Why Do Mothers Feel So Guilty?

Annie Holmquist | January 31, 2018

Why Do Mothers Feel So Guilty?

For those who have read my writings for any length of time, it’s probably not hard to realize that I enjoy topics related to family, children, and parenting. So when a headline from The Washington Post about a guilty mother came across my desk, I naturally took a second look.

The article describes the experiences of laid-off mother Lisa Lombardi, who viewed her newly found freedom as a way to be the parent she always wanted to be. According to Lombardi, dividing her attention between children and work continually made her feel like a “bad mom.”

“I felt like a bad mom almost every day. If I took one train later than usual at night — bad mom! If I was dashing out the door to catch my morning train as my younger son, Gus, was trying to slowwwly tell me something — bad mom! If I made it to Henry’s baseball game just as the teams were lining up to say, “Good game, good game” — bad mom! Instead of thinking: I cranked through work to leave early for my two-train, hour-and-a-half commute home, I thought, I blew it again." 

But as her lay-off time passed and her mothering kicked into full gear, Lombardi began to realize that her previous “bad mom” parenting was not all that different from what other parents were doing. In fact, they were just as stressed and stretched, causing great guilt. Albeit uncomfortable, Lombardi notes, this guilt is useful and sends an important message:

“I believe guilt sometimes serves a purpose. It can be your conscience’s way of telling you something needs to budge. Maybe mine was yelling, ‘Hey, lady, you need a shorter commute!’ But I suspect it is simply this: We feel guilty as working moms because we are put in a no-win situation. Too many companies and too many managers still hold it against us if we openly parent. It’s like: ‘Take a morning off but don’t tell me it’s because you’re going to another holiday concert at school.’ (Two kids = two concerts - oh, never mind.) So we slip in and slip out of our two worlds, moving in our own Pigpen-like smog of anxiety, terrified that our secret life of parenting will be exposed.”

That point – that moms are put in a no-win situation – is one which I believe we often overlook.

Well, let me rephrase that. We do discuss it, but the solutions to this problem often overlook the obvious. These common solutions include:

  1. Getting fathers more involved in their children’s activities and lives
  2. Providing more child-friendly work possibilities
  3. Creating more and better childcare options so mothers can worry less about the care of their offspring

This list contains decent and worthwhile ideas, and could likely be expanded upon. But what it fails to address is the fact that many women are being shoehorned into the ideal of being wonder woman – a woman who does it all and capably manages everything without breaking a sweat and being stressed.

Such an idea starts early in life. Girls are rightly encouraged to be successful and ambitious and go for the gold. It continues into their college days and early career, as women are told to pour themselves into their work, the idea being that no sacrifice is too great to get ahead and break that glass ceiling.

In encouraging such exploits, however, we often fail to realize that many women seem to have an ingrained desire for family and children. As was revealed in another recent Washington Post article and video (below), even the most career-devoted woman may not realize just how great this longing is until the possibility of it never materializing draws near. For many women the quest to achieve work-family balance becomes a circus of spinning plates they can’t possibly keep up.

Several years ago, Pew research reported that mothers are the ones who take the brunt of managing children’s schedules and taking care of them. Pew also found that six out of ten mothers found balancing work and family to be quite difficult. The natural reaction to these statistics is that fathers should chip in more, or that government policies should find ways to relieve mothers of responsibility for their children.

Working ParentsWorking Moms

But is it time we turned such assumptions on their head? What if, instead of always telling girls to run after a high-powered career, we present them with the facts, namely, that it’s downright hard to remain sane while juggling family and work.

The fact is, men and women are different. And one of the key differences for women is their ability to bear children. With that ability comes an ingrained nurturing, an asset that should not be ignored.

This isn’t some sexist mentality. Successfully managing family and a fulltime job would be a hard thing for a male as well. The problem is, are we so focused on not being sexist, that we actually end up putting more pressure on females?

If we truly want women to shine, get ahead, and be successful, then perhaps we need to let them see that holding a good job does not need to be the goal to which all other desires are sacrificed. Can we truly say we are empowering women if we deny them the opportunity to do one of their greatest desires well?

[Image Credit: Flickr-Donnie Ray Jones (CC BY 2.0)]



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