Women Writers and Guilt: We Have to Learn to Let It Go

June 14, 2014 | By | 20 Replies More

 imagesGloria Steinem once said, “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”

Her words ring true for many of us writers. On my best days – the days when I’m in the zone and the words are flying through me and onto the page effortlessly, one after the other – it’s certainly true for me. On those days, I feel weightless, invincible. I glow with the knowledge that this, writing, is what I was meant to do. That it is the one thing I was born to do.

The problem comes, as problems do, on the “other” days.

On “other” days, the words don’t come quickly, without effort. They come slowly, one here, one there, like hardened honey, if they come at all. On those days, I don’t see myself in Steinem’s words. I don’t feel weightless. I don’t feel free.

On those days, I don’t feel anything but guilt.

Guilt that when I’m writing, I’m not making dinner for my family. Guilt that when I’m writing, I’m not playing legos with my son or painting my daughter’s toenails. Guilt that the living room is scattered with toys, the dishes are piling up, I haven’t washed the sheets in two weeks, and I can’t remember the last time I cleaned the bathroom. Guilt that I’m not spending time with my husband. Guilt because I know my writing time takes me away from my family and outside of the role society tells women we’re supposed to play.

Finding Happiness with Migraines: A Do It Yourself Guide by Sarah Hackley

Finding Happiness with Migraines: A Do It Yourself Guide by Sarah Hackley

On “other” days, when the words don’t come, guilt comes instead, howling that I am failing my family by holing up in my office writing. Asking: “Who are you to think you are so special that your words to the world are more important than your house? Than your family?” Screaming: “Stop! Stop! Stop! Go do ___ instead.”

The worst part is: sometimes I listen. Sometimes I cave into the guilt trip in my head, and I put down my pen, push away my keyboard, and go to work on other things. At those moments, however, I know I’ve made a mistake.

By giving into the guilt, I’ve given into my insecurities, insecurities that claim I have no right to life as a woman writer. That women shouldn’t be writers. That the roles writer and woman are inherently at odds, because the role of the woman can never mesh with the life of the writer.

This is absurd of course. Women have always written. Women have always been writers, and women writing the truth about the world is one of the ways in which we have always changed it.

But, when the words don’t come and the obligations won’t stop, it can be close to impossible to remember this.

Thankfully, the writer in me won’t stay silenced for long. I may be able to skip a day here or a day there, but the writer in me quickly starts screaming to get back to work. And, if I listen, the words eventually come, haltingly at first, then faster and faster. Before I know it, they’re streaming across the page, lighting my fingertips and my soul on fire. Then, once again, I am blessed to know exactly what Steinem meant.

If you struggle with guilt about writing, consider taking one of the following steps to overcome it:

  • Approach your guilt and your fears head on. Free write about what you think you’re losing or forcing others to lose when you focus on your writing. Are your fears real or are they based more on what you feel your life “should” look like rather than on how you want it to look?
  • Talk to your spouse or your loved ones about your feelings. Often our families are willing to be far more supportive of us than we believe, but we’ll never know that if we don’t give them the opportunity to tell us.
  • Prioritize your writer self and your writing time by following the advice in “Nourishing the Self by Finding the Time to Write.”
  • Read and network with other women writers. Guilt over working and frustration in blending our separate selves together are feelings most women have experienced at one point or another. Simply knowing we’re not alone can help us realize we’re being far too hard on ourselves.

Sarah Hackley is the author of “Finding Happiness with Migraines: A Do-It-Yourself Guide” and the online blog The Migraine Chronicles. She also is a regular contributor for Migraine.com and was a featured writer in the women’s studies bestseller “Women Will Save the World.” An editor, ghostwriter, mother, and poet, she also blogs about books, writing, publishing, politics, personal finance, chronic illness, motherhood, domestic violence, women’s issues, and law at www.sarahhackley.com.

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Category: Contemporary Women Writers, How To and Tips

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  1. Women Writers and Guilt, by Sarah Hackley | The Gloria Sirens | July 5, 2014
  1. Sela Gaglia says:

    I must admit, in order to write I allow my sons more video game playing time and processed snack food eating than I do at any other time, but I also think that the guilt I nudge to the back of my mind so I can tap away at the keyboard can also be a gift. After I’ve allowed myself to get some solid work done and I peel myself from my monitor and snatch my kids from their game consoles, I’m all the more likely to be REALLY present with them. On the other hand, when I’m physically with them, but my mind is working out a plot line they’re not getting the best of me. One thing I’ve learned over the past 15 years of parenting: I’ll mess up. They’ll forgive me (after due penance). I’ll try it a different way until I get it right. They know I love them/

    AND: being raised by a phenomenal mom, who wears guilt like a badge of honor, it’s not so much fun watching your mom torn up over things you think are your fault (whether they are or aren’t).

    So, I say, set every one free and write on, mama.

  2. This article taps into a dilemma I think many people assume is somehow behind us now. That somehow, subsequent to women’s lib, societal and social pressures to be perfect wives and mothers just vanished, and that we ought to be able to swiftly and easily shut out those feelings of guilt, those voices telling us to comply or compromise ourselves to the greater good of spousal or family support, etc.

    I often find myself in a strange and disheartening “catch 22” of guilt. It begins with guilt for feeling I ought to be taking care of family needs rather than focusing on my own – and then cycles into guilt for feeling that way, even though we have been “liberated.” Circular thinking at its finest. 🙂 I think it’s important to remember that truly healing and altering such long standing societal belief systems takes generations. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Your suggestions are a wonderful way to continue the fight.

  3. Zainub Dala says:

    A truth-telling fantastic read. Thank you. I find that apart from the time taken away from my kids(6years, and 2 years old), and the house and kitchen in a state of chaos…it is the time I spend inside my head that I feel most guilty about. I’m physically present for the tasks that make me a woman and a mother, but my mind is always on writing and publicising my work. This mindlessness is noticed by my husband and kids who steer clear of me when I go into my own vacant stares and detach from them. It is tough. Very tough. But I do it anyway. And yes, the guilt is strong.

  4. Laura says:

    I enjoyed reading this so much because it helped me realize that we are not alone! I have been consistently practicing the awareness that allows me to recognize the “guilt” voice in my head. I call her Martha. When I hear Martha talking, I take a breath, recognize and thank her for her concern, then shut her down and keep writing.

  5. OMG, this was on my mind all day. The house is a disaster, we eat microwaved dinners most nights, dirty laundry is piling up on the floor. SO MUCH GUILT. And yes, even when I am not writing, my mind is on my craft. My daughter is 18 months… too young to shut the door and say “respect mommy’s work time” – so I try to work during her naps. Which means nothing else gets done. Nothing.
    Thank you for sharing.

    • I hear you. My son is almost 21 months old, and I’m still squeezing most of my work hours into his 1.5-2 hour nap. There’s only so much time in a day. Kudos to you for prioritizing yourself over the house. 🙂

  6. Ah yes the guilt, but not just for the time I spend writing. When I’m working on a particular piece, my mind isn’t always on the people around me, and that can be tough too. I feel selfish almost, but I have found that when I set parameters about my work, and am consistent about claiming that time, the folks around me respect it. My kids are teenagers, and soon I’ll be feeling guilty about spending as much time as possible with my daughter before she goes to college next year. It never stops! Great post.

    • Ellen,

      Yes, I know too well the there-but-absent feeling that often accompanies a work in progress. It’s living in two places at once! Thank you for your addition to the thread and for reading. 🙂

      Warm regards,


  7. Cairenn Rhys says:

    Writing is a craft, as well as a creative impulse of the heart. For so many writers, their writing is still being viewed as a silly hobby or not taken seriously by family members and friends. It can be difficult enough just finding the balance within ourselves to write (and to write well!) – let alone adding what others may feel about it and our daily obligations (day job, children, spouse, etc.) Sometimes we will stumble off the writer’s road – and it’s ok.

  8. Amy Mackin says:

    I totally relate. I didn’t write when my daughter was small; I spent most of my days playing/teaching with her. Now that she’s a teenager, she’s not every interested in talking to me/spending time with me, so I’m grateful I had that time with her. However, I have been writing as my youngest has grown from preschooler to elementary age, and I now know very well the time I’m missing with him. It’s such a difficult balance, and the guilt is always there. However, I like to think that, because of the guilt, I’m more productive with my time, understanding so clearly what the trade-off is and not wanting to waste a second.

    • I agree, Amy. I can get more done these days in a couple of hours than I used to get in 12, but I sure miss the unstructured moments. I think those are essential for creativity, and I’m doing my best to build them in now that my son is no longer an infant and my daughter is entering middle school. 🙂

  9. katie says:

    Great to read this, I’m always feeling guilty for wanting to sit and write instead of housework or playing lego with my son or a hundred other things! I shall take your advice 🙂

  10. Louisa says:

    Thank you for this post; it’s good to know I’m not the only one! I also like the idea of posting a sign on the door! 🙂

  11. Anika says:

    Great post. There’s so much guilt being a mother to begin with, always wondering if we’re doing enough. Not doing the laundry or sweeping the floor = laziness, even if we’ve been writing!
    I try to fight this by being clear with my family that writing time is work time and should get the same respect as a job outside the house. I even have a sign to hang on my door: “I have no idea what I’m doing, but to do it, I need QUIET!”
    The kids don’t always oblige, but at least the message gets across.:-)

    • Oh, yes, the guilt of motherhood. We’re much, much too hard on ourselves, especially when we’re also writers. I love the idea of a sign. That’s a great idea for kids who are old enough to read.

      Thank you for reading.

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