In her research on mothering, the American Jean-Anne Sutherland used focus groups to investigate levels of guilt amongst American mothers. Sutherland argues as follows:

Even though opportunities for women outside the family have increased, mothers remain at the centre of the family, as primary caregivers and organisers. As a result, mothers are at risk of lower earnings, less perceived control over their lives, high levels of psychological distress, and maternal guilt.

The notion of “maternal guilt” in the media and in the everyday lives of women is inescapable. In popular magazines, guilt appears as a natural and common component of motherhood. While magazines may offer mothers tips on managing or coping with guilt, the assumption that guilt exist goes uncontested.

There are two main factors involved here. Firstly, although the presence of mothers in the labour force has increased, and men begin to participate more fully in home-life, mothers still remain “in charge” and shoulder a larger burden of childcare. Mothers are more likely to be responsible for a majority of the household tasks from the practical (eg feeding, clothing) to the complex (eg stimulating intellectual growth).

Secondly, mothers are often worried about the well-being of their children and may fear social disapproval for being away from home. The contemporary ideology of ‘New Momism” appears on the surface to celebrate women and motherhood, but it actually creates unrealistic standards. All women are expected to desire motherhood, and to approach it with instinctive joy and devotion, both physical and psychological. However, several American commentators have suggested that motherhood, in its current, cultural form, presents women with a model of near impossible standards that are a primary source of guilt for women.

As long ago as 1978, Heffner noted that the desire for perfectionism, the nature of consumerism, and the proliferation of “expert” advice was contributing to frustrations within motherhood. As long as mothers continue to accept this ideology, they are vulnerable because feeling guilty becomes a normal condition of motherhood.

As a result, women are more likely to feel conflict when combining work and family, and to feel guilt if they feel they have let their families down in their emotional support role. In several American studies of married couples, it was found that men reported no such feelings of guilt in terms of combining work and family roles These gender differences are due to the meanings men and women ascribe to the roles of mother, father and worker.

  1. Do you agree that the ‘myth of motherhood’ stands ideologically opposed to the role of the working mother?
  2. What examples of the ideology of ‘familism’ can you identify in the account above?
  3. To what extent do you believe these findings would be replicated in Britain?
  4. In order to find evidence for your answer to question 3, you should carry out some research as a group:
  5. a) Firstly, investigate the images of motherhood portrayed in magazines, whether stories or advice to mothers, or accounts of celebrity mothers.
    b) Secondly, design a brief set of questions to use to interview several young mothers. Each member of the group should try to find one mother to interview.
    c) Once you have done this, compare your findings and return to the initial questions to discuss as a group.