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‘If you decide to have kids, balancing children and your career is the hardest thing you will ever do.’ (‘Can’t Even’ Helen Anne Peterson)
Being a parent is a full-time job that brings with it a long to-do list. And with the added responsibilities of doing your best at work, it’s easy to feel guilty if things don’t get done the way you want.
Both parents can feel guilt.
We know that ‘dad guilt’ is a thing as well, and no-one is in any doubt about the effort and commitment it takes to bring up kids in single parent families. However, in this blog we focus on ‘mum guilt,’ a common and growing, problem among working mums.
‘Mum guilt is the feeling that you’re not doing enough as a parent. Common triggers include going back to work after maternity leave, when your child first goes to childcare, or when things fall ‘through the gaps’ if you’re juggling all your day-to-day tasks with parental responsibilities.’ (Lydia Smith, patient.info.com)
Recent research finds that working mums are more likely to feel guilty than working dads due to the gender stereotypes that exist.
The research finds that some mums feel guilty on an ongoing basis and are reluctant to take time out for themselves – even to exercise. *
This is an important issue – not only for the individuals involved and their families, but also for their employers.
For example, Gallup recently found that employee engagement has ‘slumped’ for the first time since the start of the pandemic. In the USA, for example, engagement has reached a seven-year low.
Engaged employees are invested in and enthusiastic about their work and workplace - they consistently outperform and stay longer than less-engaged employees.
However, with work and home life coming closer together, there’s a realisation that engagement is linked, not just to how the person feels about their work, but critically to domestic home life factors also.
How can you be engaged at work if you’re worried about whether you will be in time to pick the kids up later or that you’re not spending sufficient quality time with them?
Blurred boundaries of work time spill into family time, and half listening to your children’s stories from their day or missing out on meaningful time with them can lead to feelings of guilt that are ever present. (from ‘Harvard Business Review, September 2020).
In the book Forget Having It All, author Amy Westervelt sums up the working mum’s dilemma:
‘It causes massive issues. The obstacles to attending sports day, for example, has you plotting how to sneak away from work unnoticed, so that you might be able to make it just in time for your kid to look up and see you there (all while still checking your inbox for any urgent emails). It feels like a no-win situation, and it fuels feelings of overwhelm, exhaustion, and defeat that can lead to burnout. No matter where you are, at home or work, you feel like you should be elsewhere, getting something else done.’
Working mums are chasing the balance of holding down a job that they either want or need to do – and being the mum, they always envisaged.
‘You don’t just feel bad about letting your kids, team or boss down, you feel guilty about practicing self-care and embarrassed about telling a friend how stressed out you are – as if you don’t have the right to feel that way.’ (Sheryl G.Ziegler, Harvard Business Review).
So, what can be done?
A review of the literature on mum guilt came up with the following suggestions.
Take a step back - if you are experiencing mum guilt, the first thing to know is that it’s completely normal. People who ‘beat themselves up’ are simply making things worse. Brene Brown writes that ‘often we find it easy to be compassionate to others, but we struggle with self- compassion. Stop being harsh on yourself and focus on the positives.’
Identify the sources – keep a journal and take note of the circumstances that cause mum guilt. Being aware of when mum guilt occurs can help you take practical actions to address it.
Move ‘self-care’ higher up on your to-do list – looking after yourself isn’t being selfish, it’s simply common sense. Develop a self-care routine that includes exercise and ‘me time.’
Follow your intuition – if your kids are perfectly happy playing while you’re working from home, there’s no need to feel guilty that they are not getting your attention. They’ll let you know when they want to spend time with you.
Ask for support – if things are playing on your mind, look to outside help for support. Speak to your employer if more flexibility with working hours or more time working from home will help. There may be a local support group. Some mums have found that working with a coach for a few hours each week helps. There is also a website, ‘working Moms against guilt’ which provides different resources.
Be selective on social media – watching others having a great holiday or broadcasting their latest promotion can have an adverse impact if you’re feeling down.
For those experiencing mum guilt, letting go of the emotions should be at the top of their long to-do lists. It eats away, impacting sleep, affecting your mood and gets in the way of being present.
Employers also need to do more to help working parents balance their responsibilities to create a win-win situation.
*British psychological society, ‘Working mothers feel higher levels of guilt due to gender stereotypes,’ 10 November 2022