You want a career and you’re proud of your work. But you’re also a mum and want to spend time with your child. And often, it feels like you just can’t win. If you send your child to nursery, you feel guilty for prioritising work – and wonder if you’re failing in your role as a mother. But if you cut down your hours, you feel bad for putting work on the back-burner or you feel guilty for missing your working life.
Trying to balance work and childcare puts huge pressure on parents – and in particular, on mums. Mum guilt is often accompanied by frustration, shame, exhaustion and anger – which can have a serious impact on your mental health and ability to function day-to-day. Essentially, it's like an internal dialogue that tells you you're failing as a caregiver.
With two-income families now the norm, being a working mother is no longer unusual. So why is ‘working mum guilt’ so common – and what can you do to make it easier to cope with?
“There’s an enormous amount of pressure on mums to do the best job that they can,” says Georgina Sturmer, counsellor and member of the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy. “Of course, much of this stems from the natural maternal instincts of motherhood. But there are additional internal and external factors that add to the pressure for working mums.”
Externally, there’s a need to meet the demands of our family and the demands of our workplace. This intersectionality of two very different worlds often clash – as there simply aren’t enough hours in the day for both. Internally, though, we also pile the pressure on ourselves.
“This often comes in the form of self-criticism and negative thoughts about what we are doing wrong. And sometimes guilt if we prefer one aspect of our lives to another,” says Sturmer. “This is particularly the case if we find pleasure, stimulation and freedom from our work life.”
Feeling guilty for enjoying work often stems from internalised gender stereotypes, according to a Dutch study, who found that working mothers feel higher levels of guilt compared to working fathers.
The more parents implicitly associate women with family and men with work, the more guilt mothers experience, and the less guilt fathers experience when their work interferes with their family time. On the days that mothers worked longer hours, the study found, they reported feeling guiltier and experienced more ‘work-family conflict’.
There are other factors that worsen feelings of guilt, too. Many of us compare ourselves to other working mums who appear to be doing a better job, or managing the juggle better.
“We also berate ourselves when things fall through the cracks,” says Sturmer. “Maybe a form doesn’t get filled in at school, or a deadline doesn’t get met at work, or the children spend more time than we would like in front of a screen.”
And it’s hard enough coping with our own self-criticism, but if other people suggest that we are doing badly, or criticise our choices, then it can make things even harder.
Managing difficult feelings like guilt isn’t easy. And often, the associated feelings – irritation, mental fatigue and overwhelm – are entirely justified. Many workplaces simply don’t support the needs of working parents by offering flexible or part-time work.
It’s in employers’ interests to ensure working parents can work. According to a study by management consultants McKinsey & Company, providing resources that improve gender equality, such as flexible work schedules, childcare and mental health resources, could add an estimated $13tn to the global GDP in 2030.
“Employers need to offer real flexibility, and create an environment where mums feel that they can take advantage of this without fear of judgement,” says Sturmer.
“Sometimes being a working mum means that you might need to move things around at the last minute to accommodate your childcare responsibilities. But when an employer is understanding and flexible, this is likely to be met with loyalty and motivation from an employee.”
It’s also important to be kind to yourself. Trying to manage your time between work and your child can feel impossible. It can also feel lonely, as you neglect making time for yourself and the things you enjoy.
“Mums should support each other. Build and join networks for working mums so that you can motivate and support each other as peers,” says Sturmer. “You also need to understand the concept of the ‘good enough mother’ – this means offering our children a sense of security, affection and attention.”
And finally, it can help to reflect on the importance of role models for sons and daughters. A 2018 study involving 100,000 adults across 29 countries found that daughters of working mothers end up being just as happy in adulthood as the children of mums who stayed home. And importantly, the sons of employed mothers showed significantly more egalitarian gender attitudes.
Ultimately, you need to do what works for you. Being a parent is different for every individual – so it’s important to run your own race.