Have you ever struggled through female guilt as a mom, wife, daughter or friend? (Friend guilt? If you’re not sure what this means, keep reading!) It’s hard for me not to feel guilty when someone I love is struggling, unhappy or facing adversity. For example, as a military spouse I always felt guilty having a good time, vacationing or enjoying myself while my husband was away from home… serving our country and working to provide for our family.
My husband and I made a conscious decision as a young military couple (almost 25 years ago) that I would stay home and raise the kids while he deployed for long periods of time overseas. In our first 5 years of marriage – after having our first two babies – he was gone a lot! If I were to add up all of the trainings, detachments and deployments, he was gone a total of 3 ½ years out of our first 5 years together! With all of that transition and instability, we chose to have me be the one part of our family structure that was stable, constant and unchanging for our children. Although I tried to continue to write and to teach college writing, it became more difficult to work around the expanding needs of my babies with my husband gone so much.
In our first 15 years of marriage, we didn’t have to worry about social media – there was none! We didn’t have cell phones either! My husband called when he could from a pay phone in a foreign port whenever his aircraft carrier would dock in a distant land. He had no idea that one of our babies was having night terrors or that I was desperate for the baby to sleep… so I often missed his calls while I was walking a young child in a stroller or driving around the island where we were stationed, as I prayed the baby would take a brief nap. It was always so agonizing for me to arrive home to a missed call and a loving voice message from my husband on our answering machine. As sad as I was to miss talking with him, the sadness in his voice always seemed greater. It didn’t take long for me to see how painful it was for my husband to leave us each and every single time. It’s never easy for a family man to be away from his family. And I have worn his pain through the years on my own heart.
In the era of social media, that awareness – and my hypersensitivity to it – has multiplied exponentially. When I am hurting, I see in front of me others who are celebrating. When I am lonely, I see in front of me others who are having fun with friends. When I feel a void in my life, I see others who appear whole and happy and fulfilled. Social media is a liar. A big fat liar. It can often make us feel worse about our situations. It can often exaggerate or magnify what we may already be feeling. Hurt. Pain. Loneliness. And we all know that plenty of people don’t share their pain and hurt for the world to see? I know I don’t. Sometimes I need a break from bad days – I don’t want to talk about them! Am I right? Have you noticed this too?
The years BFB (before Facebook) were easier on my mindset. If I took the family to the beach or a movie or to Disneyland, the photos didn’t stream from our smart phones to my husband’s eyes overseas. And while I struggled with this mindset BFB, I have to admit that the last 8 years AFB (after Facebook) have been even harder.
I always felt… heck I still often feel… that if my husband is struggling with a bad day, missing home and family, alone on a holiday, then I should struggle too. We should all struggle. The entire family should struggle.
My husband has missed more than his fair share of holidays, birthdays and vacations. In fact, as these special days approach, my focus shifts. I’m almost embarrassed to share this, but I automatically start thinking how can I down play each event. How can I do less? How can I absorb some of my husband’s pain? How can I – how can WE as a family – absorb some of his pain? How can we struggle too? If he is giving up time at home, shouldn’t we give up something too?
Thanksgiving is always a challenge. The holiday in and of itself represents family gatherings and feast and fun. It’s also the holiday my husband misses consistently, year after year. I specifically recall Thanksgiving 2012… a year when my husband was away. I decided after having my husband home for several years in a row that if he was going to be gone, I just wouldn’t cook… we would dine out instead. I wouldn’t have a traditional feast without him. I made the decision for myself and my 3 kids without any input from them. I now look back at what was a horrible Thanksgiving Day. Another year, I chose to make a turkey breast in a crockpot. While I love crockpot meals, it just doesn’t scream “Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving”. It was just another year. It was just another disappointing holiday. And I’ve continued to repeat this pattern.
All of this though? It was self-imposed. (caps?) All of it. All of my thoughts. All of my actions. I see that now. I can look in my rearview mirror and see that things were larger than they appeared – even distorted perhaps?
I’ve had a huge blind spot in my thinking and in my mindset. And I’ve repeated this pattern over the years. And it wasn’t until this summer that I realized I was subconsciously doing this. It just hit me one night! After almost endless rain for 2 weeks straight, I finally told my kids we were heading out on the first sunny day to enjoy a minor league baseball game. While sitting in the stands and smiling, my husband called us via video chat and the guilt came flushing suddenly into my face and into my heart. The kids and I were smiling and having fun. “Have a good time…” he said as his words hung into the humid night air as we swatted at moths as big as the baseballs. My guilt occupied my brain for the rest of the evening.
By morning, that same guilt had amplified after a morning call with my husband to get the details on less than stellar working conditions he was under. And when he asked me about my plans for my Sunday afternoon, I felt an uncomfortable twinge in my gut when I shared that a new friend wanted to meet me for afternoon coffee. GUILT. That word alone fills too much space in my head… and in my heart. What do you think? Have you ever felt the ache of guilt for being happy or having fun?
I think this kind of guilt may be fairly common but I never hear people talk about it. Why don’t we share the things that are the hardest in our struggle as women? Why don’t we share the things that bring us so much conflict and pain and heavy hearts? Not to diminish any aspect of survivor’s guilt, but I feel as if “female guilt” is related – maybe a distant cousin of survivor’s guilt? Perhaps it’s a tangential force that we are all trying hard to navigate? I forced myself to break down what my guilt looks like so I could identify it better. This is what I came up with. I was shocked to see how deeply this was resonating with me. Have you ever felt any of these things?
- Daughter guilt
- For living too far away from my parents to help with medical appointments, living situations and chores.
- Mom guilt
- Am I doing enough, being enough, empowering my three kids to make good choices without making their choices for them?
- Am I doing enough to be a strong female with zero body or beauty shaming or female judgement as I set an example for my daughter?
- Sister guilt
- For living too far away to help with the daughter guilt (see item 1 above).
- Wife guilt
- Am I being the best wife I can be and spending enough time nurturing our growing relationship over the years, despite adversity, time apart and setbacks that we also manage?
- Friend guilt (A)
- For not seeing friends when I travel home to see my family in California because honestly, I’m also trying to balance and overcompensate for items 1, 2 and 3 above, as well.
- Friend guilt (B)
- Because they are grieving the loss of a job, a parent, a child, a pet – at a time when I’m not grieving the same loss as them – or because I am at a different stage of my journey with grief.
So how do we move out of these ruts? How do we get past the guilt? How do we change our mindset? How do we continue to grow and thrive and work on ourselves to continue to refine who we are? I’m always trying to be better – to do better. I’m always trying to evaluate what I’m doing to see if there’s a better way. Whether there’s a better way to organize my pantry, my shoes or organize my mind, I’m always looking for it! I’m ALWAYS working to be a better version of me. So, here’s what seems to work for me – maybe it’ll help you too?
#1 – I am sure I overthink this. Overthinking. It’s something I am really, really good at! I can take silence or lack of information and make it into something it isn’t! I can hear something in my husband’s voice and twist it into something it isn’t. So, the first thing that helps me is to just recognize what I’m doing – I’m overthinking!
WRITE IT DOWN
#2 – Secondly, it really helps me to write down my thoughts. I can do this with journaling or taking notes about how I’m feeling. I also gain clarity by chatting my thoughts via text or app messaging to a girlfriend. Once I put pen to paper, or see my words in front of me, I gain a clarity that makes more sense in writing that it did when it only existed in my thoughts or feelings. Does that make sense?
ACT ON IT
#3 – Third, none of this really matters if I don’t act on what I’ve learned. Once I identify my mindset and realize what I’m doing, I must make a change in my actions. It’s really unfair for me to portray my own self-imposed guilt upon my three kids. It’s unfair for me to take away any joy they would have from a Thanksgiving feast that I lovingly prepare for them. It’s unfair for me to ask them to only enjoy family events at certain times of the year when both their father and I are home. So, I need to show up better for them… because they deserve it! But honestly, don’t I deserve it too? To show up better for me too? ABSOLUTELY I DO!
I’m keeping it real here, cause that’s how I roll! It does no good for me to share all of this if I’m not trying to do better myself! Here’s what I did this week! My oldest son turned 22 this month. In past years, I would have waited for our entire family of 5 to be together so that no one felt left out. I would have waited for all 5 of us to be together to celebrate. But I changed my mindset. Instead of waiting, we went out to dinner – just the 4 of us! Seriously, this is a big deal for me! We had a great birthday dinner at the Olive Garden and we enjoyed the conversation! It was liberating for me to change the pattern! I loved looking at the faces of my family and knowing that they were enjoying the evening too… knowing we were all being mindful and living in the moment. When my husband returns, he will take our son out for a second birthday celebration and they will have their own celebration together.
So how do you manage guilt? Do you let it control your actions like I have done, regretfully for too long? Or do you have some great tips you would like to share with how you keep moving and control your mindset? What do you do for yourself to become the best version of yourself that you can be? I would love to hear your thoughts, your experiences and your suggestions? Please drop me a comment below so we can help more women figure out how to navigate female guilt!
xoxo ~ Sheri