A Middle Aged Woman Laughs in the Face of the Guilties
By: Mary Fran Bontempo

I knew before I even got home that further action would be required.

In the basket of my bike lay three bracelets, newly purchased from one of my favorite Ocean City boutiques. Next to them was the remains of a breakfast pastry bought at a boardwalk coffee shop and in my hand, a cup of iced coffee rested as I pedaled along, indulging in the occasional slurp.

All in all, a pretty good start to a day: bike ride, food and jewelry. Almost perfect, in fact, but for the intangible that, uninvited, plopped itself into my basket, right next to the cranberry/pecan scone—a heaping helping of guilt.

It wasn’t that my purchases tallied up to a mortgage payment. Rather, the total tab equaled a whopping thirty-one dollars. (Yes, I buy cheap jewelry, thus justifying the proliferation of sparkly things under the “accessories” category in my wardrobe.)

Really, the attack of the guilties wasn’t brought on by anything legitimate, just that vague feeling I’ve carried with me since childhood that if anything felt too good for too long, I must be doing something wrong.

So, when I returned home, I carefully unpacked my sins, a.k.a. the jewelry and pastry, changed into old shorts, a ratty shirt and some sneakers, and marched out into the ninety degree heat to mow the lawn. With an electric mower, dragging the cord behind me. After, that is, I cleaned up the doggie droppings from the yard. (The dog, not having purchased any jewelry that day, gazed unsympathetically from her shaded spot on the grass.)

An hour later, sweaty, grimy and covered with grass clippings, I had a single thought: Well, that was really miserable; now I don’t feel so bad. I then returned to the house to steal a satisfying glance at my cheap baubles.

I’m not sure where my allotment of nagging, nibbling guilt had its origins, but I have my suspicions. Growing up as a Catholic, attending sixteen years of Catholic school (yes, a Catholic college), I swallowed guilt for breakfast, lunch and dinner, especially if I forgot and accidentally ate meat on a Friday in Lent.

Far be it from me to accuse the nuns who taught us of using guilt to keep us in line, but one could hardly blame them, especially when they found themselves standing in front of a classroom of seventy-two squirmy first-graders. Having raised (sort of) three kids of my own, I could forgive them utilizing steel cages and straight jackets, if they’d had them at their disposal.

That said, guilt came with the territory. We Catholic kids felt guilty about everything, from the aforementioned meat eating to pinning a broken lamp on a sibling and everything in between. (I once felt so guilty at having accidentally glanced at a classmate’s test answers that I intentionally wrote a wrong answer so I wouldn’t be accused of cheating. I’m not kidding.)

Our weekly treks to confession encouraged an accounting of every sin in order to relate them to the priest. “I disobeyed my mother ten times; I was mean to my sister six times; I lied four times” and so on. If you didn’t have an appropriate number of sins to recount, you were afraid the priest would accuse you of not “examining your conscience,” so you kept a running tally, supplementing with extra sins even if you didn’t remember committing them. Then, you could always tack on an extra lying sin to cover your exaggeration.

The passage of years didn’t diminish the guilt, but rather, nourished it. One Catholic friend, who constantly assumes that if something goes wrong at work it’s her mistake, tells her co-workers, “Listen, I was born with Original Sin. If something’s wrong, there’s a good chance I had something to do with it.”

As if being Catholic weren’t reason enough, throw in motherhood and watch the guilt factor increase exponentially. Motherhood is the one job we’re never good enough at, and our mistakes sit down to dinner with us every night. (Not that the kids themselves are mistakes—well, not most of them, that is.)

The point is, guilt is a constant companion. I’m either doing something wrong, neglecting someone or something, enjoying myself too much, etc., etc. If I’m not feeling guilty, I feel guilty that I’m not feeling guilty. The only way to insure that the guilt is kept in check? Keep the scale balanced. Equal doses of happiness and misery at the same time, hence the lawn mowing after the jewelry buying.

It’s not a perfect system, but I manage. Now if you’ll excuse me, I saw a cute pair of shoes advertised in the paper and I’d like to run to the store. That is, after I scrub the kitchen floor and give the dog a bath. Yeah, that ought to do it.

Have your own guilty indulgences?  Share!  Click “comments” below, in red!