We all know that feeling. It’s that pang or sinking feeling you get in the pit of your stomach which usually hits you during an activity that serves you and you alone. That little voice whispering something along the lines of “you’re a shit mother/wife/partner/employee/human for doing something THIS selfish.”
For some reason, many of us have terrible trouble in pursuing something that satisfies our individual interests outside our social roles as mothers, partners, daughters, wives (etc) without having some guilt about doing it. This guilt seems to be amplified as soon as the task at hand requires us to spend time away from our family, friends, partners or jobs. It is almost like the minute we direct our energy away from contributing towards some greater collective good in order to serve our individual wellbeing, we feel we a transgressing some sacred boundary and immense guilt kicks in.
I come from a long line of women whose potential was limited thanks to this sacred boundary and a few other social ones which were prominent at the time. My Grandmother had a brilliant intellect. She was worldly, wise, and incredibly knowledgeable about astronomy and world affairs. When she was growing up, she wanted to be a Doctor, but in her day women did not pursue education, let alone a career. When my mother was at school, the going deal was that girls finished Year 10 then went off to get a job and get married; only boys went to University.
These limitations and boundaries were not lost on my sister nor myself, and we pursued the intellectual paths our former generations were prevented from travelling. But the conversation we didn’t get to have was navigating the pursuit of our potential beyond education and career, and maintaining our identities beyond being a mother, wife and employee. I am sure this is a familiar story with many women my age – we have been given the drive to achieve what our former generations dreamt of but were limited in achieving in education or the workplace, but when it comes to pursuing our identities beyond the socially constructed roles we are prescribed, we get a bit lost, and our go-to feeling seems to be guilt.
Many female endurance athletes I work with spend a great deal of energy wranging with guilt over the time they dedicate to training and preparing for their races or events. They feel like through pursuing a deep-seeded goal of their own they are doing a disservice to their partners and/or their children and their relationships. Some of these women develop the ability to work through this guilt, and some feel it pang every time they clip up their helmet, put on their runners, or say “sorry I can’t take you there at that time, I have a training session on.” Some of us compensate by training at ungodly hours so that by the time our children are awake we are done – in fact as I write this, there are probably thousands of women around the world sitting on a bike trainer in their garage getting a session in before bed or before sunrise.
But what would happen if we simply owned our pursuits and training without the guilt? If we boldly admitted that in order to prepare for our 50km ultramarathon, our housework may need to take a backseat for a little while, and felt no guilt about it? What if we simply stated to our children and our partners that ‘in order for me to be a great mum/wife/partner, I need to be a great ‘me’ first’?
For me personally, I don’t tolerate mother guilt or wife guilt in my thought-stream, because I believe wholeheartedly in the above statement – I am a great mum and partner when I am a great ‘me’. I am at my best when I am actively pursuing my potential in some way or another, be it through sport or learning. If I let Mother Guilt prevent me from doing something which serves my wellbeing then resentment and frustration will be very close on my radar, and I choose not to spend my energy on those emotions, especially if their arrival is my doing. Sure, there are times where you something has to give and priorities shift, but this decision to shift does not have to be driven by guilt – it can be on our terms.
There is another line of thought as to why we need to give these forms of guilt the heave-ho when they compromise our ability to pursue something for ourselves – because we are setting a precedent for our children when they become parents. By being firm in saying to our families and friends “I am a mother/wife/partner, but I am also Leah, who loves to run, read books about sport and compete in triathlons”, we are helping our children appreciate that we are not JUST mums, and we are reminding our partners that we have individual identities within our partnerships – and that this is all OK.
Here is where I admit my television viewing tendencies without shame – I love watching The Great British Bake Off. Don’t ask me why, because I actually don’t know, but there’s a chance it has something to do with a love of cake, biscuits and bread. The winner of the 2105 series was a young mum named Nadiya Hussain. In her winning interview, she made a statement that has stuck with me since watching it:
“I am never ever going to place boundaries on myself again. I am never going to say I can’t do it. I’m never going to say maybe. I’m never going to say I don’t think I can. I can, and I will.”
One of the main boundaries Nadiya was referring to was the one she placed on herself as a mother. Being away from her sons, leaving them in the care of their (very willing) father and applying her time and energy to a pursuit that reflected her personal passions, interests and explored her potential, was a burden she carried with her throughout the entire series. It took winning for her to realise that it didn’t have to be this way and this was not a burden she needed to carry any more.
Be it baking, climbing, hiking, adventuring, or simply taking a few hours out of our week to nurture our souls, I think we can all take something out of Nadiya’s revelation and realisation of our worth to pursue our individual interests beyond our families. So let us say it together:
Let’s never ever allow guilt to place boundaries on ourselves again. Let’s not say we can’t do it because we feel selfish doing so. Let’s stop saying maybe, or thinking we can’t because we are afraid of placing our dreams and aspirations as a priority. We can, we will, and we should – with heads held high and without a skerrick of guilt.