American Mothers and the Problem with Guilt

American ex-pat, Pamela Druckerman, caused quite a stir last month with the release of her book, Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. In the book, Druckerman opines on the differences between — and merits of — French and American parenting styles.

One cultural difference that jumped out at me immediately is the relative relationship mothers have with guilt. In the US, we tend to fret and fuss over our children and feel anxiety when we spend time away. By contrast, notes Druckerman, French mothers “assume that even good parents aren’t at the constant service of their children, and that there is no need to feel guilty about this.”

To discuss why American mothers feel so much guilt when it comes to spending time on ourselves (and what we can do about it), I talked with writer and mother, Sarah Stankorb:

With such a busy schedule, how do you find the time for yourself?

I work full-time and do freelance on the side because writing is what I love to do. For me, “time for me” typically consists of working on freelance articles and essays. Because I’m on deadline and owe these things to someone else, that means I make time for it (early before my son wakes up, during my lunch break, after my husband gets home from work). I think I’m like many other women, in that I usually prioritize other people’s needs before my own–except that I’ve managed to make one of those outside needs something I’d really rather be doing.

Outside of that, (and a book that I’m slowly writing), I’ll have to admit that I’m pretty terrible at making “me time.” Before my son was born, I did yoga every morning. Now those early morning hours are spent either working through articles due later that day or trying to get a shower in before the chorus of “MOMMY!” begins.

It’s been noted that fathers take more true time for themselves (i.e. activities that don’t involve the kids or household) than mothers do. Why do you think this is?

My guess–given what I’ve seen within my friends’ families–is that women tend to become COO of the household once kids arrive on the scene. In particular managing schedules tends to fall under the mother’s domain, and maybe being entrenched in managing the juggle makes it all the more unreasonable seeming to squeeze in time for oneself.

Even the phrase “work-life balance” implies that mothers having time for themselves is an achievable proposition (one where a full work schedule, happy children, clean home, and personal fulfillment occur with happy equanimity if you can just plug responsibilities into the right slot in your day). Despite my friends having nice, feminist-minded husbands, once they had kids, like magic, meal planning and cooking became primarily the woman’s responsibility. That’s on top of work schedules comparable to their husbands’. I’m not sure why that happens. Maybe there is something latent about turning into our own parents. Maybe it’s societal pressure to at least look like we can (happily) manage it all. Maybe we’re just too polite. I have an older, male friend who told me it never occurred to him how little time his wife took for herself–and just how little he was really helping–until he overheard her women’s lib group raging about the same problem in their own homes.

Why is it so important that mothers carve out time for themselves? 

So we don’t go completely mental. There’s no prize for a burdensome schedule. When you are overbooked and not taking time for yourself, it’s easy to take stress out on the people closest to you–namely your partner and kids. That might be a trick for those who feel guilty taking time for themselves. Really, taking that time, in the end, also benefits your family, so it should become a priority. (Really, though, I’d hope there are enough strong moms out there that can just do it for their own good.)

I really enjoyed your recent Babble article on “Why I Want to Be a French Mom.” What do you think American mothers can learn from French mothers?

It’s not really that I want to be a French mom per se. I want to live in something like the French system where families are valued and women are not expected to process babies out of infancy on a collapsed timeline so they can rush back to cubicle life. A pal in Albania recently told me that there, women are given a year of maternity leave at 80 percent of pay. He said, “To think that American mothers (and fathers) aren’t given the opportunity to bond with their children, and a former communist dictatorship gives mothers a year of time to spend with their child is a shame!” I agree. Our system forces many women out of the workforce or pushes others to go back to work far before they are mentally and physically ready. What we can learn from French mothers–or parents anywhere who are treated fairly as workers and those raising the nation’s next generation–is that the sky will not fall if we fight for family and medical leave policies that make sense.

Sarah Stankorb is a contributing writer for CNN Money/Small Business. Her articles and essays have appeared in publications like Salon, GOOD, Babble, and The Morning News.