Supermom: Complete with Cape, Super Powers … and Guilt

Mothers are so often unsung heroes. They are on call 24/7 while working full-time jobs and trying to make solid citizens out of the little people entrusted to their care. They make thousands of decisions each week, and they hope that most are the right ones … you know, the ones that won’t be discussed at the therapist’s office down the road in their child’s life. (Really? I never knew NOT having a childhood puppy was going to send you down a road of chronic in-school suspension!)

The Working Mother

I’ve never met a working mother who didn’t struggle with guilt on some level. Maybe guilt from having to call the school or the doctor’s office during working hours, or guilt for having to take unfinished work home. Moms often wonder if they are failing their families by not putting them first, but also might wonder if they are failing their job by not putting it first. And on top of all that, moms feel guilty when, on occasion, dare to indulge in something for themselves, regardless of the time they commit to others. The feeling of guilt can come from many things. In a way, it’s like a never-ending game of tug-of-war with several different ropes.

Most of the time, my clients who are mothers focus their coaching time on the shame and guilt they feel about being imperfect. The tragedy of it all is that these women are wonderful human beings, mothers, employees, spouses, volunteers, friends and any other role they can wedge into their tightly packed schedules. What they can’t accept is that they can still be wonderful and while being imperfect. They continue to feel “less than” because they are running toward a nonexistent finish line.

There was a study done on working mothers in Scandinavia (Elvin-Nowack, 1999), and it found that “Guilt comes from a general feeling of responsibility, as well as certain elements of shame, and aggression,” and “This was most prominent when women lacked real control over the demands made from different spheres of life.” This also happened when they put the responsibility for themselves and their own needs first.

Fueling the Fire

Not only is there societal pressure on mothers to be perfect on all fronts, but also some mothers are pretty tough on each other for their choices. Dubbed the “Mommy Wars” by the media, there are some harsh words flying around out there for those who have made their choices, or perhaps have even had their choices made for them by circumstances beyond their control. There are people on all sides of various camps:

  • Breast-feeding vs. formula
  • Disposable diapers vs. cloth diapers
  • Co-sleeping vs. kids in their own rooms
  • Public school vs. Private school vs. Home school
  • Let them watch TV vs. No TV
  • Stay-At-Home Moms vs. Career Moms

Many women have had casual conversations with fellow moms that have turned into lectures on how “if they really loved their child” they would chose ____ (fill in your choice). Moms already have a lot on their plate without being challenged and judged by their own.

Guilt Takes Over the Home

Women are twice as likely to feel guilt at home. Researchers at the University of Toronto did a study actually quantifying the emotions experienced by men and women when work and family boundaries are crossed. According to the findings, frequent contact by bosses, co-workers, or clients led to increased feelings of guilt, but only among women. Women were almost twice as likely to report feeling guilty as the phone calls, emails, and texts increased.

The women were determined to be just as competent in meeting the work and home obligations as men, but felt completely differently about it. More psychological distress can occur when the guilt continues to increase for women. So whether it’s biological make-up, or our culture, women are feeling the guilt in large proportions. The technology meant to give us more flexibility and time at home is really just blurring the lines between work and home.

So what can moms do?

  • Rein in the negative self-talk. Take a deep breath. Some guilt feelings are just going to be there, but you can still be proud that you’re putting your best foot forward in while wearing those stylish black pumps.
  • Have your own goals and interests in addition to your work and family. What? Who has the time to make time for themselves? I know, but your schedule and doing something for yourself is critical for your happiness and effectiveness in other parts of your life.
  • Get the family involved. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, convenience foods hit the shelves for a reason. Women were entering the workforce and needed shortcuts for dinner. But times have changed and the responsibility of dinner preparation can be a family function. Make dinner with your spouse or take turns doing it, and also get the children in the kitchen.
  • Set boundaries. If the calls and emails from work are getting too invasive, think about talking to your business leader about what constitutes a true need outside of business hours. We train people how to treat us.
  • Seek support and connect with other women online. For example, join Campaign for Judgment Free Motherhood at or Moms Rising, which has chapters all around the country and a hearty website full of content to move our country forward on critical issues facing women, mothers, and families.

The answers will be different for everyone. The message I’m conveying is to work toward effectiveness, not perfection, because it’s OK for a mother to have flaws. Try to remove yourself from the stress of guilt. Committing to your choices and claiming something for yourself along the way can create empowerment that will serve you well. Plus, I bet you’re already pretty amazing.