Every working mother is a superwoman in her own right, however, many women find it impossible to let themselves believe we’re doing the best job possible – and that that is enough.
A state of mind that defies reason, mother guilt is a state of mind that overcomes countless women when they return to work. It stems from a want and/or need to be all things to all people all of the time - the perfect mother, partner and employee all at once. Mother guilt doesn’t discriminate – it’s an equal opportunity parasite that attaches itself whether a woman has returned to work regardless of whether she wants to – or has to.
Clinical psychologist, Danielle Corbett, says for many mothers, the sources of guilt are never ending. “When at work these mums are worrying about what they’re not doing at home. At home they worry about what still needs to be done at work,” she says. “Unable to give what they are doing their full attention, this then creates anxiety and guilt over not being good enough.”
The source of mother guilt is complex and varied. Some women feel a societal pressure to achieve a certain standard in every aspect of their life, while others set high expectations for themselves. And for a third group, the guilt stems from wanting to return to work and needing more than just the rewards of motherhood to feel satisfied.
A mother of four, Corbett is open about her own struggle with mother guilt. “I wasn’t really ready to leave my two eldest at four months old, but needed to for financial reasons. But I also really loved my job and was inspired by my work,” she says. “I felt guilty for leaving my kids, even though the care they received was good. I thought that they should be with me, and because of that I was never really living in the moment and suffered because of it.”
A business and life coach and mother of two, Shannah Kennedy was equally torn when she decided to go back to work. ”I was itching to get back to work, to feel empowered, to financially assist with supporting my family and the choices we had made as a unit,” she says. “For me to feel a great sense of achievement, work had to be part of it.”
Raised by a stay-at-home mum, Kennedy says her guilt stemmed from the fact she had chosen a different path. While women’s roles have evolved in all other facets of life, particularly the workplace, the perception of women as the primary carer hasn’t moved in sync. Where this creates further pressure for working mothers is that the same expectation doesn’t fall on men, creating a situation where they either don’t feel guilty about returning to work, or feel that they have no option but to fulfil their own stereotype as the financial provider for the family.
Regardless of where the guilt stems from, both Kennedy and Corbett agree that it’s a wasted emotion and one that can only be overcome when mothers in all sorts of situations accept that they are doing their best.
For Corbett, solace came from English paediatrician and psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicot, who states the way to be a good mother is to be a “good enough mother”. One who can be loved, hated and depended on” all at the same time. Coming from a professional, this allowed Corbett to “take perfection off the table as a goal, accept that there was more than one way of doing things and make room for mistakes and repair.”
For Kennedy, her liberation came from the reason for the guilt itself. “My daughter asked me why I wasn’t one of those mums that baked cakes and worked at the canteen. I asked her, Would that make you happy, or would it make you happy to see me happy, confident and thriving, but not making the cakes?’ She is 10 and chose the latter.”
This article was originally published on BT Financial Group on 15 August 2016.
By Peter King
Acting Chief Executive Officer, Westpac