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“Mother guilt” at work… why I loath this term and why it’s time to do away with it!

It could be just my interpretation, but I loath the term “mother guilt”.  It seems to me that labels like this do nothing to support the self-confidence of mothers – and it’s certainly not a draw card for career-minded women deciding whether and when to embark on parenting.

My sentiment was evoked when, speaking at a women’s networking event, someone asked me during Q&A “who looks after your son when you’re working (it was an evening function) and do you have any tips for overcoming mother guilt”.  It seemed an odd question for her to ask me, since I’m hardly a textbook mum.  But I responded with my usual way: “well my  Beagles are great babysitters”... Now of course this isn’t true – they eat all his food and won’t even let my son into their kennel any more since he took to jumping on them – but fortunately he has a dad as well as a mum and for better or worse, I’ve always assumed that his father was equally capable of caring for him as me…  The guilt bit had me stumped though.

Afterwards, in the cab on my iPad, I googled the term “maternal guilt”… and found 2,730,000 hits offering advice, studies and checklists for overcoming it.  Like this article.  Then I googled the term “paternal guilt” and got… zero hits, because google insisted on redirecting my query to the search term “parental guilt”.  Hmmm…

Anyway back to maternal guilt… so I get that parenting is tough.  Really tough.  I remember (pre-motherhood) when I wrote Little Wins for Working Women, and asked my sisters for their feedback before it went to print.  My oldest sister pointed out my glaring (and deliberate) omission of the challenges that parenting presents to working women.  I said I didn’t want it to be a book about parenting.  She said it was “the toughest job she’d ever taken on”.  Three years down the track, I see her point.

So parenting is tough. The choices we make aren’t easy.  Juggling is a constant challenge.  Childcare options are limited and often don’t help.  But guilt isn’t the right word for me, it somehow just seems to perpetuate the angst.

I admit to feeling a deep concern for my son’s wellbeing, particularly when I leave him in the care of others, but also when he’s in my care and just gets up to no good.  Like just the other day when I was on the phone to a client. It was technically my day off, so Master Two-And-A-Half was home.. and mid-sentence I glanced up from my call, through the window to the courtyard, to see him perched high upon the table of the outdoor setting (he’s just started the climbing phase and there’s been several tumbling down incidences of late…). 

But I don’t believe for a minute all the hyped up reports that childcare is toxic to children’s brain development, or my son will be obese simply because I choose to work, or all the other crazy accusations that are heaped at parents but at mothers in particular.

Leaving kids with carers is particularly tough for mums and according to the CareforKids.com.au 2007 Annual Child Care Survey a third of parents feel ‘mother guilt’ is the hardest thing about returning to work.  And Harvard Professor Sylvia Ann Hewlitt agrees:

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“A study of the high end labor market demonstrates that 80% of highly qualified women in large corporations have one foot out the door — they feel they can’t cope with the demands of their jobs for more than one more year. This is not because they don’t like their work or can’t deal with the performance pressures — 78% adore their jobs and thrive on the challenges associated with them. Rather, they can’t deal with a mounting load of maternal guilt.”

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Why does this matter?  It matters a lot.  Because the talent pipeline will continue to leak our best and brightest women if they can’t find a way to feel good about both their kids and their careers – which means there will continue to be too few women at the top, insufficient role models for workers and for our boys and girls, and huge costs for businesses that lose their top female talent in the emotional tug-of-war.

Now I’m not suggesting that having both a family and a career is the end goal for all women.  But for those who take on the task of growing our next generation, and who also derive enjoyment and satisfaction from working even after they’ve become a mum, why wouldn’t we support them in all their endeavours?

It seems to me that when it comes to mother guilt, as women and as leaders and employers of women, we could all benefit by:

  1. Doing away with the labels – labels are just not helpful!
  2. Growing from sharing – a new breed of mothers groups are popping up in workplaces and inviting role models to tell their own war stories of combining motherhood and a career can really help create a sense of solidarity
  3. Recognising the hot spots.  Something for employers to be aware of is that for most working parents, the most precious time in their day is the 5pm-8pm timeslot.  If you do nothing else, offer flexibility for your working mums and dads to be accessible to their kids at this time.  Let them start work earlier or log on later – but don’t make them choose, or they just might not choose you.
  4. Being less judgemental. We all have our own values, it’s core to our being but others may not share them. Women need to support one another, even if they’ve chosen to take a different path.  And male leaders with stay at home partners would do well to really get to know the working mums on their teams, and understand that their life choices aren’t better or worse, just different.
  5. Being kind to ourselves.  We all need a reminder sometime to “be true and be you”.

Your thoughts?  Suggestions? Do you agree… or have I completely missed the mark?  I’d love to hear from you on this.

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