Why Mum Guilt IS Different To Dad Guilt
There’s no doubt that mum guilt and dad guilt exists. It’s a thing. All parents feel guilty for something and most feel guilty for a lot of things. Many accept it as a natural inevitability of parenthood but what if it isn’t? What if we feel guilty because other people, social constructs, history and all that other great stuff is making us feel guilty when, in actual fact, there is no inevitability about guilt?
Recently, I had a conversation that challenged me on this and someone simply said, “What would it feel like to not feel guilty when you’re at work? Or when you have to be on your phone to answer an email while you’re at playgroup?” It was almost unfathomable for me. It was an impossible concept - to not feel guilty? Fuck me, it would feel wonderful. Even the simple act of imagining that reality lifted the weight from my shoulders and the relieved the tightness in my chest.
I spoke to my husband about it and suggested the same thing to him. What would it feel like for him to not feel guilty when he went on tour for 3 weeks at a time or more? “Amazing,” he said, “It would feel amazing,” and then he followed it up with something really interesting.
“It’s hard though because people remind you of it. Whenever I’m on tour people are always saying, ‘You must miss your kids…it must be really hard,’ and that just makes you miss them more and then you feel really guilty. I guess if people stopped asking me about that it would be easier to ditch the guilt.”
I did a double take. “What?” I asked. “Is that what they say?”
“Yes,” he replied. “They’re really sympathetic.”
And that’s when it hit me: mum guilt is different to dad guilt because, like so many other things, we view mums leaving their kids differently to how we view dads leaving their kids.
When I walk into almost every meeting or catch up with almost any friend the first question I am asked is, “Who’s got the kids?” or “Where are the kids?” Until now, I’ve always responded with a joke. “I’ve left them at home with a can opener,” I say. Cue laughter but it hadn’t occurred to me, until I had this conversation with my husband, that there was a reason I was responding with humour. There was a defence mechanism in place here because the underlying implication, entirely unconsciously on the part of the questioner, is that looking after the kids is my responsibility and mine alone; that I have left the children, abandoned them to childcare to work, or meet friend, or go for a swim.
When Jimmy steps on to a tour bus, or walks into a recording studio no one ever, ever, asks him where the kids are or who’s looking after them because the assumption is that I am, or that it isn’t his responsibility.
This is why mum guilt is different to dad guilt. When Dad’s leave their kids the assumption is that they miss them, that they’d rather be with them but that they have to step up, do their ‘man’ duty and earn the cash. It’s the same reason some people still congratulate men for doing 50% of the childcare/childrearing/household chores. It’s still not an expectation in our society and therefore it’s seen as a man going above and beyond. It’s why the term ‘working mother’ exists but there’s no such term as ‘working dad’. It’s an imbalance, an inequality that, to some extent, we’re all reinforcing every single day.
When a mum leaves their kids to earn money, we’re not seen to be going ‘above and beyond’ our social roles to do more, give more, provide more. We’re seen as compromising our primary role as a care giver and mother. The questions we are asked imply almost surprise that we’ve made it out of the house at the risk of leaving our children with someone else. And even if the implications don’t go that far, they certainly suggest that childcare - doing it or organising it - is always the role of the mother.
So, I’m ditching my defence mechanism and no longer joking about the fact that I’ve left the kids at home with a can opener. I’m owning the fact that I work AND look after the kids and that my husband does exactly the same thing. I don’t have to explain where my kids are or who’s got them in the same way that my husband would never be expected to do. I’m also pledging not to ask another mother where their kids are or who’s looking after them. It’s simply not necessary.
I really am ditching the mum guilt. My kids are happy, healthy and proud of both their parents who they see work, play and laugh daily. They see a parent pick them up from school, a parent pick up their clothes from the floor, a parent pick up the bill and to them it doesn’t matter whether that parents has boobs or balls. It’s an even playing field from here on out.