How 'mummy guilt' can get in the way of good parenting

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 January, 2012, 12:00am


Madelyn is a working mother and struggles to put her son Charles to bed. 'I want to tuck him in after I read him a story because I want him to learn to go to sleep by himself,' she says.

'But he wants me to rock him to sleep. I hate to disappoint him because I've been gone all day, and he screams if I don't do it his way. So we can be there for hours.'

The problem is not just that both Madelyn and Charles are losing sleep. Charles is also experiencing hours of anxiety in a power struggle created by indecision on his mother's part, which in turn is fuelled by something known as 'mummy guilt'.

It's something every working woman has experienced. Dads are still much less likely to feel guilty about having a job.

Mummy guilt is that tug of pain a mother feels when she places her child in someone else's care. Or it's the confused resentment inside when her child falls down and runs into someone else's arms for comfort, or the brief, uncomfortable chat when she calls her child from a business conference.

If her child has behavioural problems, difficulties in school, or a fight with a friend, the mother is certain that her job is solely to blame. She sometimes thinks that if she were not working she would be a much better mother.

Experts have differing opinions on the influence of a parent's absence because of a career. Some argue that the child would be better off with a full-time homemaker as a mum. But many mothers with jobs outside the home are not enthused by the idea of staying home. Some are, and make a great career of doing it well. But for many women, staying at home full time is not very satisfying. If that is the case, the child would not be living with a full-time happy mother but instead with a person who is unfulfilled and who may feel resentful, empty and bored.

It's easy for a woman to imagine the mother that she would be if she could only stay home all day long. That imaginary mother would always be in a good mood, would spend hours teaching her children social and academic skills, and serve milk and cookies to the neighbourhood youngsters.

But the truth is the real mother would get tired and irritable sometimes, and make mistakes in raising her children. The fact is stay-at-home mothers have mummy guilt, too, and mummy guilt makes for an ineffective parent.

A mother who worries that she is depriving her child by having a career is likely to behave ineffectively if she allows her guilt to determine her parenting. The child often learns to use that guilt to manipulate the mother.

If she is to remain effective as a parent, a working mother needs to maintain her boundaries and limits, make her expectations and needs clear, and even risk having a bad evening. If guilt is causing the mother to neglect her own health, her relationship with her spouse, or the values of the household, the child is not gaining anything.

A mum needs to continue to care for her personal health and happiness, because the child needs a strong and competent mother. And she needs to maintain and nurture her relationship with her husband - as much for her child as for the parents. The child suffers if the parents are not connected.

Giving up the guilt is not easy. First, mum needs to look carefully at her decisions and lifestyle, and decide how much time away she believes is appropriate. She needs to take responsibility for her decision. But once the decision has been made, it is made. No guilt accrues if she is doing what she believes is necessary or correct.

She may feel sad sometimes, or frustrated often, or worried always. But she cannot allow herself to feel guilty. It's just not good for her child.

Jadis Blurton is a clinical and developmental psychologist and a primary school principal