Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Would Guilt By Another Name Sting As Much?

Mom-101 had another beautifully written post about the push and pull of being a working mother, in which she has to send her kids to "take the kids to work day" with the nanny, because she has to be out of the office on a big project. The post got me thinking about a couple of things. The first was that my kids are getting seriously cheated out of any awesome "take your kids to work day" goodness. We don't go in for that stuff in the biotech industry, possibly out of fears about liability with having bunches of children wandering through the labs, and possibly because we aren't, for the most part, actually profitable companies, and venture capitalists expect us to use their money to make drugs, not provide cool things to the employees' kids.

The second was that there sure are a lot of people feeling guilty about doing the right thing.

Let me explain. The original post mentions feeling guilty, but the actual vibe I got from it wasn't of guilt- more of "boy, this sucked... but my kids actually made it all better." But then a lot of the comments talk about "working mom guilt." And that sort of bothered me, because why, exactly, are working moms feeling guilty? For making the money that helps feed and clothe their kids? For doing the thing that makes them happy, well-adjusted women (and mothers)?

I've written before about how I think mothers have always worked at something other than mothering, and I wrote a comment mentioning that. Mom-101 responded that she didn't feel guilty for working, but rather for disappointing her kids. Which is fair enough, but her kids didn't sound disappointed in that post. (Of course, I wasn't there, and actually have no idea whether her kids were disappointed.) She sounded disappointed, and who wouldn't be? It sounds like an awesome event and I would want to take my kids to it, too. But is that really guilt? And if it is guilt, why? She didn't do anything wrong. She had a work commitment that rightly had to take priority over a "nice to have" event for the kids, so she found another way for her kids to go and have fun at the event while she did the work she needed to do. This sounds like the absolute right thing to do to me.

This got me thinking about a comment Today Wendy left on an earlier post of mine, in which she said that she thought people often conflate guilt with other negative emotions, like frustration, possibly because it is more socially acceptable to express guilt.  Today Wendy's comment has been bouncing around in my head for a long time, and I've been meaning to write a post about it. So I took this idea and ran with it.... Here is what I said on Mom-101's post:

But is that really guilt?

I’ve been thinking about this off and on all day, and almost didn’t come back to leave this comment because of course I can’t say how you feel and only a complete jerk would try.

And now I’m going to be that complete jerk, because I kept thinking about another comment someone once left on a post of mine. (I get such smart comments… it is the best thing about blogging! Well, that and the chance to ramble on about whatever I want to.)

Anyway, the comment said that she thought people sometimes conflate guilt with other feelings that make us feel bad. So we say we’re feeling guilty, when really we’re sad, or just wish that things could be different. It seems like semantics, but I think it is important, because guilt implies we think we’re doing something wrong and that we should have done something differently. The rest of the world picks up on that and the idea that we ARE doing something wrong perpetuates, when of course we aren’t. We are just making the trade offs that come with life. We have done the right thing, it is just that the right thing isn’t the perfect thing.

So, I feel guilty if I have a hard day at work and therefore lose my cool at my kids and yell. Or, for that matter, when I have a hard day at home with them and therefore lose my cool and yell. But I don’t feel guilty when I have a late meeting and their father has to take them to soccer practice- then I feel a little sad that I’m missing something, but not guilty, because my family needs my income and I need my job to stay sane. Staying for that late meeting was the right thing to do, even if in a perfect world it would have been on a different night and I could have gone to BOTH the meeting and soccer practice.

FWIW, I read your original post and didn’t read guilt. I read “gee, this sucked but my kids are so awesome that they fixed it.” My comment about guilt was more in response to the guilt I read in other comments than what I read in your original post. Sorry, I failed to say that. And of course, only you know if you felt guilty or sad or something else altogether. I don’t mean to imply I know how you felt, or- worse!- that I know how anyone SHOULD feel. I’m just throwing something out there for us all to think about as we try to make happy lives as working mothers.


What do you think? Does it matter if we say we're feeling guilty when we're actually feeling something else, like sad, or frustrated? I don't feel a lot of honest-to-goodness working mom guilt. If you do, do you know why? What is that you think you're doing "wrong?" Or do you think guilt can come from something other than feeling like you are doing the "wrong" thing?


  1. I think this is an incredibly astute point. I find that guilt isn't, by and large, the feeling I feel about being a working mother. Frustration, sadness, jealousy (oh, yes, I get wicked jealous of my work-at-home-dad husband. Which is TOTALLY FUN for my marriage), exhaustion, and the neverending overwhelmed, sure. But actual honest to goodness guilt over my J-O-B? Not that much.

    That's not to say it doesn't happen on occasion, though in my case my guilt is *usually* of the "I'm shortchanging both work and family" variety which, really, if I stop to think about it, can be narrowed down to feeling either overwhelmed or unprepared, so again, maybe guilt isn't the right word?

    But now that you mention it, I do think it matters. It seems to me that motherhood has come to be so closely associated with the word guilt, and especially working motherhood, that I think it would be more helpful in figuring out the work/life balance (gah, I'm coming to hate that phrase)if we knew what we were actually dealing with.

  2. I agree with you about people conflating guilt with other feelings. "Guilt" means you are at fault; oftentimes "disappointment" that things didn't work out the way you would have wanted is more accurate. "Guilt" is sort of black and white--there's a right and a wrong--but rarely are things so simple. There are competing needs that must be weighed.

  3. Anonymous4:25 AM

    That is a really great point. I had never thought about it that way before.

    And yes, it is socially acceptable to say you feel guilt. (Just like it is socially acceptable to say you work because you need the money if you're a female with kids.) It drives me bonkers too.

  4. I agree as well. Like Antropóloga said, I think many people use "guilt" when they mean "disappointed".

    I have been guilty of saying I feel guilty, when I really meant something else. It's funny that it's more socially acceptable to feel guilty rather than upset/sad/frustrated/etc.. Perhaps because saying we feel guilty means we could have made a different decision, where as the other feelings means we feel we did the right thing, it just sucks to have to do it (and therefore we feel people will judge us more)?

    I also think feeling guilty is a choice, but feeling sad/frustrated/angry isn't really.

  5. I *absolutely* think it matters if we say we're feeling guilty when we're actually feeling something else, like sad, or frustrated - and I think it is important to figure out WHY we collectively feel like we need to speak in this false type of code language. Man, this is so interesting to me. Great post yet again!

    I just really have to question any type of social dynamic where real, authentic truth-telling about our lives is discouraged or sugar-coated. Makes you wonder who benefits from this status quo, no?

    Do I think guilt can come from something other than feeling like you are doing the "wrong" thing? Yes. I think comparing ourselves to others without knowing the actual life stories going on can result in negative emotions like guilt, jealousy, etc.

    I remember @hedra on Ask Moxie once made a good distinction between "guilt" and "regret" saying something pithy to the effect of most parenting guilt is actually a form regret (I regret the outcome in this circumstance but it was the only honorable choice in that moment), whereas guilt results when, for example, one knowingly makes a selfish choice when other choices are just as available.

  6. I completely agree - and I remember that it was a big insight for me too when it came up before.

    I also think there is a concept of the mother as the One Who Is Always There. I don't see fathers getting quite as upset if they are not there for every game, etc.

    A big part of finding peace with my decisions has been to realize that the main thing is that my kids experience these things, and that we share as a family what we can - not to be there for all of them.

  7. Strangely the more I read about working mother "guilt", the more guilty I feel and I use the word "guilt" more often (even if I don't mean it). Must think about this...

    Anyway, there really is nothing to feel guilty about.

  8. @oilandgarlic
    And *that* is why I roll my eyes at such posts, even if it means lots of attacks for the privilege of having had a working mother. (As I was reminded this morning when I reread the comments section of Cloud's "earlier post" linked in this post.) Bitching about how guilty you feel for not making homemade cupcakes or whatever has negative spillovers to other people. (Including those who do make homemade cupcakes since its telling them they should feel guilty for making non-cupcake makers feel guilty. Whatevs.)

  9. I've been thinking about this ever since our exchange, and now even more so. You're absolutely right in that guilt is one of the ingredients in this crazy salad of emotion--and maybe not even the biggest one.

    As I said, I never particularly feel guilty for working. I love working and couldn't have it any other way. Like Ginger said above, my reactions usually stem from feeling like I'm shortchanging someone or not following through on a commitment.

    Maybe we need a new word - working mom anxiety? Working mom angst? Working mom all-over-the-place emotions? I know you'll think of something!

  10. LOVE this, and @hush you rock for bringing up the guilt vs. regret thing.

    I knew I had heard that somewhere, and it really stuck with me, and I could not for the life of me remember where. Of course it was on AskMoxie (and from Hedra!). I actually use this a lot - when I think I'm feeling "guilty" it's really usually something else, like regret that I am missing something.

    But yes, it's socially acceptable for moms to "feel guilty" (all moms, not only those who work outside the home).

    I was just thinking that today when I took the day off work and sent BabyT to daycare anyway. I got a pedicure (first in 8 weeks), ran a bunch of errands in rapid succession, and had lunch with a new friend.

    When she asked where T was today, I was just about to make the usual "I feel so guilty" comment but before I said anything, I realized I didn't feel guilty. I was having a fun, productive day. So I didn't use the word.

    And OMG ++1 to the use of "guilty" making others feel bad too. I love doing crafty stuff, and I made all the invites and decorations for my kid's birthday party, because *I* wanted to, and you wouldn't believe the number of comments I got about how other people felt "guilty" about not doing that sort of thing themselves. Sigh. I'm not trying to make other people feel bad - I genuinely like doing that stuff.

  11. WanderSci - Word. All mothers are working mothers. I'm a historian of the long-gone days of yore, when mothers worked their a$$es off every second of the day. There was no getting down on the floor with the toddlers to stack blocks in the Ingalls' sod house, believe you me.

    Like almost everybody else here, I also never feel guilty for working. I don't feel guilty for leaving my kids, either, for work trips (I've left one of them for as long as 2 weeks). They have a father, grandparents, excellent caregivers, they know I love them.

    And double word about using guilt to make the cupcake bakers/crafters feel bad. Note to folks: My choices are not about YOOOUUUUU. I love baking, and when I can bake something from scratch for an event, I do. But I don't give a fig what the other parents do.

    I vote for "working mom angst,"@Mom101.

  12. Anonymous5:48 PM

    I vote: "working parent time-crunch" since that's what it generally boils down to. We don't have the time to do all the great things we want to do. (But it beats being bored out of one's skull, and the kids are adorable. Also: I like moneys.)

  13. Of course, the day I post this is the sort of day that causes... what are we calling it? Angst? As @Nicoleandmaggie say- it is really just a time crunch. Meeting ran late, so late to day care, so late home, so late with dinner... and then we had to get ready for the cleaner, who comes tomorrow.

    So I'm just now reading all of these wonderful comments. Thank you, everyone! As I said in my comment over at Mom-101- I get such smart comments. It is one of the things I love about having this blog.

  14. scantee7:12 AM

    Agreed to all these great comments. I think that it goes even further than guilt just being a socially acceptable emotion for working moms; I think there are a lot of people that WANT working moms to feel guilty and that's why I refuse to play along. No guilt. All the other emotions-regret, disappointment, jealousy-yes, but no guilt.

  15. @scantee, that is an excellent point, and I think closely related to the point @Nicoleandmaggie have made at times about how in many circles, the only acceptable reason a mother can give for working is that she can't afford not to do so- completely ignoring the fact that many of us work for reasons beyond money. So I try to make a point of acknowledging that I COULD have chosen to stay home, but didn't want to. See my happy WOHM post. I wasn't thinking about the greater value of owning my decisions- and the reasons for them- when I wrote that post. But I see it in retrospect!

  16. Great post, Cloud!

    I do think it's important to distinguish what the emotions really are. If for no other reason that modeling for our children.

    Let me explain. I try very hard to help my children describe their emotions. When my daughter is a little nervous about something, she's not really "scared" so I give her the right words. Words are important, and learning to describe what you really feel helps you to understand what you really should do to make it better. If you think you feel "guilty" for working and you quit your job, that might be the wrong choice for you to make because you were really just frustrated/disappointed that you had to miss some event.

    I think that if we lump things together (like emotions), then we are doing a disservice to ourselves, our children and the english language (or whichever language you speak). We can do better. And we can do better than trying to make other moms feel guilty when that's not what they are.

  17. Such great comments, all of them.

    @Caramama- I like the point that if you misidentify the problem you might misidentify the solution, too. I think this happens more than we recognize.

    And I want to thank @Mom-101 for writing that original post that catalyzed this discussion- and being so gracious when I took her post and totally over-analyzed it! Sometimes it takes a real example/story to make this sort of thing more clear. And thanks for @Today Wendy for the original comment that planted the seed of all of this in my head.

  18. Cloud,you are so so right. Yes, it makes a difference to say we feel guilty when we really don't. And I never thought about it this way before. Did I ever mention that you're smart? =)

    Sometimes it seems that working moms--and all moms--are *expected* to say we feel guilty. Why? Why are we expected--and why do accept among ourselves--that we are supposed to feel guilty about things (late meeting, not making the homemade cookies)that we should have no reason to feel guilty about? By accepting "guilt" as the response to time-crunch/angst, we lay the blame on ourselves instead of the boss that called a meeting late; and then by extension we've blamed ourselves for making the choice to work in the first place (or for any other underlying choice).

    I don't feel guilty about my decison to work. I feel guilty when I know I've mismanaged my time in such a way that I burden my husband or short-change my children.

  19. Anonymous9:15 PM

    Doing the wrong thing I don't feel guilty, just responsible.

    People used to feel "guilty" about not working all the time in grad school and I didn't get it. If I thought I was going to fail an exam or not finish a paper I wouldn't feel guilt but fear.

    Guilt, to me, is the feeling I am shortchanging something. I feel it toward myself, not doing what I know is best, and sometimes toward others, doing what I want and not what they want me to do. It's the worst when I also know that what they want me to do is the wrong thing for both me and the universe, and yet they want it so baaaad.

  20. Yup, if I think about some of the things I feel guilty about, like not figuring out how to put my kids into more activities because lots of them are during working hours, if I analyze it, it's actually a feeling of disappointment in myself. I'm disappointed that I chose to prioritize something else instead.

    Doing the above would require a nanny, a whole lot of time nanny hunting, and a lot of extra money. Plus taking on the risk of hiring someone that was worse than my current setup. So, in this case I prioritized it away until my younger son is school aged. But then I have to remember that giving them everything will spoil them and this feeling of disappointment is also tied to my childhood of not doing any activities growing up..and who cares if my kid is only doing a couple of things instead of being overscheduled?

    Great thought provoking post.


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