The Mum Guilt Epidemic That’s Holding Us Back

Working mum guilt

Our culture makes working mothers feel like they are never doing enough, and yet women are spending more time today with their children than their grandmothers did – and this is true for women that work. 

Employed mothers in 2000 spent the same amount of time interacting with their children as non-working mothers did in 1975 (as cited in ‘Careers Advice for Ambitious Women’ by Financial Times columnist Mrs Moneypenny, published in 2013). 

For many mothers, they face the constant conflict of feeling pulled in two different (or often multiple) directions – torn between work that fulfils them and spending time with their beloved family.

This is not a new concept. However, the combination of increasingly high external barriers, the toll of the pandemic and the added issue of Mum Guilt is affecting women’s happiness, productivity and sometimes, propensity to take a more senior role / step up at work.

This is not an issue that should be downplayed or just seen as a “mummy thing. As a career coach, I have worked with many accomplished women (in senior positions at the companies such as Amazon, PwC and the NHS), and it’s rare that Mum Guilt doesn’t come up as an issue that holds them back. For some, they are now considering leaving the workforce, or already have. Gender parity will never be possible in the workplace if women continue to struggle to find the support they need once they’ve had children, to enable them to continue working.

External barriers have never been higher for working parents

The continued rising cost of childcare has been widely publicised in the UK in recent weeks. An article published in The Guardian this month stated that the cost of childcare is £2,000 higher than it was in 2010, according to the Trades Union Congress, with the average annual nursery bill now £7,212. Other statistics state the average is £12,000.

Last year my childcare costs were nearly £15,000 (around AUD$30,000) and the financial stress saw me shift from running my small business to returning  to the corporate world to earn a full-time salary, whilst I “side hustled”.

When I shared how this burden was affecting my family, women told me that they have delayed having more children as the cost of two in childcare would send them into debt.

Another woman described the cost of childcare as having a “second mortgage”: once her two children have started primary school, they will have paid over £60,000 for childcare.

Others described the challenges of not having any family close by to help and this, coupled with the lack of flexible working and lack of career progression after maternity leave, means they are finding it too hard.

This sentiment of “it’s too hard” is frequently shared with me in confidence – often via an Instagram DM or email.

It’s also reflected in studies on women in work: 52% of women are considering or have already left the workforce, according to a LinkedIn Study published last month.

Personally, I want to throw up my hands in dismay. What effect will this have on our women in leadership in future years? 

When my son George (nearly four) is entering the workforce, will it be a place of inclusivity and equality at all organisational levels?

I do hope that leaders have these issues on their agenda and are working towards how we can solve these issues together.

The Mum Guilt epidemic

In addition to these barriers, I’m increasingly seeing women citing “Mum Guilt” as a factor for considering leaving the workforce, or not taking the next step in their career.

It is not their fault – social media has a huge role to play in this: we’ve all seen images of parents throwing birthday parties that look like Pinterest boards, or videos of mums casually whipping up banana muffins in brand-new, sparkling kitchens. 

Right now, parents are burdened by the expectation of being constantly present with our kids the minute they are out of school or nursery, yet workplaces expect us to be available around the clock too.

Last year I shared one of my many Mum Guilt experiences of giving my son many fish finger dinners whilst I juggled my two jobs. I was inundated with messages of solidarity, but the response also concerned me. It led to some personal introspection and discussion with my clients.

How was their work day affected if they had a challenging nursery drop off? Are they holding themselves back from moving into a more senior role? How was Mum Guilt affecting them personally and professionally?

Many internal barriers, including fears, were shared. Mum Guilt was affecting them more unconsciously than they were aware of:

  • From turning down high-profile projects for fear of missing out on time at home.
  • To being stressed every week when a particular meeting would overrun and having to run to the tube to make nursery pick up. For this particular woman, this stress would be experienced for that entire day with the sheer uncertainty of this meeting’s timings.
  • To relishing in returning to work as they “hated” being at home with their newborn.
  • Or realising that Mum Guilt was manifesting in throwing extravagant birthday parties.

I recently surveyed 100 women whilef developing my latest course, The Working Mum’s Toolkit, and 59% said Mum Guilt was a key concern, behind ‘Confidence’ and ‘Knowing how to juggle family and work’; and 63% said they aspire to be a ‘calm and present Mum’.

Continually hearing these challenges, and experiencing them myself, inspired me to both research and share tools to help overcome Mum Guilt, such as positive reframing, used in cognitive psychology, and writing a simple list of the things that you have done for your child that day or week. 

I am happy with the progress that’s been made: I’ve seen clients reporting back that they no longer feel wracked with the Mum Guilt that had been distracting them at work all day (and often impacting their mental health). 

The Guiltless Mum Campaign

Today I am launching my Guiltless Mum campaign to bring awareness to the challenges created by an epidemic of Mum Guilt. 

The campaign is an invitation to consider how Mum Guilt is affecting you with a Quiz that links to free resources. I worked with Illustrator (and Mum), Paula Kuka to create campaign images, and will be inviting mums to share these with the hashtag #guiltlessmum in an effort to be more aware of feelings of guilt. 

With every share of the campaign, a donation will be made towards Dress for Success charity, supporting women back in the workforce.  

It is my hope that by overcoming the barrier of Mum Guilt, women will be happier, more focused and productive, because the last thing that we need is another barrier holding us back. Businesses can also take steps to offer resources to working parents, alongside improved policies on flexible working.

Further support: 

Take the Mum Guilt Quiz and get access to free resources to help.

The Working Mum’s Toolkit is an online resource and is available for £37, enabling women to feel more confident, have balance and return to work after maternity leave. Please get in touch for corporate packages. 

I am offering 10 businesses a free workshop on the topic of “Confidence, Balance and Burnout”, including the Mum Guilt Epidemic in the workplace (open to all employees). I’m offering these on a first come, first serve basis – if interested, please do get in touch:

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