Andrea Mara

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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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