Guilt of the working mother

Gwyneth Paltrow takes her kids, Moses and Apple out for a stroll.
Gwyneth Paltrow takes her kids, Moses and Apple out for a stroll. 

On my first day at a new part-time job, I disclosed to a co-worker my daughter was 11 weeks old. The look of repulsion made it clear: this new person thought my jaw unhinged to swallow prey whole.

Welcome to working mother guilt. The perception and regret that your work somehow impairs your child’s development and your ability to mother. That the best sort of mother is the one who stays at home or wends her every hour around her offspring’s critical development.  And everyone is in on the shame game.

Snappy articles grab snippets from studies, intoning that childcare stresses children, harms their immune system, impairs their learning ability or can cause behavioural problems. Presidential aspirant Rick Santorum claims women who enjoy working have been brainwashed by “radical feminism’s misogynistic campaign”. Beloved children’s author Mem Fox likened long day care for infants as child abuse. Basically: go to work and ruin your child’s life. Stay at home instead, you know you want to.

Just recently Gwyneth Paltrow advised Harper's Bazaar that "I have little kids in school. I want to maintain my marriage and my family, so I have to be here when he (Martin) comes home." Gwyneth is able to hold together her marriage and her family simply by being at home. Because apparently that’s the power of an A-list celebrity vagina: it’s karmic duct tape that keeps the universe together. Mine? Can’t even remind me to pay the gas bill. Useless Z-list vagina.

Yet society is still dragging its heels for working mothers who don’t have Gwyneth’s star power. Initiatives to share the professional load, such as flexible working hours and job sharing, still face opposition from businesses and individuals alike, complicating women’s desire to have a fulfilling, productive career with her desire to have children. This does not even take into account any potential progression with legislation.

Gwyneth Paltrow knows how to get the thumbs up from her rocker husband, Chris Martin.
Gwyneth Paltrow knows how to get the thumbs up from her rocker husband, Chris Martin. 

For women who want to work, guilt arises from the fear of denying children ‘quality’ time. Investing time in children’s extracurricular activities, spending time together, assisting with school activities and just being there. Many working mothers mention the fear of entering the school gates and running the gauntlet under the judgemental stares of the stay at home brigade.

The burning shame and guilt doesn’t end there. Many mothers also report feeling guilt within the workplace whether it’s related to leaving the office ‘early’, working less than full time, or just not feeling they are contributing enough effort and dedication.

Gwyneth is able to hold together her marriage and her family simply by being at home. Because apparently that’s the power of an A-list celebrity vagina: it’s karmic duct tape that keeps the universe together.

But enough about politicians, Gwyneth, the media and other people. What research is there to show where the supposed negative impact lies? The University of California (Irvine) evaluated the findings of 69 separate studies about the impact of childcare and working parents. Children with working mothers and quality care thrived and developed at the same pace as children with stay at home mothers. According to UC Irvine Professor Wendy Goldberg, "We have to look at other factors that affect child achievement and behaviour. Maternal work isn't the whole story by any means."

This isn’t an issue of Us, the working mothers vs. Them, the stay at home mothers. Truth be told, there is no dance off at the school gates between working mothers and packs of mythical mummakuza. Think they’re judging you? Most parents are too tired and preoccupied to be bothered.

The 2010 Longitudinal Study of Australian Children reports that both stay at home and working mothers and fathers expressed that their lives are difficult. In fact, full time working mothers and stay at home mothers were separated by only one percentage point. What does this mean? Parenting is just hard no matter what your employment situation. Yes. Parenting is hard. So why are mothers feeling so guilty?

Are our expectations surrounding parenting unrealistic? With the world becoming more risk-averse, our obsession with conformity and perfection has increased. The emphasis on “having it all (perfect)” is messing with our ability to do anything reasonably no matter where we are.

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When it comes to parenting, there seems to be an almost palpable, brittle fear that if we make one mistake then life’s tragedies will fall upon our children. This is where the guilt arises – that our choices may thwart our children and our worthiness in society.

Personally, I don’t feel working mothers’ guilt. I have no idea why other than the realisation I enjoy working and being able to pay my rent. There are a myriad other areas in which I feel profound maternal guilt, but working full time isn’t one of them. I know I won’t always get the balance right and there are times I will make a mistake at home or work.

More importantly, when it comes to the daily balance I don’t mind my daughter seeing me struggle, fail, pick myself up off the floor and have another go. How am I to teach her self-acceptance, how to prioritise or the importance of trying if she doesn’t see me embrace failure?

Could it be that in accepting the fallibility of ourselves and others we can potentially teach our children self-reliance and acceptance?

How do we combat working mother guilt? Refusing to engage with the outdated stereotype. If you work, set yourself reasonable goals, prioritise your workload and don’t forget grab and give support in equal measure in the workplace. Demand quality care for your children. Don’t confuse the pressures of everyday life for failure. Remember what you’re doing and why. Don’t listen to jerks. Stand up for yourself. No matter what issue you’re facing, what guilt you’re facing: someone else has felt it and they moved on. If you think parenting is a competitive sport you’re missing out on the real prize.

A mother’s worth is not calculated by where she spends her hours. A mother’s worth is judged by no one else but her family and vice versa. Remember, we’re not karmic duct tape like Gwyneth.

Do you feel working mother guilt? Is this made worse by "perfect" celebrities? Share your thoughts on the Essential Kids' Forums.