A recent book, “Power Moms,” asserts that “working-mother guilt persists in American society today because gender-role expectations haven’t evolved enough.” Here’s another perspective: If you feel guilty, it’s because you know your children need you.
Maternal guilt, within reason, isn’t a bad feeling to be ditched. It’s a signal feeling—one that helps us to focus on what’s important. If you break your ankle running, nobody would tell you to ignore the excruciating pain and blame social conditioning when that proves impossible. But when it comes to an emotional equivalent like guilt, we tell mothers to ignore it at the expense of their children’s well-being—and their own.
When a mother leaves her infant to go to work, she naturally experiences pangs of longing, sadness, anger and confusion. These are healthy signs of love and attachment—the bonds that create the emotional security a child needs. Encouraging women to reject their maternal instincts and the sadness and guilt they produce alienates mothers from their children, who need them.
It also creates its own pressures and guilty feelings. Telling women (or men) to put work and their own needs over relationships contributes to social isolation, loneliness and depression. And it can make stay-at-home mothers feel as if they’re betraying feminism, when it’s feminism that’s failing them. The feminist movement made great strides in freeing women to have careers, but it didn’t validate mothering as valuable work or consider the consequences of having children without being prepared to care for them.
Babies are born neurologically fragile and unformed, and they need a mother’s presence for healthy development. Mothers function as their children’s “central nervous system” in the first year. A mother’s presence as much as possible in the first three years is necessary to regulate children’s emotions, buffer them against stress, and provide them with a sense of emotional security that lays a foundation for a lifetime of mental health. Societies that devalue mothering rob children of their basic needs.