Mythbusting the mythbusters on working mother guilt

Working mother guilt is a myth, according to widely publicised survey findings from UK parenting website Mumsnet.

48% of the 900 mothers polled said that they were happier having a job than being at home, sparking a range of newspaper articles on the topic, including this one by Bryony Gordon who said:

The idea that working women feel guilty about not staying at home to look after their children has this week been blown apart, proved to be nothing more than a great big myth.

Office Mum post: word Myth

According to an article in Herald.ie, “On online forums and blogs mothers have been telling each other that they don’t actually feel guilty about going to work.”

The Telegraph reports “the idea that working mothers feel guilty about not staying at home to look after their children is a myth, new research has suggested”

I just don’t buy it.

It’s a few weeks since I read the articles, but they really caught my attention. The conclusion goes against everything I’ve experienced myself and everything I’ve heard in the many, many conversations that I’ve had in real-life and online with mothers.

Every working mother I’ve ever spoken to experiences guilt to some extent, at least some of the time. Of course not all the time – we’re not sitting at our desks, crying into the famously hot tea that we’ve waited throughout maternity leave to try. We’re not agonising over whether or not we should even be at work while sitting through a meeting. At work, we’re mostly busy focusing on – well – work.

The reality, as far as I can see, is that most of us like working, while at the same time, most of us wish we had more time with our kids.

The guilt kicks in when a baby is sick soon after starting crèche; when a toddler cries during morning drop-off, or when homework time is snappish because it’s 7 o’clock and both parent and child are just too tired.

Guilt can sidle up beside us when we’re sitting down at night; reading an article about children doing better at something if they have a parent looking after them full-time, or an online discussion about how lovely it is to be at home with them when they’re young.

Questions, doubts, insecurities creep in. A little gut-twist by the too-close-for-comfort uninvited guest – a moment wondering “what if I regret this?”

And then we click to the next article (which says kids do better at something if they go to crèche) or change the conversation and move on. Guilt pushed away until the next time.

And this is a generalisation of course – some mothers feel guilt much more forcefully than others, and some not at all. But the Mumsnet findings also spawned generalisations – blanket claims that working mother guilt is a myth. Just like that.

It shouldn’t really matter, but I really needed to work out for myself what was prompting the black and white views held by the various writers – the unquestioning belief that the survey results are true, and the assumption that they’re speaking on behalf of all of us.

A survey of 900 women surely doesn’t represent the entire world of working mothers, and eradicate the concept of working mother guilt with the click of a mouse? I’m not saying guilt is good, it’s not, but denying its very existence puts women into categories – again. It leaves the reader thinking “Oh, but I do feel guilty – there’s obviously something wrong with what I’m doing, if nobody else feels this way”

I wonder is it about the definition of guilt – or the interpretation of what it means in the context of working motherhood.

Perhaps for some, guilt is equated with wrongdoing. So an admission of guilt is an admission of wrongdoing. The implication being, if a mother feels guilty, she is by definition in the wrong – she shouldn’t be going out to work; she is committing a parenting crime against her children by doing so. If that’s the association, then I can understand why some are denying any feelings of guilt.

But guilt in this context doesn’t mean wrongdoing. It’s just a by-product of motherhood. We feel guilty if a child falls off a chair while we answer the door or if we accidentally hurt the toddler while cutting his nails or if we don’t bake a homemade birthday cake. These little moments of guilt don’t mean we’ve done something wrong. And similarly, feeling guilty when a child cries as we leave for work doesn’t indicate wrongdoing.

Or perhaps the writers equate guilt with unhappiness? It’s down to interpretation, but for me, it’s entirely possible to experience occasional working-mother guilt but to be very happy overall. This is true for almost all of the twenty-five mothers I’ve spoken to for this weekly interview series – most of them experience guilt, and most of them are happy with their jobs.

Office Mum photo of mothers
All of the mothers who took part in the interview series

I’m not saying embrace the guilt; we do need to keep it at bay – to make sure it doesn’t take hold. But claiming it doesn’t exist at all just creates confusion and divisions.

I just needed to work that out. I’m OK again, in my guilty, happy world.

Post Script: Since publishing this, I’ve had some conversations online about the fact that “Guilt” just isn’t the right word at all. So I’m going with “wisty” which means I’m wistful for a world where I could somehow have more time with my kids, but am also happy at work. I’m wisty, not guilty. If you have other suggestions, let me know 🙂

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11 thoughts on “Mythbusting the mythbusters on working mother guilt”

  1. Hmmmm, I’ve thought about this before but I would never have been able to formulate thoughts about it the way you have here. Very interesting. I think ‘guilt’ is entirely the wrong word. There isn’t a word for that feeling/emotion (one or both???) YET, you’ll have to create the word! I believe that men/fathers come very close at times to feeling this feeling but can’t fully understand it because they don’t actually carry a child as part of their own body and then see that part of their body as removed from them and in the world in its own right. This is only my opinion, men! I’m throwing “hylt” out there instead of mother-guilt, a merging of ‘hysteron’ and ‘guilt’. I hope you’ll get lots of other suggestions.

    1. I totally agree Joanna, Guilt is the wrong word, and that’s why it’s confusing. And the ridiculous thing is, we hear so much about how we shouldn’t feel guilty, and then we feel guilty for feeling guilty, or guilty for not feeling guilty, depending on the interpretation!
      But yeah, in the dictionary, guilt is something you feel when you’ve done something wrong. So not applicable here. Hylt is a good start – I like it!

  2. There is a big difference between a working mum who is full time with their kids on child care and someone who is part time or has their partner or relative minding their children. I’d like to are more flexible options for both patents so mothers don’t have to ruin their careers by taking time off when their kids are small. There should be time for both but on a balanced way.

    1. I agree 1million percent Niamh. There is a huge difference. I’ve been in both situations – when I worked fulltime with two in créche for ten hours a day five days a week, there were times when I coudn’t breathe with stress and guilt and worry. Having flexibility makes a huge difference – but as you say, too often it means having to take a step back career-wise. It’s a complex topic, but flex options for both parents would make a huge change for many families.

  3. Great – now we can have a bit of extra guilt over the fact that we alone feel guilty while the rest of the working-mother-world doesn’t, and What Are The Implications For Our Children of guilty mothers?? Oh bah! to the whole thing. We are complex creatures, entirely capable of feeling happy and fulfilled and work, while also that we are missing (and we are) parts of our children’s lives that ideally we would like to be closer to. Its life, we make the best of it. But instead of running what seems to me another stupid article on the subject, mumsnet should be pushing the agenda of fathers’ input into the whole thing. Shared paid parenting leave, papa leaving on the dot of 5.30 to do the pick-ups, office culture acknowledging that many children have two parents, both equally responsible.
    But I like wisty… its a good word. And how’s this for guilt – I went out yesterday evening, to a work-related party (I hasten to add), came home at 10pm to find the house in a state and all the children still up (my brother was babysitting…). So this morning everyone is tired and cross and cant find their gym kit etc.In between shouting at them, I found myself thinking ‘well really its my fault for going out before bedtime…’

    1. I’m reading this going “exactly, yes, exactly, me too, I know!”
      Office culture acknowledgement of dads being more involved is a definite hurdle. It’s stil not seen as normal for dads to do a four-day week but completely normal for mothers to work something other than full-time.
      And I hear you on the self-blame thing – every time we have a disastrous morning (or afternoon, or evening), I think “why is this happening?” and usually manage to trace it back to something I should have done differently…

  4. They’re talking about two different things like they’re the same. I like my job. I like doing my job and I like my coworkers (I’m not talking yarn dyeing, I’m talking about my 40 hour a week day job). I also feel guilt about leaving my kids in a creche all day because I can’t afford not to work anyway. I would like to stay home for the good of my children, but I’d also like to work for the good of me. There’s not much of a happy medium there and I feel guilty for it.
    Soon I’ll be doing a 4 day week. Several of my (male and female) coworkers do a reduced week as well and I’m happy that I’ve got that option, and hope it will reduce some of the working mummy guilt.
    Yvonne recently posted…Twinkle ToesMy Profile

    1. Good stuff! I think it takes time to settle into the work and kids life, and the happy state is attainable, but takes some longer than others.

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