The Guilt Trip

Exploring the pandemic-spiked conflicts of working mothers.
There is possibly a purpose for mommy guilt: It can help keep a family together. Photography by Luise Schumann

By Dr. Lea Lis

The topic of “mommy guilt” has come up constantly during the pandemic. Women are struggling to be supermoms, teachers, cooks, cleaners, and so much more. They now feel like they are drowning. But the strangest thing is that the dads in my practice don’t seem to suffer from the same amount of guilt. It isn’t that they experience none—and many experience more—but on average, it seems men experience less guilt.

I’ve often wondered why, so I started to dig deeper into this question and found a 2016 study of 255 toddlers’ parents from the greater Southern California area. The study showed that mothers had significantly higher levels of work-family guilt compared to fathers. So why are women so plagued by “mommy guilt” and men seem to be less affected?

Analyses relying on two international surveys from over 100,000 men and women across 29 countries show that the daughters of working mothers are more likely to be employed. And if employed, they are more likely to be supervisors, work more hours, and earn higher incomes than their peers whose mothers were not employed. In the domestic sphere, sons raised by employed mothers spend more time caring for family members, and daughters spend less time on housework.

If this is true, then why do I still feel guilty about working? I am a great role model and mother. I really don’t experience that much anxiety or fear in my parenting. My kids are really awesome, but I do constantly feel guilty, like I really need to put away my computer and spend more time with them, or if I miss a school event, then I am a bad parent.

Why is guilt a virtuous feeling in our culture? And if you don’t feel it, are you a bad parent? My husband might feel confusion, anger and worry, but not guilt. Perhaps this has to do with biology. When you look at the moral development of men versus women, you see a lot of differences, according to the Kohlberg’s/Gilligan studies and debate:

Justice-based morality is the type of thinking more likely found in men. This form of morality is the kind embraced by a person who views the world as composed of autonomous individuals interacting with one another. Their highest form of morality means avoiding inequality; these people are usually more interested in protecting individuality.

Care-based morality is the kind of thinking more likely found in women. For these individuals, the emphasis is on interconnected relationships and universality. Their highest form of morality focuses on avoidance of violence. People with this type of thinking are usually interested in helping others or doing the least harm.

The most common forms of guilt are related to situations in which individuals cause harm to others. It is normal that we feel empathy for those people we may have harmed, which tend to turn into feelings of guilt when we recognize that we were responsible for their suffering.

The greater presence of this component among women, above all those aged between 40 and 50, explains the marked differences in the intensity of habitual guilt in this age group.

Think of it in evolutionary terms. There are differences in the brain development between men and women. Men, throughout evolution, were prized for being strong, and able to convince a woman of childbearing years that they were superior to all the other males. This was so he could gain her favor, and therefore spread his genetic code to the next generation.

Individuality and strength in males were often prized, while women’s social skills were rewarded. This is because women had to spend nearly one year of their life pregnant, and another year nursing a child. This placed the female in a very vulnerable position. To ensure their survival, and not get robbed of the investment they made in their offspring, women had to rely on social relationships and the protection of those around them. They formed very tight-knit bonds with members of their communities, whether it be the father of their child or community elders. Therefore, for women, choosing to be independent was not as prized as developing very strong and intense social bonds, which was in turn rewarded through their dopamine systems.

This is what you see today in teenage girls. Social relationships are everything; even a new text from a friend lights them up with pleasure. How does this relate to guilt? Women feel more guilty (and, specifically, mommy guilt!) than men because they are always worried about how their choices impact their social relationships. They know they need to work and practice self-care, but they worry about the consequences on their child and the diversion of their attention. They are always looking to make decisions with the least negative consequences. Men know they need to work, and they think about the justice of that: “I can provide for my child and give them a better life.” Children are with their mom or babysitter, so for many men no guilt is necessary, as they know they are giving their child a good life.

However, there is a purpose to mommy guilt. Guilt is a major force to make people pay attention to other people. So Mom might feel guilt, but also dish it out to others. Guilt may make Dad clean the house, get the kids to do chores, or have the older kids home for Sunday dinner. All of that is for the greater good to keep the family together.

As for the “mommy guilt,” moms should all stop with the “shoulds.” “I should do more for my kids. I should spend more time with them. I should play more games with them. I should have more time to go to the gym.” I should, I should, I should. It’s a never-ending barrage and you can never win.

Maybe we moms should take a lesson from the dads, and think about the benefits of choosing to work. Working means that you can provide a good home for your kids, and be a role model. At the end of the day, just make sure the time you can spend with your kids counts, and forget about all the rest.

Lea Lis, MD, is a child and adolescent psychiatrist, and author of the upcoming book No Shame: Real Talk with Your Kids About Sex, Self-Confidence, and Healthy Relationships.