a mother looks guilty in her car mirror

Family Health

You’re Not Harming Your Child by Going Back to Work

Dec 5, 2019

Parents have to provide for their families.

And in most Canadian families, that means parents work outside the home.

It’s always been assumed that fathers will need to work outside the home. But the idea of full-time employed mothers is still relatively new in our social history.

Check out more expert advice from the Psychology Foundation of Canada here

Ever since the 1970s, when it became more common for mothers with young children to work outside the home, people have wondered — and debated — about whether or not having a ”working mom” is bad for children.

As a consequence, some parents, especially women, say they feel guilty about working outside the home. If that’s you, here are a few thoughts that might make you feel a little better.

You’re not harming your child by working

Even though gender roles have shifted, with fathers doing more work inside the home than in the past and mothers doing more work outside the home, there is still one aspect of working parent guilt that tends to be felt primarily by women. Which is the question: "Will my kids be OK in the long run?' 

Be reassured! There is no evidence that children of working moms are any more likely to have behaviour or emotional problems than children of stay-at-home parents. In fact, children of single moms tend to do better in life when their mom works outside the home. Daughters of working moms tend to become better educated. Need more convincing? Watch this interview with Professor Kathleen McGinn, professor of business administration at Harvard University, who has studied the impact of working moms on children’s development.  

Is it really guilt?

It’s normal to miss your baby or feel uneasy about leaving them in the care of someone else. If you often have to work long hours, or travel frequently for work, you might feel bad that you can’t be physically there for your children as often as you’d like. Or perhaps you worry that your spouse has a bigger parenting load than you. We often label these feelings as guilt. But is it really guilt?

Guilt is something we’re supposed to feel when we’ve done something wrong.

And it’s a useful emotion that helps motivate us to make things right, or do better the next time.

Parents who are contributing to their family’s financial well-being, not to mention contributing to society, by working outside the home are not doing anything wrong. But they might miss their children or feel sad that they can’t spend as much time with their children as they’d like. If you feel like that, it’s a sign that you care about your family. The best way to alleviate that feeling is by connecting and reconnecting with your children each morning and evening and making the most of the time you spend with them.

Even so, you may still feel “guilty” at times. Then what? First of all, don’t feel bad about feeling guilty. It’s a sign that you care and that you want to do your best. But also ask yourself, “Is this guilty feeling a sign that I need to make a change?" If the answer is yes, then look at what you need to change and how you can do that. If you determine it's not something that needs to or can be changed, then you need to let the guilt go. 

Is it guilt or is it stress?

The biggest problem for working parents may not be guilt, but stress

Working outside the home, plus trying to do all the work of parenting and looking after the home can make for a busy, and at-times, stressful lifestyle. And excess stress tends to make all of your other problems, including “working parent guilt,” feel worse. So why not focus on your stress rather than your guilt? If you can manage your stress better, chances are that "guilt" might feel like less of a problem.

Because, truly, you're not doing anything bad by going back to work. Remember that. 

Article Author Dr. Ester Cole and John Hoffmann
Dr. Ester Cole and John Hoffmann

Read more from Dr. Cole and John here.

Dr. Ester Cole is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto providing services to school-age children, youth, families and schools. She was the Chair of The Psychology Foundation of Canada and the Parenting for Life program, and the past president of the Ontario Psychological Association and the Canadian Association of School Psychologists. She has published and lectured widely, and has been active on committees provincially, nationally and in the American Psychological Association.

John Hoffman is one of Canada’s top parenting and child development writers. He has written extensively for The Psychology Foundation of Canada for 22 years, including web articles for Stress Strategies and Staying on Top of Your Game and booklets for the Parenting For Life, Kids Have Stress Too! and Stress Lessons programs. He was also a featured writer and columnist for Today’s Parent magazine for over 20 years. 

Follow The Psychology Foundation on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and visit psychologyfoundation.org to access 24/7 A Resource for Working Parents.

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