THE BLOG
01/08/2015 12:30 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2015

When You Are Hard-Wired for Guilt

stephaniesprenger.com

It was New Year's Day, and I stumbled down the stairs at 9:45 a.m., a highly irregular time for me -- a 36-year-old mother of two young girls -- to wake up for the day. However, the previous night had been a little bit more festive than usual, and I was grateful for the extra sleep. As I sat down at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and my iPhone, I noticed that my husband was busy unloading the dishwasher and re-organizing a cupboard. A wave of guilt washed over me. I'd slept later than he had by a good hour, yet I had no intention of getting up to help him.

And then I remembered that I'd spent a good three hours cleaning the house the day before. I wasn't a slacker. I had done my share, pulled my weight, been the sole entertainment for my children during the dregs of holiday break. It was perfectly acceptable for me to remain seated with my coffee.

Here's the thing: I think it's pretty ridiculous that I have to mentally coach myself every time I feel these familiar surges of guilt. I'm no martyr, and more often than not I resist the urge to jump up and "be productive." As a staunch advocate of me-time for moms, preserving the non-parental identity, and pursuing balance, I firmly believe that moms -- myself included -- are allowed time to themselves. So I stay seated. I don't always help. I remind myself that I do plenty, that I am enough, that I deserve a break. But every single freaking time, I have to push back that rush of guilt and fight my way back to blessed inertia. Plainly stated, I feel the guilt... and do it anyway. It being, well, nothing.

When I try to get to the bottom of this hard-wired recurring guilt trip, I find it comes down to one bothersome word: should. I have to fight extremely hard to overcome the chatter in my mind that tells me -- no matter what I'm doing -- that I should be doing something else. Sitting down to watch TV with the kids? I should be putting laundry away. Washing the dishes? I should be spending time with my kids. Reading a novel? I should be working. Working? I should be cleaning. It's maddening, exhausting and sadly, I suspect not all that uncommon an experience for many other women.

Nearly a year ago, I started jotting down this nebulous list of "shoulds." On any given day, here are some thoughts that might be swirling around my brain, my dry-erase board, and my to-do list:
  • I need to make an orthodontist consultation for my oldest child.
  • The kids need haircuts.
  • I am behind on my continuing education credits.
  • We should really consider eating more "whole foods" and fewer "processed foods."
  • It's time to pay our car insurance bill.
  • We need to sign up for swim lessons again.
  • And maybe Spanish. Shouldn't the kids be speaking Spanish?
  • I need to have a talk with my third grader about Internet predators and safety: someday. 
  • The kids aren't supposed to watch so much TV.
  • But how else am I supposed to get dinner ready? Or the house picked up?
  • I need to put the laundry away.
  • We should start shopping for a better trash removal company.
  • Should we ditch the cable and just use Netflix? What about Hulu? What exactly is Apple TV, anyway?
  • I haven't volunteered in my daughter's classroom all year.
  • My 2-year-old doesn't know all her colors.
  • It's time to make pediatrician appointments.
  • Where should we have the girls' birthday parties this year?
  • I won't get paid until Friday and we're almost out of money.
  • We need to get a sitter for next weekend.
  • I haven't had dinner with my girlfriend in weeks.
  • My toddler hasn't had a playdate in months.
  • Remember to start a food journal.
  • Don't forget to make time for lots of sex!
  • I need a massage.
  • Should we do summer camp this year?
  • What if our house isn't insulated well enough?
  • It's time to get an oil change.
  • We need to start looking for a piano teacher.
  • Should we be thinking about getting Master's Degrees?
  • I'm eating too much chocolate.
  • Why am I so tired? Should I be taking supplements?
  • We're out of dishwasher detergent.
  • We should take another look at our retirement portfolio.
  • Should my toddler start dance class this year?
  • I need to try a freaking Zumba class sometime.
  • Because, ten extra pounds.
  • It's time for an under-eye cream: which one is the best?
  • Maybe it's time to make a therapy appointment.
I recently finished reading Judith Warner's incredible book, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. It was written in 2005, and I have only just gotten around to reading it. When the book came out, I was only a mother in theory, but not yet in practice, as I was pregnant with my first child. I found out about the book after one of my favorite bloggers, Sarah of Left Brain Buddha, quoted it in one of her posts, and I've been intending to read it for over a year (another "should"-- that never-ending reading list!).

Warner addresses a state of affairs she refers to as "this mess;" as I read the preface of the book, titled "This Mess," I felt my heart pound and my eyes fill with tears of recognition at her description of this insane, overwhelming lifestyle so many of us have chosen. Warner writes, "...it's about a conviction I have that this feeling -- this wide-spread choking cocktail of guilt and anxiety and resentment and regret -- is poisoning motherhood for American women today."
She continues, writing, "The feeling has many faces, but it doesn't have a name. It's not depression. It's not oppression. It's a mix of things, a kind of too-muchness. An existential discomfort." When I read those words, I thought, Yes. That is exactly what it is.

Sure, it's textbook "First World Problems" (OMG! Which chiropractor should I go to? Where do I get one of those new lunch boxes that everyone at my kid's school has? Should we try to pay off our minivan sooner?), but it's the world we live in, and the anxiety is very real. For me, guilt and anxiety have always gone hand-in-hand. Have we made any progress simplifying "this mess" since the book's publication? Or is it possible that the high-pressure, anxiety-provoking, mentally cluttered world of motherhood has descended to even deeper levels since then?

I suspect that thanks to my temperament as a Highly Sensitive Person and a borderline introvert (I'm technically an ENFJ, but the combination of intuitive-feeling can be very draining, and I also suspect that motherhood has brought out my inner introvert), I will always struggle with feeling overwhelmed by the world. Overwhelmed by a world that is steadily becoming noisier, busier, more crowded, more competitive, and more cluttered. I will likely always fight an unrealistically long to-do list and a voice in my head that whispers frantically that I should be doing more. That I should simply be more. I don't know how to make it stop; I never have.

Will I mellow with age? Maybe. Could regular meditation help quiet the pressure and mental clutter I experience? Perhaps, especially if I promoted it from the bottom of my priority list. Until I discover a way to tame the two-headed monster of guilt and anxiety, the best I can do is to keep my eyes open and be aware of it. When I hear the whispers, "You're not doing enough. You should be better," I will whisper back, "I hear you. And I'm doing just fine."

A version of this post originally appeared on Mommy, for Real. Connect with Stephanie on Facebook.