Working parent guilt—Where it comes from and how to send it packing

Guilt felt by working parents is a type of unhelpful “persecutory guilt,” writes Emily Singler, VMD, that can be avoided and healed through releasing unrealistic expectations and shifting responsibilities and priorities.

By Emily Singler

Guilt is a complicated thing. It is sometimes helpful in that it can keep us from acting in ways that hurt others and it can help us realize when we need to make amends for our actions (called “reparative guilt” by psychologist Don Carveth).

Another type of guilt is not helpful. It’s called “persecutory guilt,” and it’s a sort of unfounded self-punishment. Working parent guilt fits into this second category. It is largely the result of the unreasonable, unattainable expectations we (and society as a whole) have for ourselves.

Where does working parent guilt come from?

Some working parents attached much of their identity to their profession prior to becoming parents. They then face the challenge of figuring out how to maintain some portion of their professional identity (if they choose to) while undergoing a life-changing transition. This can lead to feelings of guilt that they are “not doing enough” for their profession after becoming a parent.

Add to that the caregiving responsibilities and sacrificial mindset of veterinary professionals, and it’s no wonder that working parent guilt is so prominent in our field. In many cases, we hold ourselves personally responsible for the lives of our patients, the wellbeing of our colleagues, and the satisfaction of our clients, not to mention the financial needs of our families.

For parents, the role of raising, nurturing, and teaching a child can be all-encompassing and anxiety-inducing. The responsibility of protecting a child from illness, injury, emotional trauma, and more weighs heavily on many parents. Having to temporarily separate from their child to go to work can create feelings of conflict for some parents who may feel they must be the one to meet all of their child’s needs.

The “default” parent

The default parent is one who is expected to take (or who, for whatever reason, ends up taking) on a majority of the childrearing responsibilities in the home, both physical and mental.

Among other things, this can include tasks such as:

  • Child pick-up and drop-off
  • Scheduling doctors’ appointments
  • Missing work when children are sick or school is closed
  • Keeping track of extracurricular activities
  • Planning social events

The nondefault parent

The nondefault parent, on the other hand, may remain less aware of daily schedules and planning needs. They may expect the default parent to schedule their work hours around the nondefault parent’s schedule.

The nondefault parent often has a greater ability to maintain full-time working hours and avoid having their work responsibilities impacted by caregiving needs. As a result, the stress attributed to being a working parent may be lower for the nondefault parent than the default parent.

The pressure on moms

Despite decades of progress in terms of women working outside of the home, cultural expectations of the mother as the default parent persist. This pressure is incredibly stressful and can lead to feelings of inadequacy—especially when facing a seemingly never-ending to-do list.

Add to that the demands of paid employment and hopes for a successful career, and it’s easy to see how there can be constant competition between the many tasks working parents are expected to accomplish—and feelings of guilt when they fail to complete them all.

How to attack working parent guilt

Working parent guilt may be something that never totally goes away, and which parents of all genders will always need to intentionally combat. However, there are a variety of ways to empower parents to give themselves more compassion and honest reflection on their own role:

Redistribute household labor.

Are you the default parent to a fault? Consider whether this can be adjusted. There are some great resources to help couples examine their household labor distribution (including parenting responsibilities).

Check out Fair Play by Eve Rodsky and The Equal Parent by Paul Morgan-Bentley. When a balanced parental partnership isn’t possible (i.e., single-parent households, households where one parent travels or has an overly demanding job, etc.), it’s important to reach out to others and create a village of paid and/or unpaid support to reduce the feeling of drowning in obligations.

Prioritize instead of multitasking.

In Power Moms by Joann S. Lublin, moms who are corporate executives discuss the ways they minimize their stress and guilt by choosing to devote themselves as intently as possible to what they are doing at any given moment—which means not feeling guilty about the things they are not doing.

So, if they’re with their kids, they’re not trying to work at the same time. And if they’re at work, they have confidence that their children are well taken care of and they don’t feel guilty about giving their full attention to work.

Challenge the status quo.

The status quo is that mothers are always the default parents—and therefore take the brunt of the parental load. The expectation has long been that fathers and other nonbirthing parents shouldn’t have to modify their careers to play a primary role in caregiving responsibilities. This mindset is starting to change, but it will take continued advocacy and curiosity to undermine these long-held prejudices.

Practice self-compassion and avoid isolation.

Look inward to see what harmful messages you are telling yourself. Create one or more affirmations that counter those harmful messages and make a habit of repeating them.

For example:

  • “I am a loving and hardworking parent.”
  • “My children know how much I love them.”
  • “My family is proud of the work I do.”
  • “I am valued by my employer.”
  • “I take great care of my patients and clients.”

It’s also very important to avoid isolation. We are much more susceptible to believing the harmful messages we tell ourselves when we don’t share them. We often find it easier to see how harmful and untrue those feelings and beliefs are in other people, so noting them in others can help give us the perspective we need to show ourselves more compassion, too.

Changing norms and mindsets

While the guilt experienced by working parents is, in part, just how our brains work, the pervasiveness of these feelings are an important sign that our societal systems and mindsets need to grow with the times to better support the growing community of working parents.

And, to all you working parents out there, just in case you haven’t heard it from someone else today: You’re doing a great job!

Further reading

Two Types of Guilt

How to Let Go of Working Mom Guilt

Pregnancy and Postpartum Considerations for the Veterinary Team

Fair Play by Eve Rodsky

The Equal Parent by Paul Morgan-Bentley

Power Moms by Joann S. Lublin

Emily Singler, VMD, is AAHA’s Veterinary Content Specialist.

Cover photo credit: © BroVector E+ via Getty Images Plus

Disclaimer: The views expressed, and topics discussed, in any NEWStat column or article are intended to inform, educate, or entertain, and do not represent an official position by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) or its Board of Directors.



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