Guilt is an emotional response which occurs when we believe that our behaviours, or actions, are going against our expectations or assumptions of how one should behave. With regards to parenting, this guilt is linked to what we perceive as having a negative effect on our children. Guilt is strongly linked to judgments and norms, which may be held by the individual or even by society. When it comes to work and family conflict, one needs to take into account all the factors that may be contributing to this guilt and even the resulting anxiety.
According to the research study by Divna et al (2020) there are two distinct dimensions to this work family conflict:
- Family-to-work conflict (i.e., family responsibilities negatively impacting work)
When parents feel that their family commitments may be impacting on their work or their performance. This may cause negative feelings within them and may affect their presence at home too. Let’s take an example; a parent whose child was sick throughout the night and not enough rest was achieved, may feel too tired to focus and function at work. They may also keep worrying about their child when they are at work or they may be called and asked to leave work if the child’s condition may take a turn for the worst. Back home the parent may be irritable because of the feeling that the workday wasn’t as productive as expected.
- Work-to-family conflict (i.e., work commitments negatively impacting family)
When parents feel that their work commitments may be impinging on their family life, such as not being able to take time off from work to attend school related events and appointments, having to find alternative solutions to when children may have school holidays or are sick. This may affect the way they view an ideal parent to be and it may cause an increase in their guilt for not being present enough and not having enough time with the children. In other cases, the parent may feel tired after work and is thus not as emotionally present as one would wish, also experiencing physical fatigue and having competing demands such as the children and other housework related tasks.
These dimensions show how one thing may lead to another and how parents may enter a cycle wherein they cannot escape feeling guilty whilst juggling the two aspects. It also shows how personal priorities may be viewed negatively when compared to images of the ideal. These views are composed from beliefs held by society, the individual and also by the views held by the organisation they work in. Gender also plays a part when it comes to parental work related guilt. According to the research by Aarzten, et al (2021), guilt was based on a number of ideas and expectations related to how men and women behave. This research identified that when families endorse more traditional gender roles, a higher work family guilt is present in mothers, and when a more egalitarian view of the couple’s roles are endorsed, both genders experience the same level of guilt. Thus one can see how guilt results from what they expect that they should be doing in their role as parents. “Specifically, we expect that work-family guilt occurs when there is a mismatch between the actual time and energy that parents spend on work/family and the time and energy they think that they should spend on work/family.”
Another aspect which may contribute to this experience of guilt, or lack of, is the beliefs held by the organisation or work colleagues. If the atmosphere is more of a critical nature, that is colleagues commenting on a parent’s presence, for example on a work trip or over-time during school recess, may foster a higher level of anxiety and guilt. Whereas in comparison, reassurance and a similar view to sharing parental responsibility and career progression, may help the parent to feel less anxious or guilty.
What does this mean for parents who are experiencing parental guilt when they are at home or at work?
It means that whatever the reason you choose to stay at home, or to go to work, the decision needs to be based on what you believe is important and not just what others are expecting of you. If you need to go to work due to financial commitments and perhaps have less time with your children, if you are committed to your career and invest in it, if you reduce your working hours to be more present with your children or decide to take time off from work, whatever your decision you need to support yourself in being at peace with it. You can only be the best version of yourself- as a parent or on your job- by being confident in your choices and not doubting yourself. Perhaps it is also time to rethink and challenge the images of an ideal parent or an ideal person.
Abigail Church is a Humanistic Integrative Counsellor who works with adults and children through counselling with Willingness. She can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on 79291817.
Divna, H., Ania, F., & Finch, J. (2020). The guilt about parenting scale (GAPS): Development and initial validation of a self-report measure of parenting guilt, and the relationship between parenting guilt and work and family variables. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 29(3), 880-894.
Aarntzen, L., Van der Lippe, t., Van Steenbergen, E. & Derks B. (2021). How individual gender role beliefs, organizational gender norms, and national gender norms predict parents’ work-Family guilt in Europe, Community, Work & Family, 24:2, 120-142.