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Is Maternal Guilt a Cross-National Experience?

Abstract

Many working mothers in the US say that they feel guilty about their inability to live up to cultural ideals of the “good mother” embedded in intensive mothering discourse. Intensive mothering is reflected in and exacerbated by the country’s work-family policies. The United States is an outlier among Western welfare states for its lack of policy supports for families, assuming that childrearing is a private responsibility even though most mothers work outside the home today. So how do working mothers outside of the US experience maternal guilt? Does a more family-friendly policy environment mitigate these feelings of guilt? Using detailed accounts of four women drawn from a larger interview study of 109 working mothers in Sweden, Germany, Italy, and the United States, I demonstrate how policy context does—and does not—make a difference in the experience of maternal guilt. A feeling of guilt helped to define “good mothers” across all four contexts. However, I found that public policy has a role to play in reducing maternal guilt in three specific ways: (1) by giving mothers more time outside of work, (2) encouraging fathers to complete more unpaid care work, and (3) distributing the responsibility and costs of childrearing more broadly.

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Notes

  1. For debates on definitional distinctions, see Glavin et al. (2011), Liss, Schiffrin, and Rizzo (2012), Sutherland (2010b), Tangney and Dearing (2002), and Taylor and Wallace (2012).

  2. For other studies using this approach, see: Auyero (2003) on the intimate experience of popular protest; Bobrow-Strain (2019) on gendered immigration at the US-Mexico border; Cooper (2014) on US families and financial insecurity; Crompton (2001) on work-family dilemmas for bankers and doctors in Britain, Norway, and France; Gay (2005) on drug gang life in Rio de Janeiro; Gerson (2010) on young people’s perceptions of marriage, employment, and family; González-López (2006) on the sex lives of Mexican day laborers in Los Angeles; Hochschild (1979, 1983, 1997) on work-life balance for US men and women; Lareau (2003) on US parenting behaviors across social classes; Pérez (2018) on Argentine activists in the unemployed worker’s movement; Schulz (2012, 2015) on working hours in France, Norway, and the US; and Williams (2017) on layoffs in the US oil and gas industry.

  3. Echoing previous studies, my respondents did not identify guilt and shame as separate feelings. In fact, none of the mothers used the word shame during interviews. They used the words “guilt” and “guilty” to describe the emotional experience of failing to live up to socially prescribed ideals, which social psychologists would label shame (Liss et al. 2013; Sutherland 2010b; Turner and Stets 2005). Delineating mothers’ experiences of guilt versus shame is beyond this article’s scope (but see Liss et al. 2013; Sutherland 2010b; Taylor and Wallace 2012). Because analytic distinctions between guilt and shame did not surface in respondents’ explanations, I defer to their use of the term guilt to describe both specific and broader occurrences of negative self-evaluation. Future work may wish to differentiate these in interviews and subsequent analyses (Dunford and Granger 2017).

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Acknowledgments

My sincere thanks to Adia Harvey Wingfield, Christine Williams, Liana Sayer, Katherine Sobering, Kristine Kilanski, Megan Tobias Neely, Kate Averett, and Javier Auyero for their wisdom and encouragement on this paper. I am grateful to the editors and anonymous reviewers for their helpful suggestions on the article. My colleagues shared key insights while I was a visiting researcher at the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB), the Department of Political Science at Roma Tre University in Rome, and the Linnaeus Center for Social Policy and Family Dynamics in Europe (SPaDE) at Stockholm University. This study was supported by the National Science Foundation (#1434863), Woodrow Wilson Foundation, American Association of University Women, German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), and the Department of Sociology, Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, Urban Ethnography Lab, Swedish Excellence Endowment, Center for European Studies, and College of Liberal Arts at The University of Texas at Austin. I appreciate the support of the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy at Washington University in St. Louis.

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Collins, C. Is Maternal Guilt a Cross-National Experience?. Qual Sociol 44, 1–29 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-020-09451-2

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Keywords

  • Gender
  • Motherhood
  • Work-family policy
  • Guilt
  • Cross-national