Maternal Guilt

This week’s blog has been written by Sarah Flynn, a new coach on our team.    Sarah is also a business psychologist and postnatal facilitator – she facilitates our parent coaching workshops and workshops for managers.

For more information about Sarah, please click here

Maternal Guilt

I read an interesting journal article by Finnish sociologists Anna Rotkirch and Kristina Janhunen recently that makes some thought provoking points about the emotion of guilt, and maternal guilt in particular. They describe guilt as an ‘interpersonal moral emotion’, a feeling that signals when we may need to repair relationships that are important in our lives. They refer to humans as ‘cooperative breeders’, in that our children receive care from people other than just their immediate parents. They suggest that guilt helps us to manage the boundaries of care, and the network of relationships involved in raising our children.

So why, as mothers, do we feel so much guilt, about so many things, so much of the time? Does this indicate a need to ‘repair’ all of the relationships we feel some guilt about, or could it be, that sometimes our sense of guilt is triggered so frequently for other reasons? We can feel guilty, for example, whether we decide to return to paid work, or if we decide not to! Just because we are primed to feel guilt does not necessarily mean that it’s always appropriate, helpful, or, indeed, an accurate indication that something needs repairing.

I thought it might be helpful to look at guilt through the lens of a tool called the decision-making triangle (developed by Grimes; see Robertson, 2012).  This is a framework for considering the various factors involved in making decisions. It suggests that we are likely to make decisions based on i) facts and information, ii) social influences, and iii) our own personal circumstances.

What I have found in both individual and group coaching is that when we become more aware of the social influences (or ‘pressures’) in our lives, and our own personal priorities, values, and circumstances, it can help us to ‘filter’ our feelings of guilt, and decide when guilt has a useful message for us, and when it does not.

Let’s take, for example, a mother’s decision about whether to return to paid employment outside of the home, or not (staying at home to raise children and manage the home is work too, although typically unpaid).

Social Influences

A mother may receive messages and expectations from all the different social groups she is part of. These might include family members, old friends, new friends, work colleagues, and even social media groups. Then there are the messages from the advertising industry that portray the image of ‘perfect’ parenthood, but rarely show the realities and challenges. The list of influences is long, and the messages are often conflicting. Here’s the thing – these social pressures are rarely impartial. They often have an agenda of their own.  If we try to live up to all of these influences, then guilt seems fairly inevitable. The fact remains that we are social beings, and human connection can feel even more important when we become parents, which can make us feel all the more vulnerable to guilt.

What is more, most of us have our own internal voices and expectations, judging what we do, saying things like ‘You have to be perfect’, or ‘You should be able to do it all’. These are often particularly pernicious, and lead us to do that all-time guilt-inducer that mothers are particularly good at – comparing ourselves to others! We typically only compare ourselves on the things that we find challenging, rather than the things that come naturally to us.  Also, we usually compare ourselves to people that we see as being particularly good in that area. This can lead us to have a negative self-view that tends to sap our energy and detract from parenting, rather than supporting it.

Personal Factors and Circumstances

Gaining clarity in this area helps to put social pressures into context, and can be a powerful antidote to guilt. Below are some questions that can help us to clarify what is really important to us, rather than to other people:

  • Who am I, and what do I stand for? (As an individual, and as a family unit)
  • What are my individual circumstances, and what do they mean for the decision of whether or not I should return to paid work?
  • What are my personal values? What really matters to me in my life?
  • What are the values and standards that I would like to communicate to my children?
  • If I think ahead to 10, 15, even 20 years’ time, beyond the more immediate pressures of finances, little free time, and so on – what are the messages and values that I would like to communicate to my children in the longer term, and where does returning to work, or not, fit into this?
  • Thinking ahead, how would I like my children to filter the pressures they will experience as they enter the world of social media – how would I like them to be able to filter these messages and decide for themselves what is important?
  • How do I need to be in relation to myself along this journey of parenthood? So often if we can treat ourselves with compassion and kindness, it is easier to be the parents that we would like to be. If we criticize, judge and pressurize ourselves, our energy is sapped and our feelings of stress can get in the way of parenting.
  • Finally, am I putting unrealistic, unsustainable expectations on myself?

Having done this, it is often easier to see whether the guilt we are feeling holds anything that is useful and relevant for us, or not. For example, an aspect of guilt may be about whether we are spending enough time with our children (whether we are working or not). By exploring what really matters in this way, parents sometimes decide that the most important thing is making sure they are really present and connected with their children when they do spend time together. Ironically, guilt often gets in the way of us being present, whereas being kind to ourselves, and taking the pressure off, can make it easier to be present and connect with our children (and ourselves).


Robinson, F. Sharing Evidence-Based Information in Postnatal Groups Perspective 2012; 8-9.
Rotkirch, A. & Janhunen, K. (2010) Maternal Guilt. Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, 8 (1), 90-106 [available at]

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