Does Motherhood Have To Include Guilt?

Megan Beyer says her guilt is not her mother’s guilt, which was wanting more than what she was told to want. Hers is the guilt of having more options and not feeling at peace. So in what generation will the guilt end?

It is the beginning of another school year and today’s mother opens an email about a proposed class party, spreading insecurity like a virus. Before you know it, there are 17 texts offering 17 salves for inadequacy: homemade pizza, fruit medleys, ice sculptures, goody bags, confetti, a polka band, and 18 ramekins of crème brûlée. Whether at our fulfilling jobs or our granite countered kitchens, we feel guilty.

I learned from my own mother that guilt was the basic ingredient of motherhood. She was incredibly bright and driven and had it not been the ’50s and ’60s, she could have done anything with her life. As it was, Suzanne wiped the noses, made the dinners, drove the carpools, and packed the lunches for six not-grateful-enough children. She was expected to be happily basking in the warm glow of domestic life. Not enjoying every June Cleaver minute of it, she felt guilty.

Guilt is an elusive sinking feeling, not easy to pinpoint. Betty Friedan called the dissatisfaction of women of her generation “the problem that has no name.” 

Answering the angst of my mother’s generation, Friedan’s Feminine Mystique opened minds. It told women, “Drop the guilt! Forget expectations! Women deserve more—more stimulation, more credit, and more appreciation—in short, more than being housewives.” Thus mother was hit hard. The things she had perfected were deemed unworthy. When people asked her what she did, she’d look down and say distractedly, “Me? Nothing.”

But for her daughters, there was hope. She nurtured our spirits, educated our minds, and told us to go out and be fulfilled. We would have it all!

We marched out the door, took the power trip, and had our own children. Our challenge: the struggle for balance—keep the career, nurture the babies. Circumstances differ, but the mother’s guilt remains.

Bus stop: Five minutes before wheels roll in, mothers check out schedules. Murmuring like traders on the floor, iPhones out, radar up: “I’ve got ballet at 6, the tutor at 7, and the geography project drying in the basement. What’ve you got?”

“OT at 6, piano at 7, and we turned in the geography project yesterday.”

Balance breakpoint is high. My generation’s brand of guilt is cataloged in Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness: Mother in the Age of Anxiety. Overachieving prevails in and out of the home and office. Many mothers can leave jobs to stay home with their children. Friends of mine who have taken that tack tell me they could not take the guilt. Ours is not our mothers’ guilt, wanting more than what they were told to want. Ours is the guilt of having more options and not feeling at peace.

But how could we? America is the last industrialized country without paid maternity leave, corporations have not universally sprung childcare centers and family-friendly flextime policies—little has changed to support women growing the economy while also growing a family.

Mothers and fathers have improvised their way to a new culture dominated by dual-income households, rendering gains in the GDP and strains on the family. Without even the most basic supports, each rung up the career ladder brings you closer to the specter of being the bad mother.

When my daughter Clara was little, as I drove her to yet another after school activity, she would shout “Look, Mom! Hidden Entrance!!” every time we passed the sign on our familiar route.

I would say, “That’s great honey, you can read!”

Recently she confessed she thought “Hidden Entrance” referred to an exotic entrance we had been challenged to find. She believed it was a spot where if we looked hard enough we would discover the door through which we could enjoy an enchanted adventure.

The days of sitting on the floor with my children with pots and pans are over. Just as it was for my mother, it is too late for me to have that in-the-moment guilt-free experience of motherhood. Not Mad Men-era expectations, but balance issues got in the way.

I want to find that Hidden Entrance for Clara and her generation of mothers. The one that takes you to the place that has no name. A place without guilt that lets you breathe deeply, enjoying the process, with neither the impending sense of unattained success nor maternal inadequacy.

Megan Beyer is chair of a bilateral Swiss/US women leaders project called “Sister Republics” exploring private sector initiatives to break the glass ceiling. A journalist, she is also a panelist on the PBS program, To The Contrary.

Related Links: