Mother Guilt – or is it Shame?

When I was interviewing mothers whose children are considered “different” during my doctoral program, I interviewed five mothers whose children were diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). These interviews were published in French in February 2011. One of the mothers said to me, “I am glad that someone is looking at mothers’ guilt and I find your process very supportive” (p.27, Lindley Scheidegger, 2011). I know that we joke about mothers’ guilt, but you do know that it is a “thing,” don’t you? If you google “mother guilt” like I did, today, you will get 34’500’000 links in 40 seconds. You can tell that it isn’t just something I made up today. But jokes apart, what is the guilt about?

In the French version of this post, I quote a social psychology professor, Laurent Bègue, of the University of Grenoble, who published an article in the magazine “Cerveau & Psycho” (53, Sept-Oct 2012), who states that guilt is a socially useful emotion. It becomes apparent when children are about two or three years old when they become conscious of themselves, or self-conscious. It is only possible when we have developed a sense of “self.” Guilt is supposed to be the feeling that we have experience when we have done something wrong. It incites us to repair our wrong-doing and that is why it is socially useful. Therefore if we do an mistake, an error, even unintentionally, and we have done wrong by someone, the guilt feeling will make us want to apologize and repair the wrong-doing. Creating this sense or feeling of guilt is what our parents and close family circle help us to do from early childhood. Children are told not to do things and are told off when they don’t respect the orders. These reprimands are often accompanied by a request for an apology, i.e. “say sorry.” These educational strategies are used by parents to develop the child’s moral sense, writes Laurent Bègue. Elsewhere he writes, “guilt manifests itself when a moral norm has been transgressed.”

So I ask you – if you aren’t already asking yourself the question – what moral norm have we, mothers, broken or transgressed? What are the acts that we have done, the mistakes, the errors? Who have we done wrong by?

It is very easy to criticise mothers. However, in my experience, I found it extremely difficult to get mothers’ critics to draw up a list of all the things that “good mothers” do. If we had such a list, we could possibly take it out and evaluate anybody against it. Some mothers, when I have asked them the question, tell me that being a perfect mother is at the disposal of her children (and often her husband) night and day, seven days a week. It’s what Elisabeth Badinter (page 170, 2010) writes as well, “the perfect or conventional mother watches over her child seven days a week and three hundred and sixty-five days per year without stopping.” Is this our moral norm? Is this what we are supposed to do? (I hear you all shouting, “oh no it isn’t” and the others behind you shouting, “oh yes it is.”)

My doctoral dissertation introduced me to a way of studying what people said, sometimes called deconstructing “cultural discourses” by drawing out the assumptions or representations or social norms and expectations that are implied. I was invited by my Ph.D. supervisor, Sheila McNamee, to look at the cultural discourses of medicine and thanks to her, I came across Deborah Lupton, an Australian sociology professor, who gives us a set of questions that we can ask when we hear someone sounding off like an expert on motherhood, i.e. maintaining a cultural discourse. She writes (1994):

  • “In whose interests is the discourse operating?
  • What (and whose) values, beliefs, and concepts are espoused, and what others are neglected?
  • What pre-established knowledge or belief systems are drawn upon to create meaning?
  • What types of social differences are established or perpetuated?”

So who believes that mothers are responsible for their children day and night, seven days a week, 365 days a year? Who says it? What are his or her values and beliefs? Whose concepts does he or she draw on to affirm that mothers are responsible all the time for their children? Whose values and beliefs are neglected? What about fathers’ rights and obligations to taking care of their children? Where did these ideas come from? (We all have our own ideas about that, don’t we?) The types of social differences that are established start with the binary good mother/ bad mother, but what about the ghetto-ing of stay-at-home-mothers? If they are “good mothers” why don’t we enjoy listening to their tales of what the children got up to at the dinner party on Saturday? What about fathers being excluded from parental leave?

The world of children is saturated with experts. Rousseau, the French philosopher, was one of the first to write about the idyllic mother-child relationship in 1762. He also married his servant and had their children taken care of by wet-nurses. Since then we have been submerged by books on how to bring up children. Everyone knows what it takes to be a “good mother” because we all have a reference. We hear, day in day out, what good mothers should do.

Coming back to the definition of guilt, the idea that we have made a mistake, an error, a fault, and that we have to apologize, what do we have to apologize for? Is it because of the feeling that we could possibly do something bad that we are constantly trying to “live up” or to “measure up” to society’s expectations? What does your attachment to “mother guilt” (as a real thing) make you do? Does it run you ragged? Does it make you multi-task nonstop? What else does it make you do?

In the interviews the mothers told me about being told off for their children who didn’t behave themselves, who didn’t put their toys away after playtime, who didn’t stay seated in class, who didn’t pay attention to the teacher, who are noisy. All of these things happened when the mothers were not present. All implying that even when a mother is not present, they should be held responsible for what their kids (with ADHD) do. (I hear you plead, “can we have a remote control soon?”)

As Badinter says elsewhere (1980), from feeling responsible to feeling guilty, there is a small step.

What do you think?



Deborah Lupton, 1994, Toward the development of critical health communication praxis. In Health Communication, 6(19, 55-67) Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Elisabeth Badinter, 2010,  Le conflit. La femme et la mère. Flammarion.

Elisabeth Badinter, 1980, 1981 translation into English). Mother love, myth and reality. Macmillan Publishing.

Kate Lindley Scheidegger, 2011, QuEstCeQueJeNeDoisPasEntendre ? TTS Ltd, Geneva

Kate Lindley Scheidegger, 2013, The Social Construction of a Mother’s Identity amidst the Confluence of Motherhood Discourses, The Taos Tilburg Program,

Originally posted on Feb 16 2015 on my former website

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