Musings on mum guilt and public policy
Updated: Feb 23
It's half-term week. Yay, no homeschooling! My son is teaching me to play the card game of Pokemon, and that is fun. But I find myself drifting away dreaming about doing something else with my day off. The feeling of guilt is creeping in, for not being able to stay in the game. Or is it just tiredness of the pandemic year? (BoJo, give us the good news on Monday!) And I know I'm not alone in having these guilt feelings.
In 2020, the Duchess of Cambridge led the “5 Big Questions survey,” which attracted 500,000 participants (the largest survey of its kind in UK history) and revealed that 70% of parents feel judged by others. It shows the massive emotional pressure modern parents find themselves under and why mum guilt is so widespread.
Mums feel guilt about their feeding choices. Guilt for not being interested in baby play. Guilt about using telly as a tranquillizer on weekend mornings to catch up on sleep.
But guilt about juggling motherhood and a career is one of the hardest to contend with. According to the Office for National Statistics, three in four mothers with dependent children (75.1%) are at work in the UK, and most women struggle whatever the choice. A corporate world mum working 50-60-70-hour weeks is conflicted between her career ambitions or the need to earn and spending little time with her kids. Stay-at-home mum by “wasting” her degree (or two or three) and not following her interests and ambitions. Mum who works part-time by not spending enough time with family and not giving 100% at work. Single mum forced to work to provide for her kids feels guilt for always feeling tired and snappish.
The feeling of guilt is often exacerbated if the baby took long to conceive or was a fertility treatment miracle. For women with post-natal depression (PND) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), feelings of guilt can become overwhelming. (If you struggle, always seek professional help – speak to your GP, call the Samaritans or if there is a risk of harm to yourself or others, go to A&E or call 999.)
Good news and challenges
Let’s look at the good news. Women today have a choice. It might not feel like one when you need to work to make ends meet. But only a couple of generations ago, cultural norms and your social status dictated your career and motherhood choices.
A great deal has changed since the turn of the century. In the UK, millions more mothers have joined the workforce, from 2/3 of mothers in employment in 2000 to 3/4 in 2019. In addition to statutory maternity leave and pay for mothers, shared parental leave was introduced in 2015, providing the legal right for parents to share maternity leave entitlement. Parents have also been able to claim financial support for looking after their children. Working parents can claim certain hours of free childcare for two-, three- and four-year-olds. Requesting flexible work became a legal right for all employees. And employers put more effort into holding onto established and valued employees after they have children.
What seems to happen is that mums are conflicted by having a choice - family or career, motherhood or self-actualisation. And this is a societal challenge rather than a mother’s challenge. Cultural attitudes make women more likely to take on the mammoth share of caring responsibilities, resulting in mothers feeling stressed, exhausted and thinking they can’t “have it all”. While around 6 in 10 parents said that it was generally possible to vary their working day to facilitate childcare responsibilities, with similar rates observed for mothers and fathers, over half of mothers (56.2%) said they had made a change to their employment for childcare reasons, compared with 22.4% of fathers.
Many working parents do not feel that they will be successful in their flexible working request and so do not even start these conversations in the workplace. But once they return to work full-time, they quickly get disheartened and leave employment.
There are also financial considerations. Between the end of the statutory maternity leave and the start of free childcare (accessible for many professional parents only for their three-year-olds), there are two years of childcare that can cost like a private school. This makes the return to work not economically viable for many families, especially those with more than one child. While fathers have access to shared parental leave, it is not properly paid, thus creating a barrier to fathers taking it.
Seldom discussed, physical or psychological health challenges during pregnancy and childbirth complications, when left untreated, prevent 1 in 10 women from successfully returning to work. Things like severe perineal tear during childbirth may lead to anal incontinence that will require frequent trips to the loo and cleaning facilities, making it difficult for women to return to the office. Severe PND and PTSD are other factors.
Finally, people still hold a belief that when mums are employed, it is somehow detrimental to their children.
Kids of working mums grow into happy adults
Recent cross-national research has shown that kids of working mums grow into happy adults. Extensive research, parenting books, family, and coaching practices agree on one thing: that there is a substantial link between parents’ wellbeing and their kids’ wellbeing.
Children remember special moments, not things. Children remember the quality of the relationship over the quantity of the time you spend with them. And if mum’s emotional bank is full through honouring her interests and career ambitions (and getting enough sleep), the time she spends with her children will be filled with positive energy. On the other hand, imagine a stay-at-home mum giving all her time to her kids, while feeling resentful about giving up her career; the kids are likely to feel the resentfulness as a burden.
As the research says: When women choose to work, [they] should make that choice based on whether they want or need to work, not based on whether they are harming their children—because they are not.
I invite you to step into a mindset that employment is compatible with parenting. Yes, working parenthood is a great balancing act. But see it as an exploratory adventure. You, your child, and your family situation are all unique. Start today with the belief that working mums make great employees, and kids of working mums grow into happy adults. Summon all the tools available to you, and create your own combination to make it work.
Ideas of tools:
Explore self-limiting beliefs. We see the world through a lens of beliefs – some are empowering, and some are limiting. Review yours.
Employment rights. Explore what is available beyond the maternity leave, shared parental leave, and flex work to bring balance into your life. For example, one my colleague took one month of unpaid parental leave each summer to manage the two-month summer school holiday, spreading her salary evenly over 12 months. Ask your HR for help exploring options.
Involve dads. Most modern dads want to be involved but are under the same cultural and societal pressures. Sometimes what dads need is to hear the possibilities and reach out to like-minded dads. (You might like to show your partner the stories of dads as primary caregivers here.)
Build your village. It takes a village to raise a child. In the Maternity Leave Course, we dedicate one week out of four to the topic of building your community.
Use and share #lifehacks. Buy more school uniforms to wash only once per week, delegate & pay for services (cooking, laundry, cleaning). Exchange ideas with other parents without judgment or feeling judged to discover ways of making the practical side of working parenthood easier.
Ditch comparison. Tech is useful for parents to connect with like-minded people (particularly during lockdown). But air-brushed images of family life are not. If it makes you feel inadequate, click unfollow. And it’s not just on social media that parents pretend to be perfect. In live conversations, parents often say things that are better than the actual thing, probably also out of feeling guilty or inadequate. So take things with a pinch of salt. Choose the ways to use social media and spend your time with people who make you feel supported.
Use Your Voice
Imagine a world where women do not doubt their choices and instead use that freed up energy on themselves, their families, their careers, and their communities. Imagine the progress it would bring our society. From removing self-limiting beliefs to shifts in corporate culture and public policies.
We hold the answers to many problems in our own hands - the same hands that hold our babies, spoon mashed peas into their mouths, and cover our eyes for peek-a-boo can type an email to a line manager, HR or local MP, dial the phone so it rings in their office, sign a petition and tick a box in the voting booth.
We are the people who have the power to change things.
Liked this post? This is an example of just one of 30+ lessons from the Mindful Return Maternity Leave Course. It's a 4-week cohort-based e-course dedicated to helping new mums have a successful transition back to work after taking maternity leave. After the course, women report feeling more confident, calm and excited about going back to work. Click here to learn more and join the next UK cohort.