When I was nine years old, I liked to come home from school, turn on the television and watch The People’s Court. For 30 minutes, everyday citizens would come before a black-gowned, white-haired man named Judge Wapner and argue their cases—usually unneighbourly disagreements.
Wapner would collect all of his information and then deliver his decision in long, convincing paragraphs that made you think he was going to side one way. Then, at the very last minute, he’d turn the whole thing around with swift logic and rule in favour of the other guy. Boom. Slam of the gavel. “Guilty!” I called it every time.
So maybe I should have been more prepared 20-something years later when, going back to work after the birth of our first son, that guilty gavel dropped from the sky, seemingly out of nowhere.
Like most American women, I was back at work sooner than I wanted to be, at 12 weeks. Still, I’d bought some new pants, hired a nanny, brushed my hair and stepped onto the New York City subway, ready to go do something I knew I was good at: my job. I hated handing my ten-pound son to a woman I barely knew. But I did not, I told myself—and my well-intended neighbour, who’d inquired in the elevator—feel any guilt for supporting my family and returning to a career that I’d built for years.
What I felt was: unhealed, anxious, tender-nippled, stressed, sweaty, free, exuberant, old, young, hurried, exhausted, ugly, capable, incompetent, leaky, appreciated, alien, unmoored, excited, relieved. I held these emotions like the bouquet of flowers I’d bought for myself on my way into work, a mixed bunch that looked surprisingly okay when squished all together in a vase with the stems cut the same length. My desk had never been cleaner! I was a woman who bought herself flowers! And then came the inquiries:
How’s the guilt?
How are you doing? Do you miss him so much? Any regrets?
Oh, look at that picture! How could you leave him?
Isn’t it so crazy how the dads never feel guilty?
The gavel slammed down hard, rattling the vase. And then there was this one:
Don’t worry, honey. If mama’s happy, baby will be happy.
But mama wasn’t “happy,” exactly. Mama was the aforementioned annoyingly metaphorical bouquet. Did that mean my baby was just as confused?
Within days, I felt guilty. Guilty for all of the work my colleagues had covered for me, guilty for missing God-knows-how-many gummy little smiles, guilty for spending my nighttime nursing sessions scratching at my baby’s flaky cradle cap rather than gazing into his eyes, or calling the doctor. Guilty when I did call the doctor, for taking up her time…she had a new baby too. Guilty for not having felt guilty sooner.
Guilt became a reflex. And, addictively, it was my indoctrination into The Club. You know the club I’m talking about. The mom club. The club that lets you, with the roll of your eyes, bond with another incarcerated guilty mother. I liked the camaraderie, but did I really have to torture myself with self-flagellation to belong? It felt demeaning, like hazing.
Like nearly every challenge of motherhood so far, the thing that helped most was the passing of time. It had been a swift sentencing—thank you, Judge Wapner—but all those hash marks on the jail-cell wall had served a purpose. They were boring. I wanted something more. Like so many working mothers—and like most millennials now—I sought meaning in my work. If I was going to be made to feel this guilty for not being with my child, I might as well be doing work that made the world a tiny bit better for him one day. I found comfort in studies like the one out of Harvard that showed that working moms had daughters who were higher-achieving in their careers, and sons who grew up to help more with childcare.
I started doing some of my own research, too. One day, a colleague thanked me for being so honest about working motherhood; rather than scaring her off, I’d shown her it was possible—hard, but possible. That was a light-bulb moment, and it set me off on a book proposal. I’d call it The Fifth Trimester. My little side project grew into more than 100 in-depth interviews, and a survey of 700+ new working moms.
I worked round the clock and as I paged through my interview transcripts, one word leapt out again and again: “guilt.” The moms I’d interviewed had little else in common, actually. There were hourly workers and Fortune 500 executives. Part-time workers, freelancers, moms on career-pause, adoptive moms, single moms.
They all reported feeling guilty.
So I looked more closely. Turns out, guilt meant different things to different women. Their random-flower bouquets of emotions were as varied and motley as my own. But none of these women, to my eye, seemed like they actually had done anything wrong. Judge Wapner wouldn’t have punished them, certainly. So why were they punishing themselves? Collectively, they make a strong case: If everyone feels guilty, there is no other “better” mother to compare ourselves to. Mom guilt is a sham.
Mom guilt is also not helpful, on an individual level or a largely cultural one.
Research has shown that feeling guilty doesn’t reform our future behaviour. Rather, it gives more power to the part of the brain that seeks gratification.
And, as I saw in my interviews, there’s no “behaviour” to be reformed anyway. There are choices and compromises made in challenging circumstances: Biologically, we are built to have our children during what should be the boom years of our careers. Extended families live further apart. The school day ends hours before the workday. Most households need two incomes. The better question—a better use of our emotional energy as mothers—is this: How do we change those circumstances to help new parents feel supported so they can make compromises they’re comfortable with?
In order to answer that question and be part of the solution, we must do more than just stay in the game in our careers. We must exonerate ourselves. We must be open and honest about the challenges of new parenthood, about the names of every one of those flowers in our bouquets.
When I give talks about my research, I like to end on an Australian study that looked at what it takes to get through that awful feeling of wanting to quit—something a lot of the mothers I interviewed told me was tied tightly to their feelings of guilt. The research is shockingly simple: People need to feel valued. When you feel valued—as a worker, as a parent—you become, the researchers found, more confident in your compromises. I love that. I love the acknowledgment that there are always going to be compromises we make as mothers striving to maintain our own identities while nurturing others’.
Life is not a courtroom. And, it must be noted, my mother never felt guilty when I watched TV.
Lauren Smith Brody is the founder of The Fifth Trimester consulting, which helps parents and businesses collaborate to improve workplace culture. Her bestselling book, The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity and Success After Baby, is out in paperback March 6, 2018.
This article was originally published online in March 2018.