Working Mums, an Expectation of Guilt?

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A recent Mumsnet survey found that only 13% of working mothers (of 900 surveyed) said they felt guilty about spending time away from their children and almost half (48%) said that having a paid job made them happier. A third of stay-at-home mothers admitted they would prefer to work and 52% said staying at home was tougher than going out to work.

Only 13% felt guilty, did we expect that to be higher? When the press reported on these stats they said ‘only 13%’ so clearly they expected it to be higher.

What is mother’s guilt?

It sounds pretty universal, not working mother’s guilt, but something all mothers feel, I reckon that should be parent’s guilt though, it’s no less easy for Dad to leave a poorly tot. The idea that it can be assuaged by working less or spending every waking moment with our children seems unlikely, I have found that my mother’s guilt can’t be assuaged by putting in more hours at home, it’s bigger than that, it’s part of me. Is guilt the right word? Is it not more about a natural and instinctual responsibility which can feel like a burden, it’s always there, hard to shrug off, whether I am looking at my phone and hearing Mam, Mam, Mammy, or at work knowing she might be having a tough day the feeling is the same. Can I be available 100% of the time, should I want to be?

Why should we feel guilty about working?

Maybe we don’t feel guilty because we’ve realised that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side? I am honest enough to say that on whingy whining days I am relieved to get a break and sometimes see work as an opportunity to get that breathing space.

How often does a mother say she feels guilty and follow that statement up with ‘I’m a bad mum.’ So when we look at reasons for feeling guilty, maybe not being able to breastfeed, leaving them with someone else, letting them watch TV, feeding them junk food are we really saying we think we’re being a ‘bad’ parent? I list off the reasons I think I’m a good parent and they start to pale into insignificance, I am fun (I am!) we get out every day for a walk, I plan activities, I cook good food, we read books together, I make her laugh, she is a hoot so sees me smiling a lot, I am there for her in the night when she needs me – I also work, should that in some way negate all of those great things?

Who’s judging who?

I looked up a definition of guilt –

“Guilt is a cognitive or an emotional experience that occurs when a person realizes or believes—accurately or not—that he or she has compromised his or her own standards of conduct or has violated a moral standard, and bears significant responsibility for that violation. It is closely related to the concept of remorse.” (“Guilt.” Encyclopedia of Psychology. 2nd ed. Ed. Bonnie R. Strickland. Gale Group, Inc., 2001. 2006. 31 December 2007)

So it’s an emotional and cognitive state, which means I can have some choice or control about feeling it, right? There’s some strong language here, moral standards and violations of them, whose moral standard? It seems to suggest they’re my own.

Is there really a working mum vs stay at home mum divide? I don’t know that we are really comparing, you know, my guilt is greater than your guilt.

My recent blog post highlighted that I don’t think there is, we’re all working parents regardless of where we put the hours in.

There’s still this whole nebulous mix of media, business, politics and science, all of these voices that tell us that various choices damage our children, which of those should I listen to?

I’d say I feel most judged by myself and I can choose to tune out those voices

Earlier this year stats were released that show mothers feel a double guilt when they work, one towards their children and one about their ability in the workplace.

I can spot a working mum in an office environment at 100 paces, she comes in early, eats at her desk and ten minutes before she has to leave she looks pretty antsy, she has to get away on time to collect her brood and can’t afford for the telephone to ring and hold her up. She’s organised, well rounded and sees work as a way of providing, of broadening her horizons. She will get her work done on time and has realised that she has more mental capacity than she thought possible, forget baby brain, those planning skills and time management that see her get a meal on the table, clothes in the wash and the next day’s lunches prepared before others have taken their coats off serve their purpose in the workplace too.

There are tough days, days when I have struggled to see whether J is teething or it’s something I’m missing – am I doing the right thing sending her to the childminders? Should I stay home?

Negotiating with Dad over who needs to be at work and who has a meeting that could maybe wait. Guilt? Maybe, but we’re only human, we’re predisposed to want to care for our children when they’re sick, sadly there isn’t an answer to that one, sometimes we have to go and as we are usually leaving them with someone who loves them then maybe we could loosen up on the guilt?

If those figures are to be believed then I think it’s brilliant, it shows we’re starting to question the role of mothers and challenge the ‘ought to feels’. If guilt is in the gap between our ideal self and our actual self then maybe we need to be less tough on ourselves, we make many decisions along the way but choosing to be a parent wracked with guilt doesn’t sound like a terrible progressive step to me, and I suspect no child wants to grow up feeling like it has in some way ‘bound’ its parents.

5 thoughts on “Working Mums, an Expectation of Guilt?

  1. I will start volunteering soon and I am laready feeling like I am taking/stealing time from my son. Feeling guilty when I havent even started working yet. It is not nice to read that it is common but it feels nice that I am not alone in this guilty feeling. #pocolo

  2. I think that parental guilt (not just mummy’s) follows us around like a bad smell, whatever situation we are in. I feel guilt all the time for one reason or another! I also admit to relishing the opportunity to work for one day this week during the easter holidays – I needed the break and am not ashamed to admit it!

  3. I love this, it’s a really informed piece of writing. I have struggled with the guilt ever since I went back to work after my first was 6 months old. It’s never really gone away, but I’ve managed to reconcile it in my head. The biggest benefit is that my girls are pretty independent and Mummy working is just the way life is and has always been. I hope I’m a positive role model for them. It’s the best I can hope for really. It seems to get less of an issue when they start school. I treasure the time I do have with them, not more than a SAHM, but different possibly. Visiting from #pocolo

  4. A really great post. I totally agree with Suzannes comment too. I remember listening to a lunch talk by Davina McCall once who said that if you feel guilt as a Mother then you are doing your job properly! I think that this is so true. Thank you for linking to PoCoLo :) x

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