Child’s Guilt is Real, and It’s Worse than Mother’s Guilt

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Two weeks ago, I attended a Day of the International Girl Child morning tea with some past and current Canberra Liberals Members of Legislative Assembly. We spoke about women’s empowerment and the importance of seeing female leaders in politics.

During the morning tea, a question was asked about whether or not the guest of honour, former ACT Chief Minister Kate Carnell, ever experienced mother’s guilt, the guilty feeling mothers get when they think they are working too much and not spending enough time with their children.

“Of course,” Ms Carnell replied. She continued to speak about the importance of following your dreams and making the most of the time you have with your children. If your dream is to be a career woman, do that. If your dream is to be a stay at home mother, do that. Just follow your heart.

It was then I spoke up about my childhood. For the first few years of my life, my mum was working primarily in a passive capacity in the family business. I have so many fond memories of the time her and I spent together as a child and appreciated every minute we spent playing games and learning. However, since I was young, I have felt this unshakeable guilt about stopping her from working.

My mum is one of the most intelligent, creative, compassionate and dedicated people I know. Everything she does, she does it magnificently, even though at the end of her work, she is by far the most self-critical person alive. In the family business, Dad was the salesman, and Mum was the brains behind the product. Everyone who has ever met my mum knows just how insanely talented she is and how unbelievably hard she has worked and continues to work in the family.

As I grew up and Mum started working more, I saw her really enjoying the greater contributions she was making to the business. I would spend days with her in the accounts office during school holidays, helping her with the books and admired her work ethic so much. It was around this time that I first started experiencing child’s guilt — the feeling that my existence is what was stopping her from achieving all she could achieve. Was I the reason she wasn’t living up to her full potential?

It took me all these years to actually have that conversation with her. After bringing up how I felt during the morning tea, I realised I needed to have this conversation with my mother and understand how she felt.. most importantly, I wanted her to know that I believed in her abilities, even if I was the reason she didn’t achieve everything she had hoped to do.

Our conversation helped me so much. Mum explained to me that she had always planned on leaving her work once she became a mother because to her, being a mother was the job she really wanted. She explained that had her life panned out differently before me, she might have taken a different path, but she was more than happy with the decision she made to be at home with me.

But child’s guilt is real. Children can sense emotions in their parents. I could sense my mother wished she had been able to do more and incorrectly assumed it was me who was holding her back. For mothers who feel the need to stay home and raise their children, even if they don’t want to do so, there can be psychological effects on the child. There is no right and wrong decision in what parents should do. Some mothers work while fathers stay at home; some fathers work while mothers stay at home; in some families, both parents work. It doesn’t make one family right and another family wrong. Each individual family is unique and needs to do what is best for their dynamic and for the individuals within that family.

As real as both mother’s guilt and father’s guilt are, it’s important to understand child’s guilt as well. Open, honest conversations in the family about the reasons parents are working or are not working are so important to ensure there is an understanding as to why certain members of the family play certain roles. This can help alleviate any guilt or resentment felt by any members of the family. As children grow up and develop a greater awareness of their place in the world, they will want to see their parents happy and doing what they love. After all, isn’t that the greatest example a parent can set for their child?

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