How Come Men Don’t Suffer From Parenting Guilt?

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Unless you’ve been doing something truly virtuous over the past few weeks – building schools in South Sudan, perhaps – you’ll have noticed that guilt has been in the news a lot. Anthony Weiner’s weiner, DSK, Casey Anthony, Silvio Berlusconi, British tabloids… they’ve all been subjects of scrutiny, not least from the women of the world.

Why the women? Because women know from guilt. And it feels good when we’re able to discuss somebody else’s for a change.

Guilt is a mainstay of femalehood. We become acquainted with it in childhood, when our mothers lay it on thick like Jiffy on toast. Eventually, being mothers ourselves, we get it from our children. No wonder, then, that by middle age we’ve learned to pass it along with aplomb. You could say it’s guilt and not money that makes the world go ’round.

Nearly 40 years into my own femalehood, I’m finally coming to terms with the fact that my penchant for guilt is here to stay. At the same time, I’m also coming to terms with the fact that my husband has been, is and will remain entirely guilt-free. Aside from the obvious, really, guilt is what distinguishes men from women. All the power to those families choosing to raise their children without gender: it’ll come out eventually, when mom lays on her first guilt trip. If the kid falls for it, it’s a girl. If it carries on, oblivious, you know you’ve got yourself a boy. A boy will learn to say “No.” A girl will likely be really good at saying: “Well, maybe, yeah, okay.”

Food, love, career and mothers: those are the four major guilt groups. That sentiment was written by a woman, natch (one Cathy Guisewite, who wrote that seminal cartoon strip “Cathy,” about another one of us who knew from guilt). No wonder men found Cathy so grating (more grating, at least, than us women). They just didn’t get the guilt.

Since moving house last week I’ve found myself giving and getting more than my usual dose of the stuff: guilt for having replaced the children’s predictable lives with turmoil; guilt for having to work; guilt for not working enough; guilt for being irritable from the jet lag; guilt that my husband has deflected back on me, because he’s unable to feel it whatsoever.

He and I were to have swapped roles for a while, with him taking “family leave” and me working full-time to catch up on the work I missed moving house. Yet here I am at home, smothering our girls with affection to counteract the stress of the move and, simply, being a mom. Why? Because every time I head for the door my husband remembers something Very Important that just can’t wait. Barber appointment! Motorbike tune-up! Mystery meeting! Beers with the boys! And my favorite: Doing my taxes! In July.

And so we’ve had to call our sitter. Does it bother him that every moment he spends away from the kids is a moment they’re with her? Must I even ask?

For men like my husband, primary breadwinners whose routines were so mildly affected by fatherhood, I suppose every moment spent with the children is gravy. “Me” time is a right, as it has always been, and not a privilege. When they take the kids to the park, they’re heroes, and when they disappear into their man caves or set off for the office, they’re merely doing what is expected of them.

Which leaves me crying into my copy of Torn: True Stories of Kids, Career & the Conflict of Modern Motherhood, book of the month on The New York Times’s Motherlode blog.

Try as I might, I will always be Torn. I suppose I should be grateful I’m the only one in the family in pieces. Though with two girls it’s only a matter of time.

(Photo: iStockphoto)