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Why do we expect working moms to feel guilty?

written by Frawn Morgan 11 June 2024

Frawn Morgan, MAPP '17, followed a 4-decade career in real estate development and institutional finance with education, research, and writing on how to raise well-being in working mothers. Her doctoral research at Northeastern University included an intervention designed to mitigate the negative impacts of maternal guilt.

Visit Frawn's website, Well-being for Working Moms. Her other Positive Psychology News articles can be found here.



Most working mothers struggle constantly with feelings of guilt. Just ask any working mother you know. The guilt they experience isn’t just around their choice to pursue a career. They also worry that they aren’t giving as much as they could to their employers or are shortchanging their friends and partners due to limitations on their time, energy, and attention. This feeling of guilt is so constant and pervasive that it has become part of their being, so much that they often don’t realize it permeates their perspectives on nearly everything, even to the point of affecting their decision-making. Often, they are not fully aware of the ways guilt drives their choices and potentially threatens their future success, not to mention the negative impact on their overall well-being.

Is Guilt Socially Expected?

The more working mothers I talk to, the more I find that they are resigned to this experience of guilt as just part of being a working mother. The more people I talk to about this, the more I am convinced that guilt has become a socially acceptable part of being a working mom. REALLY? This is nuts! But this is the reality of our career-and-accomplishment driven society, and I believe is a prejudicial attitude we must examine to have any hope of achieving equity for mothers who work.

In 2019 I spoke to a women’s leadership group about my research into the well-being of working mothers, hoping to find participants for my initial well-being survey. During the Q&A, there was much discussion about maternal guilt. I remember one woman, in her thirties with 2 children, said “I don’t feel guilty about leaving my children to go to work.” I was shocked! I had not yet encountered this perspective in the women I encountered, and worse, my immediate thought was “What’s wrong with this woman?” Instead of applauding her and asking how she managed to accomplish this amazing feat of personal resolve, I was judging her. Me? Of all people! I should have grabbed her and begged her to share her secret.

What this story underscores for me is the widespread social acceptance, even social expectation, that working mothers will experience guilt due to their choice to work. I have yet to speak to anyone, man or woman, parent or non-parent, who doesn’t convey an acknowledgement that guilt is part of the working mother experience. Working mothers talk about it all the time. You see references to maternal guilt in the popular press, and often these references reinforce the message that guilt is just part of motherhood, especially for mothers who work.

Impact of Misplaced Guilt

Maternal Guilt

Misplaced guilt, or guilt over self-imposed (and often unrealistic) expectations, is an insidious emotion that can wreak havoc with self-perception, decision-making, and many other aspects of our lives that we are not even aware of. Sadly, there is little research on guilt, and even less on maternal guilt, to provide guidance on how to manage and mitigate the negative aspects of maternal guilt.

How Do We Change This?

How do we change this socially acceptable attitude toward maternal guilt? How do we, as changemakers in our society, propose and reinforce the notion that working mothers do not need to experience guilt because of their decision to work? Many of these mothers must work to ensure the economic viability of their families. Others choose to work to provide additional economic opportunity for their children, to ensure their own emotional health, and to provide good role models of responsibility to their children.

Children with a caretaker

A recent longitudinal study published by McGinn and colleagues reported that children raised by working mothers had better outcomes as adults, which defies the notion that mothers who work are damaging their children. Then there are the mothers I’ve spoken with who have chosen not to work and who still experience guilt because of their choice to focus on motherhood. Why is society so willing to reinforce the notion that guilt is a natural emotion for mothers? Recent research explains that females, rather than males, are much more inclined to experience guilt … and sadly, this tendency begins in adolescence, as explained by Etxebarria and colleagues.

Guilt is a complex emotion that deserves greater attention both in the workplace and in academia. How do you conquer maternal guilt? You can start by acknowledging your own experience of misplaced guilt and giving yourself space and grace to let go of unrealistic expectations. Then teach the same to a fellow mom in the workplace, in your social circles, in your neighborhood. Help working mothers let go of unrealistic expectations and thus let go of the associated guilt. Encourage others, your boss, your friends, your colleagues, to do the same for a fellow mother.

Bottom line?

Self-compassion

During my doctoral research, I learned that working mothers don’t have to give in to the guilt. It takes persistence and intention, but recognizing when guilt is the result of self-imposed, and often unrealistic, expectations is the first step to being able to release that emotion. Self-forgiveness and self-compassion are tools to overcome the negative impact. This works! The more you do it, the more natural and automatic it becomes! Even four months after the workshop I conducted as an intervention in my doctoral research, the working mothers participating were still experiencing lower levels of guilt and higher levels of well-being. The results of my research demonstrate the efficacy of this approach.

To learn more about the research, you can read my dissertation listed in the references.

Awareness is the first step toward change … be aware, be the spark of change.

References

Etxebarria, I., Ortiz, M., Conejero, S., & Pascual, A. (2009). Intensity of habitual guilt in men and women: Differences in interpersonal sensitivity and the tendency towards anxious-aggressive guilt. The Spanish Journal of Psychology, 12(2), 540–554. Abstract.

McGinn, et al (2019) Learning from Mum: Cross-National Evidence Linking Maternal Employment and Adult Children’s Outcomes. Harvard Business School Work, Employment and Society.

Morgan, Frawn (2023). Improving well-being in working mothers: Well-being levels and interventions to mitigate the negative impact of maternal guilt. Dissertation at Northeastern University.

Image Credits

Suffering Statue Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

Maternal guilt Photo by Emiliano Vittoriosi on Unsplash

Children with a caretaker Photo by Benjamin Manley on Unsplash

Self compassion Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash

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