Giving Up the Mommy Guilt

3 years ago

It has not escaped my notice that women with children often express regret about their performance as mothers.

I remember coming back from my own (partially paid) maternity leave, and for two months, driving to drop off and pick up at two different day care centers, doing my work, running the household, rocking the baby, mothering the four-year-old, and feeling like a total failure at everything I did. (Yes, I had a husband at home, but he left early for his office, and came home late, getting in his hours and pushing for professional advancement.)

I cried in my boss’ office, as I handed in my resignation. “I don’t know what’s the matter with me,” I said, “I just can’t seem to get it organized, I just can’t make it work, I’m so so sorry. It’s all my fault, it’s all my fault, it’s all my fault…”


Woman holding briefcase, Image Credit: Shutterstock

I,too, had guilt and regret about my own performance as a professional and mother. However, not any more.

Today’s mothers’ guilt goes beyond forgetting to sign a permission slip or losing your temper at the end of a long day. What I’m talking about, really, is assuming responsibility for the perceived hardships we or our children are experiencing, and chalking it up to our own inadequacy or personal failing. I now believe for the most part that these guilty feelings are wildly undeserved and counter-productive. And furthermore, we should stop the guilt!

In many important ways, we didn’t craft the culture we exist in, and it wasn’t designed with our best interests in mind. Earning money is the most socially valued activity, and those with access to significant cash wield the most influence and have the most power. Few women, and fewer mothers, find themselves in this position. Our work ethic rewards long hours, rather than productivity, efficiency, or creativity.

With time as the currency, those who do lots of unpaid work—like caring for children—just can’t compete. And let it be known, it’s women who do the vast majority of child care, who are culturally and socially assigned to it, expected to do it, and are encouraged to do it, in our advertising, how our workplaces are set up, and how our laws are drafted. Thus, women spend the most time raising children and caring for them, blunting their ability to engage in the preferred and valued occupation of earning money.

The “Boss Lottery”

In spite of huge changes in our society, with women now being the better educated gender and increasingly accepted in job sectors previously reserved for men, a pay gap of about 20% remains. Child care, which mothers absolutely need if they are to work, has never risen to a national priority. Necessary changes to the workplace, which must be in place if women are to be able to direct their own lives, support their families, fulfill their potential, and raise their children, are not forthcoming.

  • Whether or not a woman still has an income when giving birth depends on the boss lottery.
  • Whether or not she can breastfeed the baby depends on the boss lottery.
  • Whether or not she can take a day of paid leave when she has the flu, or take her child for shots and a well-child checkup, depends on the boss lottery.

Our vast knowledge in this stunning technical age has taught us two very important things:

1) What happens to children in the first months of life imprints them forever and contributes overwhelmingly to their education, income, health, and success in later life

2) Societies in which women share political power, influence, and income equality are more democratic, have a higher standard of living, better health, stronger economies, and peace.

However, none of this is indicated by the reality we live in.

The reality is women (even the most successful women) still earn less than men, occupy fewer legislative seats than men, have access to less wealth than men, and are economically punished for bearing and raising the future generations, the producers and consumers, the citizens and soldiers, the human beings upon which every other human transaction depends. The line between women, motherhood, and our poverty rate being twice that of men over age 65 is straight and short.

When I think back to the day I resigned from my own job, tearful and filled with guilt, I now recognized why it was so hard…

The people in charge are not the ones bearing and raising children. The hours-driven work culture, the importance placed on income, the utter disregard for the care of others, our notions of what power and leadership look like – none of these favor the woman with a baby on her hip and a toddler wrapped around her legs.

Sure, I chose motherhood, but I didn’t realize when I did what the consequences would be.

And I’m not willing to allow to pass unchallenged a society where we limit, constrain, and disadvantage those who do the very thing on which we all depend for our continued survival.

Are you?

'Til next time,

Your (Wo)Man in Washington

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