Better Life Lab

New Moms Have Plenty to Deal With at Work. Don’t Add More Guilt.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Thinkstock.

Spend five minutes talking to any new working mother, and you’re almost sure to hear the word guilt. I surveyed and/or interviewed more than 800 of them—CEOs and hourly workers, adoptive moms, single mothers, and traditional, married moms, too. The G-word came up again and again. Some working mothers felt “guilty,” they said, for leaving their babies with a sitter, or for asking their colleagues to take on extra tasks while they were on parental leave. Some even felt guilty for enjoying being back at work. The conflict these women felt was real, and it impacted every facet of their identity, at home and at work. For some, muddling through this guilt fostered emotional growth—they doubled down on mentoring and finding meaning in their work. For others, it triggered postpartum mood disorders that still haunt their parenting and their career ambition years later.

That’s why I was stunned to read author and therapist Erica Komisar extolling the virtues of mommy guilt in a recent Wall Street Journal interview. Her new book, Being There, urges mothers to stay home with their children for their first three years of life; my new book, The Fifth Trimester, gives new mothers the tools and agency to go back to work with a small baby, even if they must do so before they are physically and emotionally ready to be there, as 75 percent of the women I surveyed reported had been the case. Komisar wants working mothers to feel guilty so they will do as biology (allegedly) dictates and stay home with their infants.

The argument is rife with classist and sexist (and occasionally scientifically false) assumptions:

  • that women can afford to forgo a paycheck (or can jump back into the workforce years later without great penalty)
  • that men aren’t as biologically capable of nurturing infants (sorry, gay dads and stay-at-home fathers, your oxytocin doesn’t count)
  • and that any mother in distress has access to the kind of mental health care that Komisar offers from her office on New York’s Upper West Side.

But putting these assumptions aside, I want to address her overarching, wrong-minded intent: Komisar thinks she’s helping children by shackling their mothers with guilt.

Just as we’ve learned about gender, guilt is a social construct. I discovered in my research that when a mother feels guilty for working, she’s feeling anxious about a supposed “choice” she made in the context of societal norms—to work, to leave her baby, to invest in her career’s future and strive to make more money in spite of the gender pay gap. So when psychiatrist Christin Drake helps a new mother work through this guilt crisis, she takes the whole notion of choice out of the equation. “It is a unique situation of the American mother that we have to ad-hoc negotiate these things for ourselves,” Drake says, referencing the lack of paid parental leave and universal child care in the U.S. as compared with other developed countries around the world. “We are left to our own devices in terms of this planning, but also, more important, in terms of the judgments we make about ourselves in the process.” And if you don’t judge yourself already, Komisar will teach you how.

Even confident working mothers told me that the mom guilt they felt after watching early TV interviews with Komisar has stuck with them for months. “I’ve dried so many tears in my office because of mother haters,” Drake says. Komisar claims that mothers who “devalue, deprioritize, and neglect their mothering,” as she puts it, risk their children’s emotional, social, and behavioral well-being. In the meantime, every morning, these women pack up their pump parts, manage the mental load, and must go to work, carrying with them the extra weight of the guilt Komisar has saddled on them.

Komisar is aware that her views are old-fashioned. She calls herself “a bit of a pariah” but excuses her judgments of mothers already in an untenable situation by leaning on the (sometimes loosely interpreted) science of the mother-infant connection. I’m a mother of two and know that connection intimately. Leaving for work in those early days felt like a second cutting of the umbilical cord, this time with nerve endings. I also know that biology dictates that I crave calories to sustain my life, but that doesn’t mean I’m eating all of my children’s Halloween chocolate. Social progress has always required that we look beyond our own base, biological inclinations at any given moment toward our greater long-term good. And in the long term, the science just doesn’t support Komisar’s dated ideas.

“There’s no evidence I know of that children whose mothers work but who are in loving caregiver relationships have detrimental outcomes in terms of their achievement or development,” says pediatrician and neuroscientist Kimberly Noble, who studies the impact of poverty on infant and child brain development and cognition at Columbia University’s Teachers College. A mother’s anxiety, on the other hand, has a real negative impact on the child. One new study published in Clinical Psychological Science shows that anxiety impairs intuitive decision-making. In other words, guilt can hamper a mother’s intuition—that holy grail of good parenting.

In Being There, Komisar does include one chapter for working moms titled, “When You Can’t Be There,” and another on how to repair the damage you have done by being absent. The upshot: Hire a good nanny, avoid day care, and tell your child, “I feel so sad when I am at work and can’t be with you.”

But what if you’re not sad? Or don’t want to be, or want to show your children, instead, the satisfaction you find in your work so that they might find some too one day? What if the “damage” you’ve done is far outweighed by the independence and love you’ve fostered with a whole network of caregivers? What if, instead of falling victim to guilt, we use that conflict as motivation to create a more supportive culture that provides what parents need to feel at peace about these decisions?

For that utopia to happen, mothers need adequate paid leave (for themselves and, equally, their partners), excellent prenatal and postpartum health care, deliberate re-entry benefits for their return to work, and federal and private workplace policies that support all of the above. It’s no coincidence that Norway, a country where most mothers work full time and have access to nearly a year of paid parental leave, ranks No. 1 on the world’s list of the happiest countries. It also, incidentally, has nearly double the average GDP per capita of the 30 advanced economies in the world studied by the World Economic Forum. Support for working mothers doesn’t come at the expense of economic productivity—it bolsters it!

Rather than shaming working mothers for not “being there” at home, we need to fortify them so they can revolutionize our economy and raise a future generation of innovative, satisfied workers who’ll keep the progress going. How does American society get to that place from here? It starts in the boardroom, on the ballot, and on the train to work, toting a breast pump. It starts by being there.