At work we feel bad we’re not with our kids. While working out, we have a nagging feeling we should be home for bedtime. Out with friends, we feel guilty for having a good time while our partners and kids fend for themselves.
For most women, motherhood comes with a healthy serving of guilt. Says Michelle Kalinksi, a Colorado mom who stays at home with her two children and runs a business part-time: “When I'm working I feel guilty that I'm not with the kids and when I'm with the kids I feel guilty that I'm not working, and in both cases I am often called upon to deal with issues related to the other. So I may be working and have to deal with a kid-related issue and vice-versa. It makes me feel like I'm not giving 100 percent to anyone or anything.”
The pressure to lean in, both at work and at home, isn’t just in our heads. Emma Bennett, a Santa Monica therapist specializing in maternal mental health, says “There is a societal expectation for us as mothers to do it all. When we don’t, feelings of guilt, shame or inadequacy can arise.”
Guilt by the numbers
Dad guilt, on the other hand, is an emerging phenomenon we are only beginning to recognize. According to a recent study, nearly a fifth of men surveyed reported feeling guilty about not being present enough with their kids, while 17 percent reported they felt bad about how much they worked. A whopping 63 percent of working fathers said they were envious of stay-at-home dads.
That dads increasingly grapple with the guilt that has long besieged moms is not surprising, given the changing face of the workforce. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 70 percent of mothers with children under age 18 were in the workforce in 2015, compared to 47 percent in 1975. That upward trend has been even steeper for mothers of young children. Between 1975 and 2015, the rate of the labor force participation by mothers with children under age three increased by 27 percent. Not only are mothers increasingly present in the workforce, but their families are increasingly dependent on their financial contributions. In 2015 mothers were the primary or sole wage earners for 40 percent of households with children under 18, compared with 11 percent in 1960.
Jacob Brier’s family is one example of this trend. His wife went back to work as an attorney shortly after their son was born. Jacob stayed home for the first year, gradually transitioning back to full-time work as a small business and marketing consultant around his son’s second birthday. Brier says guilt is a frequent part of his experience as a dad. “I had guilt when I went back to work, and still have guilt when I stay late,” he says. Though the fact that his son now spends much of his day in kindergarten has assuaged some of his guilt – he says he would feel guilty if he weren’t providing for his family financially – it’s still a struggle: “ guilt that I'm not stricter about what he eats. Guilt that I'm too strict about nearly every single other thing. Guilt that I don't plan enough play dates … Guilt that I haven't been to a PTO meeting. Guilt that I forgot to trim his nails. Guilt that I sometimes get annoyed when he does super cute and sweet things, because I really just need a break.”
Michelle Gale, MA, parenting coach and author of “Mindful Parenting In A Messy World,” says the guilt Brier describes is to be expected: “It makes sense that a father who has participated fully in the raising of a baby would feel more guilt as a parent.”
In addition to changing gender roles, some see social media as a source of guilt for both moms and dads. “When your feed shows your friends’ perfect homes, their Pinterest-worthy birthday parties, and the healthy meals they serve their smiling kids, even though you know it’s just a snapshot of their lives, it’s hard not to compare yourself and feel guilty for not doing enough,” says Elizabeth Willey, a Massachusetts mom who works part-time. Willey deleted her Facebook account and says she doesn’t miss it.
While social media can be a source of stress for moms, according to Dr. Jenni Skyler – a sex and relationship therapist and mom of two – it may be a driver for men’s increasingly active approach to parenting. “Our dads’ generation would never have dreamed of feeling guilty for not spending time with their kids,” says Skyler. Now though, she feels social media exposes men to new ideas and perspectives that lead them to be more engaged, albeit more guilt-ridden, as dads.
Mom guilt for the win
While guilt is increasingly seeping into the experience of fatherhood, research shows that mothers still have the upper hand, especially when it comes to work. A 2017 study looking at heterosexual couples with kids found that mothers had significantly higher levels of guilt than fathers when it came to concerns about work interfering with family. Drawing on qualitative research for this study, the authors cited the bind working moms are caught in when their kid gets sick on the same day as an important work presentation. A mom, who may be held to higher standards than her childless colleagues, will experience guilt whether she stays home with her sick child, thereby shirking work responsibilities, or goes to work and lets another caregiver watch her child, pushing off her duties as a mother. The study authors argue that if put in the same position, a man typically has less guilt relative to a woman if he chooses work, as this “is a central part of his parental, gender-prescribed role as primary breadwinner.”
Not only are women more susceptible to feeling guilty due to conflicts between work and family, but some experts argue that for many women, experiencing guilt is an inevitable part of being having two X chromosomes. “Women are more naturally relational, which means they are tracking others emotions and tend to feel much more interconnected," says Gale. "The more interconnected we feel, the more others’ emotions can make us feel one way or the other.”
Gale also says women’s tendency to function as “project managers” plays a role. Where families with a mom and a dad are concerned, “ know intimately when something doesn't go as planned or someone is not getting what they need. It's much easier to feel guilty when you know all the painstaking details of the day."
Though men are catching up, if biology and culture are any indicators, it doesn’t look like they’ll ever beat women on the parental guilt front. Not that the guys shouldn’t try; for both moms and dads, guilt can arise from increased family engagement – and that engagement is a good thing.