Working mothers and their guilt trip trap

3 min read

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In her book Forget Having It All, author and journalist Amy Westervelt sums up the working mother’s dilemma: “We expect women to work like they don’t have children, and raise children as if they don’t work.” Because of this, women feel guilty — guilty for working and guilty for not. We all know what it feels like- wherever you are you feel guilty. At home with the children, we worry about work and wonder if we are doing enough. And at work , we feel guilty for not being with our children. We know it doesn’t serve us – or anyone else, but that doesn’t stop it.

A study conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) revealed that nearly 60% of working women experience guilt about balancing work and family responsibilities.

In my work with professional women, I often hear these feelings expressed. It adds another layer of stress, causes heightened anxiety and can lead to depression and burnout.

In a study published by the Spanish Journal of Psychology, researchers studied the guilt levels of 360 women and men .The results led researchers to conclude that habitual guilt [by which they mean a kind of internalised feeling of guilt] was more intense in women than in men in all three of the age groups studied. When it came to “interpersonal guilt,” the kind of guilt related to how our action or inaction affects others, it was “significantly” more intense in women than in men. Interestingly though, they also found that as men get older their capacity for feelings of guilt and empathy increase which is thought to be linked to dropping testosterone levels. We also know that it is at least partly genetic. In another study Shirtcliff and Sommers report that the differences in empathy can be seen from a baby’s first days. Girl infants in hospital nurseries are more likely than boys to experience crying “contagion” — to start crying because they hear another baby crying. It appears that women are innately more empathetic and more vulnerable to habitual guilt.

So, women have more guilty feelings which we can’t change.

But, can we do something about managing it?

It seems there are some tips and techniques that help:

  • Acknowledging that we are feeling guilty because of our own internalised gender stereotypes. In other words that we have to be the primary caregivers to children and to the older generation and perhaps that we are somehow responsible for making sure others are happy.
  • Working out what we value in our lives,  what purpose we serve and what we want to achieve and then remembering it all when those guilty feelings trip us up
  • Recognising that our children will work and may be working parents one day and that we are role models for them. The next step is to know that trying to model perfection and superhuman efforts are not optimal. Nor do we want them to believe that being an adult means being overwhelmed by a toxic combination of excessive work and anxious caregiving.
  • Having firm boundaries, good time management and being able to say ‘no’
  • Accepting that you will never have everything perfect and under control – at home or at work and knowing that that is okay.
  • Asking for help when you need it or preferably when you anticipate that you will need it
  • Having a good support network and people to confide in
  • Assessing your day and progress by the quality of your conversations and relationships or by the value you added, rather than by the ticks on your ‘to do list’

Author Debbie Dudley