Maternal guilt seems to be almost an inherent part of modern, intensified motherhood. The idea that maternal guilt is just part of the component of mothering is really widespread in our culture and it’s almost like a right of passage you go through. Guilt about everything, right?
There can be guilt even from (pre)conception! Then guilt about decisions you made or circumstances surrounding your birth. Guilt about how you choose to feed them. Guilt about them spending too much time in the pram/car and not enough floor time. Guilt about whether their food is organic or made from scratch. Guilt about how much you talk to them or engage with them. Guilt about leaving them in the care of others.
Guilt for going into the paid workforce. Guilt for not going into the paid workforce. Guilt that you’re neglecting your partner/friendships/whatever other significant relationship you have in your life. Guilt over too much screentime or not enough books or that you yelled.
The guilt of when you go from one to two to three to more children. Mothering more than one child at a time is basically just guilt central. You are already split off in a thousand different directions and it is actually impossible to meet all of their needs, all at the same time, all by yourself.
Maternal Guilt and being ‘Not Enough’
Motherhood is supposedly just one. Big. Guilt fest. And a love fest – obviously. Because we say that what outweighs the guilt is the love. And that even part of the love IS the guilt. Are you doing it ‘right’ if you DON’T feel guilty? What kind of mother would it make you if you enjoyed leaving your child at daycare and didn’t feel one shred of guilt for going off to work?
The common thread that ties feelings and experiences of guilt together is usually the (inner/outer) judgement of ‘not being good enough’.
Not being enough. Lacking. Comparing yourself to a standard – a measure of achievement. Whether that be through comparison with an external person or standard or guideline. Or whether it be because of your own inner barometer of what you expect from yourself.
Difference between Guilt and Shame
Here I think it is actually really useful to mention the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is about negative self-evaluation. So there is some specific act, behaviour, or decision, and then guilt stems from that for you to reflect negatively over yourself. Whereas shame is more a negative reflection of the self that is a reaction to public disapproval specifically.
An example of guilt: “I feel really awful about feeding the kids McDonalds for dinner” versus shame of “I feel really awful because Janet asked me if I was giving the kids McDonalds for dinner”. So there’s that subtle difference in guilt as self-regulation, and shame as awareness of regulation from others.
So in some ways we could think of the negative feelings of self is the same with shame and guilt, but shame is from others’ disapproval, and guilt is from self-judgement. I think a core issue of this whole conversation is that the self-judgement is actually based on social constructions, and is therefore something we can work to let go of and redefine.
What Research says about Maternal Guilt
Sutherland (2010) argues that mothers experiencing guilt and shame in relation to their roles as mothers is the most prevalent finding in mothering research. The experience and feelings of guilt was also a predominant and consistent theme among participants in my own research on mothering children with disabilities.
Hays in the Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood spoke of the ‘guilt trap’ where mothers experience vastly more guilt than fathers – even when care is equally shared. I mean – how often do we hear about and see memes about ‘Dad Guilt’? Other key maternal scholars Douglas and Michaels (2004) talk about guilt as occurring in mothers alongside feelings of inferiority, exhaustion, confusion, fearfulness, and anger.
So you could pull many things out of the literature but hear this:
If you feel Mum guilt, you are not alone.
There’s a great quote by Douglas and Michaels:
“…motherhood is a collective experience. We want to erase the amnesia about motherhood – we DO have a common history, it does tie us together and it has made us simultaneously guilt-ridden and ready for an uprising.” (25)
There are also significant ways that historical attitudes have shaped the way we feel internally in 2019 – almost 2020 – about our mothering guilt. There has been (and still is) the perception that a child is a reflection of their mother. If there is something ‘wrong’ with the child, then the mother must have done something ‘wrong’.
In the 1950s there was a phrase called the ‘refrigerator mothers’ – this is truly awful! It was posited that children with autism had their autism caused or induced because their mothers were lacking empathy or supposedly ‘cold’ towards them.
Of course this has been discredited. But echos of such mother-blame continue, and it’s what contributes to experiences of maternal guilt. I remember one of my research participants said to me something to the effect of: my biggest fear is my children sitting in a therapist’s chair one day saying, ‘well it all started with my mother’.
Maternal Guilt is based on Mothering Myths
Embedded in this discussion is the realization that we are comparing ourselves to an idealized image we have formed of ourselves – or maybe it isn’t even ourselves, maybe it’s a fantasy woman or even another mother who we know.
Researchers Liss et al from their 2012 publication explain ‘self-discrepancy theory’ as a way of understanding guilt and shame. Basically, they say that these emotions all come back to being scared about the judgement of mothers, and comparing yourself to an idealized version of yourself (or others) that only exists in your head.
Because there is no ideal mother.
There is no perfect mother.
The Liss et al study results are literally framed and discussed in reference to the “detrimental effects of internalizing idealized standards of perfect motherhood.” (1112)
Maternal guilt is about the institution of patriarchal motherhood. It keeps it sustained.
Maternal guilt is about the ‘good mother’ myth.
Maternal guilt is something that we can actively and reflexively examine and reframe as mothers.