Getting rid of guilt

January 21

Illustration by Hadley Hooper for the Washington Post

The author Erica Jong once said, "Show me a woman who doesn't feel guilty and I'll show you a man." She was right.

A few years ago, a man (a father who didn't feel guilty about working) suggested that my being a working parent wasn’t such a good idea. “Do you know any dual-career couples who had kids who turned out okay?” he asked. I was perplexed. “Lots,” I answered. I couldn’t understand why he didn’t, too.

I grew up in Washington, D.C. in the 1970s, surrounded by examples of mothers who worked—for the federal government, hospitals, law firms—and were also wonderful parents. The advantages of that seemed obvious to me as a child, and seem even clearer to me now as a mother and as an author who pores over research on women’s careers.

Yet our culture’s devotion to maternal guilt blinds too many of us from seeing the good in two-career homes. Guilt is the great hobbler for women. Only when we get rid of it will we make the last great leap to gender equality.

A 2010 University of North Carolina review of studies on maternal guilt points to a "cult of domesticity” in this country that has dominated, in particular, the white population. It’s a sort of self-perpetuating guilt trap, where we’ve come to expect that truly devoted mothers willingly, joyfully sacrifice all of their own hopes and needs in order to dedicate themselves entirely to their children. Then, when we inevitably fall short of that ideal, we sink into the communal comfort of feeling guilty, even though the results for us individually are pretty harmful.

As the UNC study reports, "women internalize their perceived inadequacies…as personal failures, which often occur in tandem with high levels of psychological distress and low perceived control."

The image we’ve created of the happy homemaker doesn’t just make working mothers feel guilty, it can make mothers who stay home but don’t find it as joyful and perfect as expected feel guilty, too. We airbrush women's lives at home just as much, and as damagingly, as we airbrush women’s bodies in fashion magazines.

That’s why it’s so important for us to banish maternal guilt.

The reality is that mothers with jobs (regardless of how few or many hours per week) are significantly happier than mothers who only stay home. According to a U.K. study, depression risk declines and self-esteem rises. And when a parent is happy and assured, the benefits spill over to the kids as well. Not to make this sound too good, but the research also finds that when husbands and wives split earnings and housework evenly, divorce risk dives by 50 percent.

I’ve seen these findings play out in my own life. I’m pretty sure I’d have driven everyone crazy, and left my kids no better off, if I’d stayed home. Like any family, we’ve weathered bullies, learning issues, health scares, and I’m sure there will be lots more. But the older my kids get, the more passionate I become about the fact that they are doing well not in spite of my career, but because of it.

The largest-yet study of childcare and child development tracked 1,300 kids over 15 years. It found that kids with a parent at home didn’t fare any better than kids who went to daycare.

Of course, though, there are valid reasons why women believe their professional success could be a family hazard. There are still many cultural norms that make it hard for women to get rid of guilt. The American Psychological Association published a new study that found when women are successful, it bruises the egos of the men they love. In the study, men who heard that their romantic partner had scored in the top echelon on a problem-solving test said they were happy about her success — but then showed declines in measures of their own self-esteem.

We need to incorporate these results into the new realities of the workplace and home. In 28 percent of dual-career couples today, the wife earns more than her husband. That means it’s increasingly urgent for us as a society to address the psychological effects, on men as well as women.

The good news is that as women become more and more successful, attitudes are in fact slowly beginning to catch up. According to Pew Research, 72 percent of people under age 30 think that it's better when both parents work and both take care of kids. It’s fitting that they do, given our daughters and our sons are very likely to be working parents themselves.

If we genuinely want that future for them, we have to stop seeing the success of women as the downfall of men. Even more importantly, we have to stop seeing it as the downfall of mothering. Reframing will create a bigger picture for all of us and more opportunities for a family life that fits who we are, rather than who we think we should be.

Sharon Meers is the co-author of Getting to 50/50, now out in paperback. Meers is also the head of Magento Enterprise Strategy at eBay Inc. and was previously a managing director at Goldman Sachs. Twitter: @gettingto50_50

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