Invisible Struggles: Navigating the Guilt Trap for Paid Working Mothers

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash
I spent my only semester in graduate school researching the people who exist at the intersection of work and motherhood: paid working mothers. This is an introduction to the research and experiences of paid working mothers. The lived reality of paid working mothers may startle you, but its not shocking. We know that workplaces have historically excluded women and people of color. However, motherhood in the workplace is typically an under highlighted intersection. I suspect it has something to do with the ideal worker norms ingrained in the workplace. Nonetheless, here’s the research…

Why Use the Term “Paid Working Mother”?

“Paid working mother” may sound like an unnecessary and clunky term. Yet, it is used to describe the work that happens outside of the home¹. This word is necessary for a lengthy list of reasons, but the most pertinent being that women’s work inside of the home has been historically devalued and stigmatized; so, I recognize them as working mothers. Meanwhile, the same stigmatization has been happening for mothers in the workforce. Some women get paid to endure the repercussions of stigma, and some do not. That is why I will be using the term “paid working mother.”

Who is the “Ideal Worker” and What Does It Have to Do with Motherhood and Work?

As soon as “time” became a concept in America, managers tailored the work environment to the “ideal worker”.² Why? Because the ideal worker identifies their primary responsibility as work.² The ideal worker is not a literal person or set of people: the ideal worker is a figment of ideals. The ideal worker’s primary identity is employee. The ideal worker has time to travel any day of the week. The ideal worker will stay late to get the job done. 

Again, the ideal worker’s only responsibility is work; therefore, the ideal worker identity is in antithesis to the paid working mother. Why is this the case? “Working” and “motherhood” absolutely exist together, but inherently, the category of “paid working mother” implies that the paid working mother has two sets of responsibilities: working and motherhood. The ideal worker has one: work.

Paid Working Mothers are Basically in Every Company so What’s the Big Deal?

Well I’ll tell you the big deal. The research shows that paid working mothers typically feel under supported, and this lived reality of feeling under supported has real implications for the careers of paid working mothers.¹ Paid working mothers have more negative career outlooks than their coworkers; yet, paid working do just as much if not more work than their peers³. That’s the big deal. Paid working mothers are committed. They’re doing the work, but their careers are not reflecting it. Paid working mothers are left unseen and unheard in their companies.

Why aren’t Workplaces Set Up for Paid Working Mothers to Thrive?

Companies have intentionally created policies to reflect the needs of paid working mothers, but they have little effect. The informal work cultures matter more than the formal policies: formal policies include maternity leave policies and flexible/hybrid work hours.⁴ ⁵ Informal work cultures can stop paid working mothers from taking deserved leave due to pressure from their coworkers and manager.¹ Companies tend to take responsibility for their formal policies, but it takes external social movements to hold them responsible for their, sometimes toxic, informal work cultures.

Additionally, due to the ideal worker norm, companies expect paid working mothers to be available, putting in undefined and unbounded hours.¹ This unreasonable expectation puts unnecessary pressure on paid working mothers. Extreme feelings of guilt can plague paid working mothers, leading to career anxiety.¹ Companies focus on the ideal worker, leaving the struggles and strength of paid working mothers invisible in the workplace. Paid working mothers may need to leave work early or decline travel opportunities, but paid working mothers bring reliability to companies. Paid working mothers have statistically higher commitment to their companies than their coworkers.⁶

How Do These Unhealthy Expectations Affect Paid Working Mothers?

Paid working mothers can experience intense guilt and disappointment based on the time they spend at work.¹ ⁶ A misconception is that home life gets in the way of work life for paid working mothers. Actually, the opposite is true. Paid working mothers experience their work life bleeding into their home life, stealing important rest time and quality time with their children.⁶ Some paid working mothers try to reduce the pressure from work, choosing to reduce their hours to part-time. However, research shows that the reduction in hours usually results in paid working mothers overworking for less money.¹

Takeaways

If you’re a paid working mother, you’re doing great. If you ever feel like you’re the only person experiencing the tension between work and motherhood, remember that the system is set up to create that tension. Release the guilt. It’s important to listen to your emotions and your thoughts and make the choices about your career that align with your values. You are worthy of releasing the pressure of the ideal worker norms placed on you. Your experiences are seen and heard here.

If you’re a paid working mother we would love to hear your personal experiences. Is your company time-flexible? Have you ever felt looked over for a promotion because you have kids? Do your co-workers side eye you for leaving a little early?

  1. O’Hagan, Clare. 2018. “Broadening the Intersectional Path: Revealing Organizational Practices through ‘working Mothers’ Narratives about Time.” Gender, Work, and Organization 25 (5): 443–58.
  2. Minnotte, Krista Lynn, and Michael C. Minnotte. 2021. “The Ideal Worker Norm and Workplace Social Support among U.S. Workers.” Sociological Focus 54 (2): 120–37.
  3. Chang, Eunmi, Hyun Chin, and Jieun Ye. 2014. “Organizational Work‐family Culture and Working Mothers’ Affective Commitment: How Career Expectations Matter.” Human Resource Management 53 (5): 683–700.
  4. Sabat, Isaac E., Alex P. Lindsey, Eden B. King, and Kristen P. Jones. 2016. “Understanding and Overcoming Challenges Faced by Working Mothers: A Theoretical and Empirical Review.” In Research Perspectives on Work and the Transition to Motherhood, edited by Christiane Spitzmueller and Russell A. Matthews, 9–31. Cham: Springer International Publishing.
  5. Tanquerel, Sabrina, and Diana Santistevan. 2022. “Unraveling the Work–life Policies Puzzle: How the ‘ideal Worker’ Norm Shapes Perceptions of Policies Legitimacy and Use.” Relations Industrielles 77 (2). https://doi.org/10.7202/1091590ar.
  6. Haslam, Divna M., Pamela Patrick, and James N. Kirby. 2015. “Giving Voice to Working Mothers: A Consumer Informed Study to Program Design for Working Mothers.” Journal of Child and Family Studies; New York 24 (8): 2463–73.