Do all working mothers have to feel guilty?

“Since I returned to
work after my career break I feel guilty every day. Don’t all working mothers?”

Listening to this comment from a guest speaker at an event for
women returners and seeing the nods of agreement in the audience, I was not
surprised that many women decide not to go back to work even if they are feeling unfulfilled as full-time mothers. Who
wants to sign up to years of feeling guilty?

Do all working mothers feel guilty?

The premise that a heavy burden of guilt is the lot of the working mother seems to be fairly ingrained. Not a week goes by without some mention in the media. And we are just talking about working mothers here, no-one talks about ‘working father guilt’. Just recently …

“8 out of 10 working mums feel guilty” Justine Roberts reporting results of a Mumsnet poll at Workfest, Jun 2013
“I think all women feel guilty” Sheryl Sandberg, Woman’s Hour interview, Apr 2013
“Majority of mothers admit to feeling guilty for working” Daily Mail , Jan 2013
And it’s not just in the UK …
“Working mothers still plagued by guilt” Sydney Morning Herald, Apr 2013


I’m starting to feel guilty for not feeling guilty. As one of the 2 in 10 working mothers who don’t feel guilty, is there an implicit assumption that I don’t care enough about either my work or my family (or both)?

Psychological basis for guilt

It’s worth looking at guilt from a psychological perspective. What is the function of guilt?
“From a cognitive point of view, guilt is an emotion that people experience because they’re convinced they’ve caused harm. The emotion of guilt follows directly from the thought that you are responsible for someone else’s misfortune, whether or not this is the case.” Psychology Today

So guilt is not a consequence of caring. Healthy guilt is a sign that our conscience is working effectively and can be a useful emotion if it’s telling us that something needs changing. If guilt is a warning flag that our actions might be harming our children or our co-workers, then it’s served its purpose. But feeling guilty doesn’t make you guilty. Working can have a positive effect on family life (see previous post). Often guilt comes from judging ourselves by impossible standards (back to the Perfect Mother and Employee) or being influenced by the perceived judgements of others. In this case, it’s a destructive emotion that we are allowing to reduce our life satisfaction for no reason at all.

How to challenge guilt feelings when you are returning to work

Analyse the cause of your guilt feelings. Is the emotion telling you that you are making a decision that is inconsistent with your values? Do you rationally think that you are jeopardising your relationship with your family? If so, are you able to reduce your working hours, to shift your work pattern or to work from home some days? Do you need to think about a job or career change to get more flexibility?

If you consider your choices and the trade-offs you are making and do not want to make any changes (or are practically unable to do so), then recognise that guilt is serving no useful purpose and let go of it. Guilt is not a badge of pride for working mothers, just a rod we have created for our own backs.

Posted by Julianne

Tackling perfectionism: Is ‘good-enough’ not good enough for you?

“I can’t be happy
with being ‘good-enough’ as a mother and at work. 
It feels like failure to me”

Many of the women returners I talk to hit a barrier when we start to discuss the compromises they will have to make when going back to work. 

Emma* had a high-achieving accounting career before having children. Describing herself as a perfectionist, she told me how in her 20s she had worked long hours and “given 100%”. Soon after returning to work after her
second child, she became overwhelmed and exhausted: “I felt like a poor mother
and was frustrated that I could not give as much to work as I used to
”. After one
particularly stressful month, she decided to give up work and become a full-time
mother. Six years later Emma is discussing her options with me. She wants to
return to work now the children are at school as she wants to ‘use her brain more’. However she is finding it hard to compromise on her family life.

Like many previously
high-achieving mothers, Emma’s perfectionist focus had switched to “Supermum”: being the best mother, finding the best schools & classes for her
children and creating a perfect home. All her time and energy had been put into bringing up her family
and she could not see how to cut back.
Perfectionism can be a major
barrier to returning to work – the reality is that we have to make trade-offs.  If we set impossibly high standards for
ourselves, looking to be both the perfect employee and the perfect mother/partner/daughter, we are at risk of continually feeling inadequate. Do we want to always feel like a failure? We can make this worse by the classic perfectionist’s reluctance to delegate – we have to do everything as no-one can do things as well as us.
If you find yourself falling into this trap, spend some time
thinking about your priorities and what is most
important to you. Is it necessary to dedicate yourself totally to your children
to meet your own view of what a good parent is? Are you spending too much time and energy on things which really don’t matter that much? If you are really motivated to work, how can you free up the necessary time and
energy? For example, does the house need to be tidy all the time? Will your children really suffer if they don’t have homemade food at every meal or homemade cakes for their school cake sale? What can you give up? What
can you delegate to your partner, a child-minder, a cleaner, etc.? Exploring your job options, consider whether you are making life harder for yourself by looking for the ‘perfect job’. Work out your key motivations for wanting to return to work, what is essential for you in a job and what you can compromise on.
Aim towards viewing compromising as a good thing – it means we’re making
positive choices.  As Rosabeth Moss
Kanter said in a recent Harvard Business Review blog: “You can have it all. It
just won’t all be perfect.”
Try out a new perspective on success. Success is typically
seen as high achievement in one activity, feeding the myth of the perfect mother
or the perfect lawyer/doctor/teacher/manager. Consider instead that personal success
can be about creating a full, rich and satisfying life by doing just enough and
being ‘good-enough’ in a variety of roles rather than outstanding in just one. We
don’t have to give up our high aspirations, just to redirect them towards a
more reachable objective.
*names and some details have
been altered for confidentiality
Posted by Julianne