Why ‘mom guilt’ is an unreasonable term

What is 'mom guilt'? It's a symptom of the tragic state of America's parental leave policies.

LAUREN SMITH BRODY: So mom guilt is unfortunately kind of universal. A lot of women blame themselves first and foremost when life doesn't feel in balance or in check, in terms of managing career and family and home. And it's really, really – it's not reasonable to expect that anybody would have that in balance, given the lack of respect that our country shows for new parenthood. Now, that said, I don't mean to blame the victim, but it's something that we can kind of control. So when I did the research for my book I interviewed and surveyed more than 800 new parents, and what I found when I looked at the transcripts of the longer, deeper interviews is that the word "guilt" popped up again and again and again. Only what I was actually sort of surprised to see is that it meant really different things to different mothers. So there were some mothers who felt really guilty leaving their baby to go back to work and leaving the baby in someone's care who they felt like maybe was not quite as capable as they would be themselves of loving the baby. There were other people who actually felt guilty because they loved being back at work. And I experienced both of those feelings. When I went back to work after having my first son and my second, my husband was in his medical residency. There was no real choice for me to make about the income that our family needed, and so I didn't feel terribly conflicted about going back to work, it just felt like it was too soon and it was not in the most supportive cultural circumstances that I would have wanted. So what I say to women is, first of all, guilt implies that you've made some sort of wrong decision. That there's some other "better, less guilty" working mom out there who you should aspire to be like. But erase that idea, because every single mother out there will admit to feeling guilt in one way or another, right? So if it is just a lowest common denominator, let's just erase it and treat for whatever feeling we actually have.

If you feel regretful, if you feel conflicted, if you feel overwhelmed, if you feel unsupported, let's solve that problem rather than writing something off universally as "mom guilt". You don't really hear people talk about "dad guilt," and I would actually really welcome that conversation, and I think dads would actually quite like to be a part of that conversation. But it feels kind of anti-feminist, actually, to just call all of this conflict that we have about this transition back to work after a baby, to call it "mom guilt". And it's something that's perpetuated if you don't acknowledge the reasons for why you're having these feelings early on, they snowball and they can make it harder and harder for women to stay in the workplace. We know that 30 percent of professional women drop out of the workplace within a year of having a baby.

Even in the most progressive couples, even in couples that came into their couplehood saying, "We're going to be equal partners," if mom is learning everything in that time about how to care for the baby—and mom also probably is part of this generation that I'm part of too where we want to achieve everything as women, we feel we deserve it, and we do, to be great at everything and to find answers and solutions. And so we've become sort of professional perfectionists at parenting. But dad's off at work and we're learning how to do that. And then when mom goes back to work and both parents – and I'm being binary about it but it is obviously for partners as well, same sex partners – when you come home at the end of the day guess who knows how to do everything? Mom. And guess who wants everything done her way? Mom. And there's a term for that, and it's called "gatekeeping." And there are a number of studies that show that if dad has time alone with the baby or the partner has time alone with the baby after mom goes back to work and is able to take intermittent leave—you know, so even a month at home taking care of the baby and learning some of these things on the ground—that it actually sets up a much better balance that continues through forever, essentially. There's a study that shows that fathers who take parental leave ultimately have better relationships with their teenage children, which is amazing. And you think about who's a teenager now, who that study was done on, and these are pretty progressive dads back then. And yet I'm really glad we can learn from them.

We don't stop necessarily to look back and assess and see that sometimes being a little more long-lensed about it, realizing that, you know, offering a parent an additional two months of paid leave will make all the difference in the world. We also, of course, have a huge gender parity problem. There's an amazingly convincing study that shows that for every month of parental leave that a father takes, the mom's lifetime earnings increase by seven percent, which is incredible. And yet when we look at who is actually taking leave, of course, I mean I don't even need to tell you this: Mothers take longer leave than fathers—globally, but more so in the United States than anywhere else.

  • America's poor family leave policies for new parents are the reason why 'mom guilt' is universal – but that guilt is unreasonable, says Smith Brody.
  • 'Dad guilt' is not a term, but men should also be part of this conversation.
  • For every month of parental leave that a father takes, the mom's lifetime earnings increase by 7%. Studies prove fathers who take parental leave ultimately have better relationships with their teenage children.


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