Working mothers: when guilt becomes too much
Being a mother to a toddler is a fulfilling and challenging experience that no one really prepares us to face. Everything is on the move: every day the child grows up a little bit more, discovers new things, new behaviours and its personality is being shaped. This usually makes us want to spend as much time as we can watching them growing up, playing with them, discovering the world with them and enjoying everyday moments.
But after our maternity leave, work calls us back to real life and this can become tricky. Often young families live far from their relatives and taking up a part-time position is not always possible. Very often the only solutions are kindergartens or qualified nannies, and for new mums it can be quite hard to leave their toddlers with strangers for a whole day. As a matter of fact, this may set off a feeling of intense guilt, possibly making the moment of separation very distressful for both the mum and as a consequence the child. In fact, if our child realises the mother's distress during the moment of separation, he may think that there is something wrong and probably something to be worried about.
What is guilt?
Guilt is a complex social emotion, that implies different cognitive evaluations. To experience guilt indeed it is necessary that at least two people are represented in one’s own mind. In particular, the person who feels guilty believes he may have potentially damaged or harmed another person (voluntarily or not) or have transgressed a moral or a social principle. As a consequence of guilt, the “guilty” person usually tries to restore a sort of balance with the “harmed” one, helping out the person or finding a way to expiate this unpleasant emotion.
Why would mums feel guilty?
As written above, very often it occurs that new mums experience maternity far away from their country of origin and without the support of the original and the extended family. In addition, the most common scenario is mums that work full-time, while simultaneously take care of housework, their partner and their baby. In summary, multitasking is not a choice but a duty! We have to cover so many roles in our daily life and we try to do it in a good way: we want to work well for ourselves/our boss/colleagues or clients, we want to be good partners and for sure we want to be the best mothers for our children. But while in the best case scenario we may be confident about our work and our relationship with our partner, being a new mum is for many a totally new experience that may lead to many doubts and thoughts.
Usually the most common thoughts of new mothers are: am I doing the right thing? Am I interpreting the signals that my baby is sending me in the right way? Is he/she OK in the kindergarten? Is it normal if he/she cries at separation? Am I a bad mother if I leave him/her there all day long? Will there be consequences if I don't spend enough time with my baby?
The direct consequence of those questions is obviously a strong sense of guilt. You may feel guilty at work because you left your kid at the kindergarten or you may even feel guilty towards your job if you spend a day at home with child because maybe he/she is sick…
Anyway, experiencing a bit of guilt is normal as we have so many roles and responsibilities, we try to do our best to multitask and doing everything in a perfect way is really difficult. Making mistakes is normal as well! When motherhood is a brand new experience, the only way to go forward is to put ourselves on the line and just try, make mistakes and learn from them.
But if you have the feeling that guilt is becoming overwhelming, it is generating too much anxiety, it is difficult to handle or it is affecting in a bad way the relationship with your child, then take a step back and try to think about what is happening.
Many times beyond a sense of intense guilt there is a strong sense of responsibility, an excessive perfectionism or fear of committing mistakes. Furthermore, often our own personal experiences as children may play a role as well, triggering old emotions and relational memories that may influence our attitude towards our child. And this influence may not be always positive.
If this happens, considering seeking the help of a psychotherapist may be a good choice, as it could help you deal with this sense of guilt and the aforementioned dynamics, as well better handling that special and unique relationship with your child.
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About Ilaria Tedeschi
Ilaria Tedeschi is a cognitive behavioural psychotherapist in Marylebone, London, with several years of experience working with depressive, anxiety, sleep and relational problems.