To Guilt or Not to Guilt, That Is the Question

Can working parents choose not to feel guilty?

Posted Nov 06, 2017

Dreamstime/Guilt trip
Source: Dreamstime/Guilt trip

Parent guilt seems to be on trend these days.

Guilt, defined as a feeling of deserving blame for real or imagined offenses or inadequacies, is regularly described as a problem facing the modern mother. A recent article in Time Magazine titled "The Goddess Myth" detailed the pervasive pressure new mothers feel to give birth without medical intervention and to breastfeed exclusively; when new mothers hit their mortal limits, they experience tremendous guilt.

University of Virginia professor, Sharon Hays diagnoses our culture as pressing an ideology of intensive mothering behavior. According to this ideology, mothers are expected to prioritize children above all else and working mothers are viewed as selfish because of a need, or willingness, to focus their resources away from childrearing.

Combined with intensive mothering ideology, a high-pressure work environment creates a double whammy of expectations for working mothers.

Through a series of interviews with working parents on the psychology of choosing both engaged family and work life, I spoke with the senior legal director, Anne Kuykendall, an ambitious yet quietly thoughtful mother of two. Anne described a pressure “to appear calm and capable at all times,” but that success in accomplishing the goal was problematic, too. If a working parent manages to keep "all the plates spinning without revealing all the extra work,” that superhuman effort can remain invisible from bosses, colleagues, and friends. And many women describe those efforts as remaining invisible from their spouse.

This cultural directive of excellence—and of making excellence appear effortless—in all spheres of life is so prevalent that it can feel impossible not to adopt it. Unfortunately, unrealistic expectations are a set-up for falling short. Then comes the guilt.

But how much of guilt is a mandate? How much choice is there?

Take Dr. Katie Sharkey, who wears many hats: she is associate professor of medicine, assistant dean of women in science, sleep and mood in perinatal women researcher, instructor to residents, and she does programming for the Office of Women in Medicine at Brown University. Also, she is a mother to two boys, ages 11 and 13.

Given what this woman is able to accomplish in a day, it is not surprising that she thinks—and talks—so quickly that it’s hard not to feel sluggish by comparison. She fits our interview into her day by partitioning the chat into pieces during her drive after her kids’ drop-off and later during a short break between meetings.

Dr. Sharkey’s work is demanding, sometimes keeping her away from home until late at night or taking her away to professional conferences. She loves it. And she finds deep satisfaction in her parenting role. She laughs about how her parenting is a messy, loving experience and how the way she does the job makes it look as hard as it feels.

She tells me that she experiences plenty of challenges in keeping a foot in both worlds, but that she refuses to dwell on guilt for more than a few minutes. When it arises, she returns herself to a refrain that her children benefit from having additional people to love and care for them. Her mantra is that her job is good for her and for her family. She makes a concerted and regular effort to prevent guilty thoughts from taking center stage.

If Dr. Sharkey felt better, but her children suffered more, then letting go of parenting guilt would be a harder sell. But it turns out that letting go of guilt is good for everyone. In fact, the research suggests that a mother’s positive attitude about her life circumstances—whether she works or not—benefits both her and her child.

A large, nationally representative study conducted with mother-child pairs found that positive feelings about employment status (working or non-working) and the actual status of employment were associated with higher psychological well-being for both mother and child. But a mismatch in attitude about having a job and one’s job status was associated with worse psychological well-being for the mother and poorer relationship quality between mother and child.

In other words, having positive feelings about the effect of your work status on your parenting makes that very status work better for you and your child.

The power of the mind, the destructive role that guilty thoughts have, and the benefits of positive thinking are well-known and have been a focus of improving well-being for centuries. As Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, said centuries ago, “If you correct your mind, the rest of your life will fall into place.” Modern-day therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, similarly work to help individuals modify unhealthy or unhelpful storylines in order to improve psychological health.

Turning away from guilt in a culture that sends a consistent message about what “good” mothers are isn’t an easy task. Yet you don’t need to be a Taoist, or even a whirling dervish, like Dr. Sharkey, to shift your narrative to one that benefits you and your children. A willingness to work on focusing your attention on all the ways that you are doing just fine is a great place to start.

By making an effort to turn the volume down on guilt, and up on appreciation of your life circumstances, chances are both you and your children will flourish. And it’s likely that a collective effort in shifting our individual narratives could help our broader cultural ideologies to evolve, too.

About the Author

Yael Schonbrun, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Brown University.

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