Why do moms still feel guilty about working?


Working mom guilt is a powerful, negative force that is dated as it is prevalent. I have written on this topic extensively through this blog, my podcast, and on my Forbes column. Most recently, I partnered with the bank BBVA Compass to create a FREE 50-page ebook, and 10-part podcast series devoted to exploring WHY moms feel guilty about earning money, the COST to our careers, marriages, income and families, the REALITIES of how much time our kids actually need from us (answer: not much at all!! You're welcome!), and how to figure out a family / career formula in which everyone can thrive.

Free from Guilt: Why Moms Have it, and How to Conquer It

mom guilt Is a free ebook packed with reported insights into where all this guilt comes from, why you can't afford to dismiss it as a normal part of life, and how to get ahead at work and home, and give the world and your family the best versions of yourself. Packed with real-mom stories, expert advice, and some laughs, too.

As evidence of the mom-guilt presumption: Last year PopSugar featured the headline: 9 Signs Being a Working Mom Is Right For You.

When I first saw it, I blinked. Rubbed my eyes. Chugged my coffee.

Was this an Onion headline? A funny friend goofing on me? Was I still asleep and having a feminist nightmare?

We all know that most moms who work NEED to work. Otherwise, you and your family would be living in a van down by the river. And even then you and your kids and maybe your elderly parents and disabled sibling you care for would need to eat once in a while. Oh, and you need clothes and blankets and bandaids and tampons. You know, stuff. To live. So you work. Just like 71 percent of moms. Just like the 40 percent of moms who are the BREADWINNERS in their families.

Likely, you know about those Census figures because they come from the reputable people at Pew, and they have been published a ZILLION TIMES because nearly every thinking mom — and dad, and employer, and politician and curious person — cares about these things.

Don't get me wrong: Working mom guilt is a real and terribly dangerous thing. And who can blame us for having conflicting feelings about earning a living while raising children. A recent Pew survey found that the majority of Americans believe it's harder to raise children when the mother works outside of the home, and another survey by Pew found that 60 percent of Americans believe children are better off when a parent is at home, and a mere 21 percent of adults say the trend of more mothers of young children working outside the home has been good for society. This attitude trickles into how we feel about our parenting, as 38 percent of full-time working mothers say they spend too little time with their kids. By comparison, the Washington, D.C., think tank found that just 18 percent of part-time working mothers and 11 percent of non-working mothers say the same.

Therein lies the paradox of our time: While a majority of Americans believe that children fare better when their mothers stay home full-time, the majority of American moms work.

The notion of the stay-at-home mom being the superior mom is so ingrained that high-earning mothers today call themselves “stay-at-home moms” — a phenomenon I find fascinating. My friend, the time management expert Laura Vanderkam, co-authored a study with Redbook magazine examining how self-described stay-at-home moms spend their time. The study found a majority of these women were actually working for pay. A full 62 percent of self-described “stay-at-home moms” contributed income to their households, and a quarter ran their own businesses from home.

mom guilt

Read or download the free (mega) book written by me: Free from Guilt: Why Moms Have it, and How to Conquer It, which is all about why so many of us struggle with being working moms, even though most of us need to work to live, and science says kids, families, marriage, society and moms thrive when we work. Beautiful and funny stories about real-life moms contending with their own struggle to find balance, and expert interviews to help you sort it OUT! 

The cost of all this guilt is tangible, and nearly solely to blame for the pay gap. That's right, that women in the United States earn 77 cents on the male dollar is not a byproduct of white men in C-suits and Washington arbitrarily decide to pay women less than men. Women earn less than men, on average, because they drop out of the workforce to care for children, or otherwise downshift their careers for the sake of family. According to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, a woman's earnings drop 30 percent after being out of the workforce for two to three years. This calculator created by the Center for American Progress projects the potential impact to a woman's lifetime earnings when she takes a break mid-career. A 26-year-old woman earning $50,000 per year stands to lose more than $800,000 in wages, raises and retirement benefits over her lifetime when she steps off the career path for just five years.

But kids fare better when a parent is home full-time, right?


Working mom, stop the guilt. Your kids don't need you that much!

Last year, a University of Maryland meta study that found that after age 2, it makes literally zero difference how much time parents spent with their kids. In fact, researchers found that the pressure to spend so much quality time with children stresses moms out so much that it may actually make us worse parents than if we just focused our time on making more money, and less on frontal-lobe development and deep connection with our children. That is right: We are spending TOO MUCH time with our children.

U.S, moms of 3-to-11-year-olds spend an average of 11 to 30 hours each week either fully engaged in activities with their kids, or nearby and accessible when needed. And for kids in their early teens, moms are there between 11 and 20 hours each week. On average, in 1975 moms spent just over 7 hours per week with their kids. We are spending more time with our children, yet feeling more guilty and stressed.

Better news? WORKING MOMS are GOOD for our kids, especially daughters. A Harvard Business School study of 50,000 adults found that in 24 countries, the daughters whose moms worked before the girls were 14 years old:

  • finished more years of education
  • earned higher salaries
  • and were more likely to be employed and in supervisory roles than their peers whose moms stayed at home

In the United States, the Harvard study found that daughters of working mothers earned 23 percent more than daughters of stay-at-home mothers, and sons spent seven and a half more hours a week on child care and 25 more minutes on housework.

  • Financial security. Even in married couples, two incomes is more secure than one.
  • Marriages end. People die and become disabled and unemployed. Two incomes is more secure than one.
  • Marriages are happier and more secure when both couples work and are satisfied in their jobs.
  • As cited above, women who work are happier, healthier, raise higher-achieving children — and also pay taxes and contribute to the economy.

Arguments for stay at home moms

I have written about this topic extensively for the BBVA Free From Guilt: Balancing Life as a Working Mom, as well as this blog, and Forbes. On the latter two, there were those who, predictably, pushed back. Comments include:

That basically says money buys happiness, has more of an impact on a child’s well-being than spending time with them.

If your children are being partially raised by a 3rd party, the quality of parenting isn’t quite there.

I don't think when they are on their deathbeds that most mothers will wish they spent less time with their kids and more time working so they could buy them iPad apps.

To which I say: If relentless mothering were so very great, then:

Rich mothers would not hire full-time help, as they have since the dawn of time.

We'd appreciate and pay child care workers more. 

Men would have historically sacrificed career and earning for family time. 

The advent of the contemporary stay-at-home mom in the 1950s would not have coincided with spikes in mental illness and substance abuse in these women. 

Study after study would not find that working moms are happier moms than their SAHM peers. 

Reports like this are so important for mothers everywhere — they validate the urgent need for every woman to be financially autonomous and professionally fulfilled — for her own wellbeing, for that of her children and the health of her romantic relationships, as I love to quote studies that find divorce rates plummet for couples in which both parties are both happily employed and earn similar incomes. This data frees you and me to go on with our careers and work without shame for not spending countless, unfulfilling hours with our children for the sole reason that society tells us that better mothers spend more time with their kids.

This is especially relevant to single mothers, who do statistically spend fewer hours on average with our kids than married moms (though, fascinatingly, working moms and SAHMs spend similar numbers of hours with offspring). Every few years when Pew releases the latest time-use findings, and we see once again that single moms spend just 15 hours per week with their kids compared with 20 hours spent by married moms, we all secretly sigh a sad trombone. Because the rule in modern mothering is: More time is more.

No more, ladies.

What do you think? Do you struggle with working mom guilt? How do you overcome it? What can we do to support one another?

Explore the 10 special Working Moms Mean Business podcast episodes here.

mom guilt

Read or download the free (mega) book written by me: Free from Guilt: Why Moms Have it, and How to Conquer It, which is all about why so many of us struggle with being working moms, even though most of us need to work to live, and science says kids, families, marriage, society and moms thrive when we work. 

Podcast episodes in the series, Moms Mean Business, from BBVA Compass:

Are breadwinner moms good for families?

Fact: Working moms are good for kids — Stop the guilt! 

Why you need a mentor, and how to find one to advance your career

About Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.

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