The Guilt of the Working Mother
Written by Keisha Singleton, Director of Bloom Counselling Collective
As a counsellor working new and expectant mothers, I hear the innermost thoughts of women during this most vulnerable time of their lives. There are some issues that occur more than others – feelings of resentment towards the other parent, anxiety over whether they are making the right choices, and of course, the never-ending, all-consuming mum guilt.
Mum guilt can present in different ways, but all mothers have experienced it at some point. It is the persistent feeling that you must be doing more, better, differently. The feeling that you are not good enough, or that everyone but you seems to be coping.
Unfortunately, mum guilt is incredibly common – I would say that it is the most common issue that I see in mothers, and one of the most guilt-provoking choices a mother can make is the choice to return to work.
Returning to work
After spending weeks, months, or even years at home with your baby, you finally take the step to return to work. This is a difficult decision and you may delay your return to work several times before committing to it, but eventually, you do. The decision to return to work can have so many benefits, such as bringing in more income, regaining a part of our identity, and becoming more independent – so why do you still feel so guilty?
Amy Westervelt, author of Forget Having It All, encompasses the working mother guilt when she says
‘We expect women to work like they don’t have children, and raise children as if they don’t work’.
So that’s it mums – damned if we do, damned if we don’t. If we stay at home we can be labelled lazy, unmotivated, accused of not setting a good example for our children. Yet if we do return to work, we are selfish, and bad mothers. What do we do to try to eradicate this guilt? We put even more pressure on ourselves.
The Balancing Act
When we feel like we are failing, we try to prove ourselves. We do this at work by volunteering for overtime or larger projects, to show that becoming a parent has not changed our work ethic. At the same time, we aim to prove that we are caring, involved mothers by joining the parent committee at childcare, staying up late to make cakes for the bake sale, and running in every race at sports day.
Of course, this is unattainable. You feel guilty that you are either letting your boss down or your family down, and so you end up stretching yourself thin, neglecting your self-care and letting yourself down, feeling exhausted, overworked, and guilty at even feeling this way.
Letting it Go
This guilt eats into every aspect of your day – it can keep you up at night, affect your mood throughout the day, and keep you from connecting with your children, your partner, and yourself. When working with mothers, I have found that in order to release the guilt that they feel, they must first acknowledge it and accept it before they can release it.
Releasing the guilt is easier said than done, however, here are some ways that you can work on letting go of that working mother guilt in order to actively enjoy your days, rather than watching them pass you by.
Step One: Curate Your Environment
If your social feeds are full of pinterest-worthy images of parenthood, then you will be constantly comparing yourself to these images. Scrolling through organic, arty lunchboxes and handmade clothes made by a stay at home mum is enough to make any working mother feel less-than.
So, unfollow the unachievable, and instead follow accounts that make you feel good. Look for those social media accounts which are relatable, and most importantly, real.
Step Two: Forgive Yourself
If you are feeling guilt, that means that you care. You are concerned that you are not enough for your children or your career, and so you feel stuck. To forgive yourself you must accept where you are in your life and make a commitment to no longer feel shame for your choices. Remember why you made these choices in the first place. You returned to work to provide for your family. You returned to work to regain independence. You returned to work because you felt that it was the best decision for your family.
Step Three: Assess Your Values
One powerful tool that I use with working mothers is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Using ACT, we first partake in some grounding exercises, then, we use ACT ‘Values Cards’ to look at the mother’s values for parenting, and values for their career.
When we have children our values can undergo a huge shift, and so we may be working towards values that we are no longer aligned with. For example, before children you may have valued ‘order’ in your life, but after children you may value ‘flexibility’ more.
So, by looking at your values, you are able to see if you are working in a way that understands and serves them, so that you can feel confident in the choices that you make.
Step Four: Good Enough Parenting
Let go of the idea that you have to be a perfect parent, and accept that good enough parenting is good enough. John Bowlby, psychoanalysis, researched attachment theory and parenting, and discord that parents need to be emotionally present in order to be emotionally available for their children. So, in order to feel connected to your child, you must first be connected to yourself. You cannot pour from an empty cup.
So mama, if you’re reading this and resonating with the weight of mum guilt – we see you. It’s tough, and those pangs of guilt we feel may never go away, but we can take steps to lessen them, and to feel confident in ourselves as mothers and as workers. Forgive yourself, look after yourself, and remember:
‘Feeling guilty as a mama is universal. The way you choose to feel it and the effect you let it have on you, is up to you.’ – Miranda Hodge
About the Author:
Keisha Singleton is behind Bloom Counselling Collective. She is a mother, wife, counsellor, creative soul, and an empath. Her passion lies with helping others, and Keisha aims to work with people to help themselves.
Keisha holds a Diploma in Diploma of Counselling, Majoring in Family and Relationship Counselling, and Expressive Therapies. She is also a member of the Australian Counselling Association, and as such is committed to ongoing professional development, and professional supervision.
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