As a therapist in Primary Care, I witness the effects of motherguilt in countless women and their children, especially in working mothers. Unfortunately, for many there is no choice. Economic necessity demands childcare be arranged and a mother return to employment. For others, years of training or working towards a desired position make it difficult to give up a career. Some women may be more susceptible to motherguilt, but no mother is immune. Estella Welldon of the Tavistock Clinic has described it as “absolutely pervasive” in modern mothers.
Theories on motherguilt abound. Some believe these feelings are so common they must be hormone-driven. Psychoanalysts claim motherguilt is due to unresolved rage towards one’s own mother. Sociologists and psychologists in the last few decades have explored the role of the social context on the individual. According to them, mothers feel guilty because they are made to. The media, social policy and contemporary society’s high expectations of mothers create in her the sense of never achieving all that is expected of her, of never being good enough. Today’s mothers are prescribed endless and contradictory methods of parenting by social and educational establishments, self-help and parenting books, etc. This may confuse a woman impairing her ability to make informed decisions and personal choices. Oftentimes, pressure to achieve it all sets in. Many push themselves to raise physically and emotionally healthy children, who are academically successful and who must always be well behaved. This must be managed along with keeping fit and contributing financially to the household. Additionally, she must be involved in countless activities both inside and outside the home to further stimulate her children. If things don’t go according to plan then something is experienced as ‘wrong’ and not good enough.
Collectively acknowledging that we (including children) have limitations and that life happens regardless of our expectations isn’t done frequently enough. The quest for perfection is not only unrealistic; it is unhealthy, leaving our children and ourselves vulnerable to mental health problems. As a therapist and a mother, I take a middle of the road approach and live by the words of a well-known psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott who has inspired countless psychology and parenting experts—and parents themselves: a good enough mother is enough.
Oftentimes, a mother will claim (especially a working mother of a baby) that her guilt stems from feeling she is not spending enough time with a child and fears this could affect her child’s future emotional well-being. This type of thinking partly derives from psychoanalytic thinking and research disseminated into mainstream culture in the mid-20th century. Investigations conducted on institutionalised infants in the 40s and 50s supposedly ‘proved’ mother and child should not be separated for long periods of time because such maternal deprivation could result in failure to thrive in a child (in other words, such children could be vulnerable to physical and psychological deficiencies). The fact that orphanages during the war years were deprived of more than simply adequate staff to meet babies’ emotional needs seems to have not been accounted for (i.e. proper nutrition, physical and intellectual stimulation, etc.)
Social theorists often claim the dissemination of these findings were very convenient for the political and economic climate after the Second World War since women were needed to free up the jobs they had taken when men were sent to the barracks. Discourses on the exclusivity of the mother-child relationship were ideal in facilitating a woman’s transition back into the private sphere. This type of thinking gave women a new sense of purpose and empowerment within the home – being essential to the mental health of her children–and it was useful, politically, in maintaining traditional gender roles and the status quo.
Since then, research demonstrating the benefits of good non-maternal childcare and multiple caregivers on children’s emotional health has been considerable and there is no legitimate evidence suggesting there are adverse effects in the children of mothers who work versus the children of mothers who do not work. Obviously quality in childcare arrangements, in the parent-child relationship and in the attention given to the child when the family is together is essential to this equation. Interestingly enough, recent findings are increasingly demonstrating that a mother’s emotional wellbeing can negatively affect her child’s psychological wellbeing. Depression in mothers has been found to impair her child’s ability to self-soothe and regulate his emotions. This can eventually lead to behavioural and psychological problems in the child. In conclusion, it seems that being a working mother will not harm your child, but feeling excessively guilty about it actually can.
Sandra Zecevic-Gonzalez is a Psychological Therapist at The Priory’s Primary Care Services and runs a private practice in
http://www.PitshangerVillageTherapy.com/) Ealing (