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Goodbye to the guilt of the working mom

A 2010 meta-analysis of 69 studies over 50 years found that, in general, children whose mothers worked when they were young had no major learning, behaviour or social problems, tended to be high achievers in school and have less depression and anxiety. The positive effects were particularly strong for children from low-income or single-parent families, while some studies showed negative effects in middle-class or two-income families. 

Psychological Counselor Leandre Kurz provides more insight into why working mothers should let go of guilt:

Guilt is an emotional response that serves as a warning sign and an emotional regulator. It signals the need for behavioural modification in order to prevent repeating what we personally regard as wrong. Guilt should serve a helpful purpose in teaching us about our own behaviour, instead of being an emotional and irrational response to encounters. 

New mothers who leave their infants in the care of others and return to work often experience guilt. Similar to other situations, their guilt responses can be irrational, emotional, without purpose and therefore contribute to overall negative affectivity and general mood. 

For those mothers struggling to come to terms with the first day of work after maternity leave, the following benefits may make the process slightly less guilt provoking.

Working instils a sense of purpose outside motherhood. It allows for the mother’s financial independence. In many instances heading back to the office enables a woman to reconnect social ties and engage in social interaction outside her home and family. It allows women to have a break from nappy and breastfeeding duty, and also motivates greater involvement from their partners.

Older children, especially females, often experience their working mothers as role models. Working mothers allow space for their children to develop an early sense of independence. Engaging in occupational activities reduces their chances of developing depression, while numerous studies have proven that the babies of working moms tend to grow up as children with well-adjusted personalities and fewer behavioural problems than predicted by most guilt-ridden beginner mothers. This may result from work schedules that compel the setting of boundaries and routines to ensure that household activities run smoothly. 

While the benefits to the infant of a working mother may put the mother’s guilty conscience to rest, these pointers may further help ease that little g-voice in her head. 

One must understand your guilt has its purpose. Guilt serves to help us re-examine our behaviour and make changes. In this case, guilt is healthy and appropriate. When guilt serves no purpose as it does not signal the need to re-examine behaviour, it becomes irrational and inappropriate.

New mothers can benefit from identifying which behaviours they have engaged in and which of these have to be re-examined. Feeling guilty about not having taken necessary care to ensure the safety and welfare of your child may be appropriate. Feeling guilty because you feel that your baby’s development will be negatively affected by your absence (despite the knowledge that many children have grown up in the same manner) will be inappropriate. 

Secondly, if there are behaviours that need to be re-examined and you find that guilt feelings were not inappropriate, make amends as soon as possible. The sooner changes in behaviour are made, the sooner the need for the warning signal – guilt – disappears. 

Finally, learn to accept that no one is perfect. Accept that everyone makes mistakes. Take lessons, change your behaviour, and move on.