Why do so many working mothers feel ‘mum guilt’? Sarah Lang wants to quit feeling that way, and asks: is the system rigged?
Working-mum guilt. If you don’t have children, but hope to one day, you may be reading this sentence thinking ‘nope, I totally won’t succumb to mum guilt down the line’. You may be thinking ‘I’m a feminist career woman who practises self-care, so it won’t happen to me’. That’s what I thought. I was wrong. My son’s eight and I still feel this way.
Asking around, I’ve found that very few working mums don’t experience mum guilt to some extent. Even if you logically reject the notion, guilt can creep in around the edges, often surfacing as the thought ‘I should be with my child right now’. That guilty feeling is more prevalent when a child goes to daycare – and often continues when a child goes to after-school care and/or school-holiday programmes.
Logically, I reject working-mum guilt as unwarranted and unnecessary. But my logical brain somehow gets overridden by this feeling of guilt when my son is in paid care. Sometimes that feeling is strong, sometimes less so, and sometimes it’s just an undercurrent.
I felt it more at the start. Should I have put him in care so soon? He was four months old, I write, racked with guilt, currently feeling the need to defend myself to you, reader: it was only a day a week. My mental health wasn’t great. I needed a day doing some work to remind myself I was the same person, and to get a break from groundhog day.
So I found an in-home carer. The administrator said ‘He’s the youngest baby in the Wellington region to ever be enrolled in our service?’. Oh hey, thanks for that pep talk.
Like most fathers, my husband works 9 til 5. He absolutely does his bit at home, but it made (and makes) more sense that I spend more time parenting. That’s because he earns more than me, because I’m self-employed so I don’t have to work 9-5, and because working part-time felt like a good balance for me.
So, from when my son was six months old until he turned five, he had Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at a daycare centre, and Tuesdays and Thursdays with me. Yes, I know that the ability to work part-time and flexible hours was a luxury. Many mothers have to return to their full-time jobs within months. Other mothers want a (paid) job but can’t afford daycare.
Being self-employed is great. But because I technically chose my hours, I felt a pressure to ‘balance’ things. Sometimes deadlines meant my son went to daycare four days a week, and I’d feel guilty.
I would then remind myself that, for most of human history, children were raised communally, not by one person silo-ed in a house. I’d remind myself that, especially because our son has no siblings, daycare gave him the chance to make friends, socialise and share. Their themed activities, learning about different topics and cultures, were super cool. And, via an app, the early-childhood teachers shared photos of, and comments about, the children engaging, learning, having fun. So why did I still feel guilty? It’d stop when he went to school, right?
Well, just a bit.
I’m in a privileged position to be able to #workschoolhours. I pick him up, walk home, catch my breath, have a cup of tea, play with him, start dinner etc. For two weeks out of eight, when two deadlines collide, I book him into after-school care.
It’s currently school holidays, so my son’s at holiday programme three days a week. He’s off to swimming, Te Papa, mini-golf, the zoo – and he loves it. And I love my work! So why aren’t I immune to working-mum guilt by now?
Is The System Rigged?
Anecdotally, ‘dad guilt’ is far rarer than mum guilt. That’s partly because it’s not normalised for men to be stay-at-home dads, to work school hours, to take days off during school holidays, even to do school pick-ups once a week. I’m not saying ‘dad guilt’ should be a thing, but if the load was shared between parents more, might working-mum guilt abate a little?
Also, when you think about it, it’s crazy that school hours (9 to 3) are out of sync with work days (9 to 5). It’s crazy that school summer holidays don’t end til February. This ‘schedule’ worked better 100 years ago when most women were home with the child(ren). But now that many mothers do paid work, this structure feels rigged – or at least not fit for purpose.
The current system sees mums rushing from work to do school pick-ups – often expected to make up the hours later, and/or feel immensely grateful for the privilege of leaving early. Or they book after-school care and, after pick-up, may not get home til after 6pm. I’m not saying kids should be at school 9 to 5. I’m saying parents should be able to work 9 to 3 if they deliver the same outputs.
I strongly believe a mother should do whatever works best for her (should she be in a financial position to make that choice) – and that that will have a positive ripple effect for her family. Mothers who work 9 to 5 shouldn’t feel guilty. Mothers who don’t use daycare shouldn’t feel guilty. Same with mothers working part-time. So why do many mothers still feel guilty?
My theory: mum guilt is a sort of evolutionary response that has passed its used-by date. Back in hunter-gatherer days, children were raised more communally – but they generally weren’t far, distance-wise, from their mothers. Now, although they trust paid carers, some mums experience a visceral feeling that their child(ren) should be within a certain physical distance from them, rather than, say, half an hour’s drive. Generally there’s less mum guilt if a grandparent or another family member is caring for your child that day, because that’s considered family bonding not a commercial transaction.
What Else Can Lead To Mum Guilt?
Dr Ellen Kolomeyer, a clinical psychologist certified in perinatal mental health, explains that mum guilt “stems from worries about all the ‘shoulds’ parents are bombarded with and anxiety about making all the best parenting choices,” particularly when it comes to mums. She adds that “we’re constantly being given messages about what we ‘should’ be doing or what choices we ‘should’ be making” from social comparisons, other parents, parenting experts, parenting blogs and podcasts, and social media. Putting your child in daycare can trigger this guilt. “Learning to manage parenting guilt can help you live a meaningful life,” Kolomeyer says.
Who knew there’s a website, blog, resource provider and online community called Working Moms Against Guilt? Set up by four working mothers, the U.S-based site states that “Working Moms Against Guilt serves as an outlet and resource for moms all over the world who battle guilt at the office”.
As Christie Gibson writes in an article for the site, “I remember that day. The first time I left my son at daycare. Gaaaahhhhh. It was awful. Excruciatingly painful. I cried. My hands were glued to his camo onesie, not wanting to let him stay with this lady who would get to have eight hours of his life that I would miss out on. Whhhhyyyyy? To work? My mommy guilt was SO intense. No one could ever care for him like his mommie. I didn’t want to miss any smiles or laughs… He was my baby. Guess what? He’s still my baby. Going back to work didn’t change that. All those anxieties? Ridiculous. Putting your child in daycare so you can go back to work is not a sin.”
Amen. Whatever a mother chooses – fulltime paid work, part-time paid work, or fulltime caregiving – let’s support each other.
Reframing The Idea Of Mum Guilt
Elizabeth McGrory, a ‘working mom coach’, public speaker, and author of the book Igniting Mommy Energy, has written the article ‘5 Ways to Overcome Working Mom Guilt’. Her tips include “Stop Following Other People’s Rules. Reserve Self-Judgment. Reframe Your Negative Self-Talk.”
Something I’ve learned from past therapy is to notice a thought, logically challenge it, and by not pursuing the thought, let it ‘leave’ your head on its own. I’ll apply this to mum guilt. When it pops up, I’ll remind myself it’s illogical and unnecessary. I’ll remind myself that I’m a career woman whose schedule is sometimes fluid, and an excellent mother to a happy boy.
I just booked two weeks of after-school-care for my son. He grumbled a bit, but I explained that Mummy’s work is important to her, and some weeks it takes longer. I explained I was writing about how many working mums feel guilty about not spending enough time with their child. You know what he said? “Everyone needs a break from each other, Mummy! You’re a good mum and I want you to feel happy, not bad.” Mic drop.