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Mommy Guilt

Dr. Blurton discusses the concept of 'Mommy Guilt', the negative emotions associated with giving over care of a child to someone else, as often happens with working mothers.

This article was published in the South China Morning Post on January 29th, 2011. 

Madelyn is a working mother, and struggles with putting her son Charles to bed.  “I want to tuck him in after I read him a story, because I want him to learn to go to sleep by himself. But he wants me to rock him to sleep. I hate to disappoint him because I’ve been gone all day, and he screams if I don’t do it his way. So we can be there for hours.” Not only are both Madelyn and Charles losing sleep in this example, but Charles is also experiencing several hours of anxiety in a power struggle that is created by his mom’s indecision. And the indecision is fueled by Mommy Guilt.

It’s something every working woman has experienced. (Sexist or not, dads are still much less likely to feel guilty for having a job.)  “Mommy Guilt” – that tug of pain a mom feels when she gives her child into someone else’s care, the confused resentment inside when her child falls down and runs to someone else’s arms for comfort, the brief, uncomfortable conversation when she calls her child from a business conference. If her child has behavior problems, difficulties in school, or a fight with a friend, the mother is certain that these things are solely attributable to her job. In her mind, she sometimes thinks that if she were not working she would be a much better mother. 

Experts will argue many different things about the influence of a parent’s absence because of a career. Some would argue that the child would be better off with a full-time homemaker as a mom, but many mothers with outside jobs are not very enthused by the idea of staying home. Some people are, and make a great career of doing it well. However, for many women staying at home full-time is not very satisfying. If that is the case, the child would not be living with a full-time happy mother but instead with a person who is unfulfilled and who may feel resentful, empty and bored. It’s terrific for a woman to imagine, while lying in her hotel room or driving to work, the mother that she would be if she could only stay home all day long. That imaginary mother would always be in a good mood, would spend hours teaching her children social and academic skills, and would serve milk and cookies to all of the neighborhood kids. But the truth is that the real mother would get tired sometimes, be irritable sometimes, and make mistakes in raising her children. The fact is that stay-at-home mothers have Mommy Guilt, too. 

The problem with Mommy Guilt is not just that it is unproductive or that it may be based on an incorrect assumption that by staying home a woman is automatically a better parent. The problem with Mommy Guilt is that it makes an ineffective parent. A mother who worries that she is depriving her child by having a career is likely to behave ineffectively if she allows her guilt to determine her parenting decisions. And the child often learns to use that guilt to manipulate the mother into situations, decisions or compromises that weaken her authority or are bad for the child.

If she is to remain effective as a parent, a working mother needs to maintain her boundaries and limits, make her expectations and needs clear, and sometimes even risk having a bad evening. If Mommy Guilt is causing the mother to neglect her own health, her relationship with her spouse, or the values of the household, the child is not gaining anything. A mom needs to continue to care for her personal health and happiness, because the child needs a strong and competent mother to rely on.  And she needs to maintain and nurture her relationship with her husband – as much for her child as for the parents because the child suffers if the parents do not remain connected.

Giving up the guilt is not easy. First, the mom needs to look carefully at her decisions and lifestyle and decide how much time away she really does believe is appropriate, either for financial or personal reasons. In other words, she needs to take responsibility for her decision. But once the decision has been made, it is made. No guilt accrues if she is doing what she believes is necessary or correct. She may feel sad sometimes, or frustrated often, or worried always, but she cannot allow herself to feel guilty. It’s just not good for her child.