Working mum guilt

By J&C Team

Do you plead guilty to being a working mum?

The issue of working mum guilt is the subject of many a survey or article in the media. Not a week passes when some celebrity or other does not ‘confess’ to feeling guilty that she works. Just recently it was Victoria Beckham’s turn… again. You wonder how the question was posed and edited, but also how she might have been presented if she had answered ‘no’ to it. You’d have to be made of steel not to admit to guilt in such circumstances.

A new book questions the whole premise of the working mum guilt phenomenon. Daisy Waugh’s I Don’t Know Why She Bothers has a whole section on it. She writes: “Fathers don’t feel it. Why do we? Somewhere along the line modern mothers have accepted guilt as an inevitable part of the parenting package, as if guilt were the price we have to pay for equality and choice. But it makes not a jot of sense.”

She told recently:  “What annoys me is that we do not seem to identify this guilt as preposterous and the enemy.”

It’s not just the children they’ve left behind that working mums are said to feel guilty about. Surveys also purport to show that they feel guilty for not being committed enough at work [even if they are being paid to work three days a week and are actually working four] mainly because they have to leave the office at a certain time to get back to pick up children. In a recent article, Guardian columnist Zoe Williams said: “What I’ve always noticed is that women who work part-time hours and get paid for part-time hours, do full-time jobs. They constantly rush, they never chat, they finish things at home, they simply do the whole lot faster…”

Yet, despite this, she says they seem to feel they have to apologise. She says: “What I think is stupid is that they resolutely hide, deny, fail even to believe themselves, how valuable they are. “I’m afraid I don’t work Wednesdays,” they say, sheepishly, as if they’ve just told you that they’ve missed a deadline that was arranged months before. They should be shouting it from the rooftops: “Can you believe I don’t work Wednesdays? When I get this much done, and am this pivotal?”

Part of the low status of part-time work, which is mainly done by women still,  is due, of course, to straightforward sexism, but working mum guilt is part and parcel of that, says Williams. She states:  “I strongly suspect that the guilt expected from the working mother has eroded her ability to lobby hard for her own interests.”

Guilt is something fathers rarely get asked about even though they tend to work longer hours than women and are less likely to work flexibly. Another book which has just come out says we need to make a stronger argument for more equal parenting. Gideon Burrows’ Men Can Do It suggests that if men shared the childcare more equally women might be less prone to feeling guilty that they were not doing anything particularly well, even if they are.  He cites statistics showing how few men work part time, how in fact couples share housework more equally before they have children and how only a third of couple take it in turns to get up for a new baby during the night.

He says part of the reason men don’t share childcare equally may be financial – men still earn more on average than women, although this is certainly changing lower down the career ladder – and partly due to peer pressure and a lack of positive role models. But, he says: “The truth is that most men just don’t want to do it.”“Childrearing involves personal, career, ambition and financial sacrifices that most men simple aren’t willing to make, yet have always been expected of women,” he writes.

He himself found having children forced him to face some difficult questions: “what sacrifice have I really made for the children we decided to have together? What commitment to my wife, her happiness and her career have I made?”

Not until men actually want parenting to be more equal, he says, admit that the new fatherhood myth that is peddled in the newspapers is far from most people’s lived reality, and not until men – and women – see the benefits of equal parenting for their families and their relationships will things change. Until then we’re stuck with working mum guilt and dads mainly operating under a policy of business as usual.