The Hidden Shame of Overgiving

Why do women downplay or hide their sacrifices for others?

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You don’t know these women, but their stories may sound familiar:

The overscheduled businesswoman who regularly drops everything to transport her ailing mother to the hospital because she can’t depend on her single, jobless brother to do it. The media executive who allows her unemployed ex to live rent-free in their home a year after they’ve separated — while she pays the bills and confesses to friends, “I worry what will happen to him if I stop.” The countless women spa visitors whose first words to the fitness instructor leading their introductory hike are, “I feel so guilty for leaving my husband alone.” (The typical male visitor’s first statement, according to the instructor: “I deserve this.”)

Each of these smart, successful women would forfeit her 401K before publicly admitting her actions. Only her closest friends know how often she wonders, Why do I give so much? I met them all while writing Brothers (and Me): a Memoir of Loving and Giving, which explores how I — a twice-married sister of three brothers and mother of three sons — became an unconscious giver to others, especially to men. I knew I wasn’t alone in at times offering too much. Yet it wasn’t until I revealed my book’s subject to dozens of outwardly independent women of varying ages, cultural affiliations and incomes, and listened to their anguished confessions of overgiving, that I learned how common this impulse is among women. And how hidden.

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Women today cherish their hard-won equality with men in their jobs and relationships — and fiercely protect it. Is it any wonder so many of us are reluctant to admit how sensitive we can be to the needs of our children, friends and relatives — and especially of our husbands, lovers, sons, brothers and male co-workers? Proud of our autonomy, we see ourselves as tougher and more self-determining than our accommodating foremothers. So we hide or downplay our giving, treating it like a secret vice that we admit only to intimates — usually women — too close to us or too baffled by their own generosity to hold it against us.

Isn’t it ironic? For centuries, women’s generous giving wasn’t just encouraged — it was expected. Back then, it was our intellect, drive and talent for endeavors outside the home that we had to hide or deemphasize. Now women conceal the magnanimity that feels natural to them. We’ve seen how that generosity can backfire, compromising even accomplished women. We cringe at female friends who can’t stop giving solace, money or sex to lovers who clearly don’t deserve them, at moms who coddle manipulative kids who we suspect are taking advantage of them. We feel an uneasy mix of empathy and disdain for political wives who emerge from the shadows to support misbehaving spouses when their dalliances are revealed. Most recently Gloria Cain was dragged into the spotlight to insist that the mate accused of serial sexual harassment “totally respects women,” days before he was accused of having a 13-year affair. Is it any wonder we’re relieved to hear that Anne Sinclair, long-suffering wife of disgraced ex-IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, has finally dumped him following his umpteenth sex scandal? Knowing nothing about these women’s marriages, we can only speculate: What would I do in her shoes? If we’re honest, we admit we’re not sure. But who wants to appear to be a doormat?

Certainly, some women who express “I can’t believe I did that,” chagrin over giving too much should be abashed for ignoring their values and squandering their efforts on unworthy recipients. Yet many women’s sacrifices make sense. We offer our help because no one else will, because it’s the right thing to do or because our situations, personalities or personal histories tell us we must.

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My own giving is inextricably linked to the decades-ago death of my brother Darrell. I was in graduate school when I learned that my warm, sensitive brother — my hero — had been shot under suspicious circumstances by hometown police. I knew Darrell’s slaying deeply affected me. Yet it wasn’t until 30 years later, after doing the digging necessary to write a memoir, that I understood how his loss exacerbated my desire to support and protect every man in my life.

Understanding helps me to forgive and control an impulse that both empowers and frustrates me. The more I talk to other similarly confused women, the more I see how many of us conceal and disparage the generosity that eases others’ burdens and enriches the world — and us. “Wouldn’t it be great,” my friend Mireille asks, “if women stopped feeling bad about the giving that’s fundamental to us? Stopped feeling illegitimate about what we legitimately are?” What many of us are is givers. Hiding it won’t alter our essence. In this season of giving, I’d like women to give themselves a break, acknowledging not just their appropriate offerings but the ill-advised ones, too. Maybe they’ll begin to forgive themselves for them.

And do a better job of reining them in.