“I can’t get away from the guilt,” Shelley, a 30-something working mother says. “When I’m not with my kids I feel guilty; but when I’m not thinking about work I feel guilty, too. What can I do to feel less guilty and get some peace?”
Guilt can be a dogged companion, hard to shake and often accompanied by a weary feeling that is difficult to locate, but feels like a cloud of dread overhead. Working mothers often experience guilt as they try to fulfill each role well.
Within one type of therapy called dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), there is a set of skills around dealing with emotions. Essentially, each emotion has a purpose, which is to communicate to yourself and others what is going on in the world. A distinction is drawn between times when the emotion is justified (such as you feel guilty because you have done something wrong and you’ll need to repair it) or unjustified (when you feel guilt without having done anything wrong). The idea is to act appropriately when the emotion is justified, and ‘act opposite’ to the emotion when it is unjustified.
In Shelley’s case, she feels guilty because, in her mind, she is spending less time with her children. She would need to evaluate how much time and the quality of that time she thinks is necessary to spend with her children for them to be healthy and happy. She would need to balance that against her own desires to work, to play a different role than mother, as well as against financial constraints, and so on. In Shelley’s case, after examining all factors, she was clear that working made her more content and enhanced her mothering, and that being around a fulfilled mother was right for her children even if it meant less actual time with them. She was then able to notice the guilt when it arose occasionally, but not react to it in the old way.
The well-known Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer has written that she thinks guilt is “mindless”. People who feel guilty presume that if they did whatever they think they should have done – or didn’t do whatever they think they shouldn’t have done – their lives would turn out differently (that is, better). We know from research, however, that this does not stand up. Time spent with children is just one factor of many that may contribute to how happy and healthy kids are, and complex outcomes like wellbeing of children are not explained by just one factor.
Dr Mary Grogan is a clinical psychologist and director of Change it Psychology.