fictional characters, and yet knowing that does not make their examples any less ingrained.

With men stepping up into their roles as allies and partners it’s time for women to do some stepping up of our own. We need to recognize where our own prejudices lay and stop habitually doing it all. Stop trying to prove that we’re enough. We can’t possibly all be the failures we sometimes believe ourselves to be.

An apology is an admittance of guilt. If we are seeking equality, then our actions can’t convey that we are less than. We would never tolerate our sisters and daughters and friends being taken advantage of. It’s time to start valuing ourselves.

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