There is no model for what the ideal mother or ideal worker looks like in the pandemic environment. That doesn’t mean there is no judging across the aisles. As if mothers hadn’t already been experiencing enough “mom-shaming,” along came a pandemic. Combining responsibilities at work with caregiving, working mothers are experiencing growing shame for not living up to anyone’s expectations, including their own.
It is common to hear mothers share their frustrations. For those who typically work outside the home, the COVID-19 disruption may now mean sharing the home office with a partner and children. For those with children under the age of 18, this also may include assuming the role of teacher (for younger kids) and disciplinarian for older kids. Some working mothers are feeling overwhelmed while homeschooling or feeling inept at making bread. Others praise the opportunity to bond with their family and teach them life skills.
As social media concurrently rejoices and admonishes the parents who allow their children to play outside or who permit additional screen time, shame has become an undercurrent of daily conversation.
Shame represents a broad perspective of self-doubt and self-accusation, with an accompanying feeling of being judged based on expectations of oneself or others. Different from guilt—which is generally tied to perceived personal failure or transgression—shame involves perceived failure to meet personal expectations or goals imposed by society. The interconnected network of competing expectations at work, at home, and socially, are part of the social and cultural expectations of women and working mothers.
Perceived social evaluation is often a central part of shame. Compared to stay-at-home moms, many working mothers have historically struggled to reconcile how they fail to conform to either parenting standards or organizational expectations. When jobs require leaving the home, working mothers often hear comments such as “I could not imagine being away from my children.” They’re asked why they chose to have children, or hear how other mothers will cover for them at bake sales and school activities.
By failing to live up to personal or external standards, studies show working mothers commonly feel shame. The self-generated negative response of shame can manifest as withdrawal, avoidance, self-anger, and feelings of powerlessness at work and in one’s personal life. Studies have shown that shame can lead to lower levels of innovation, reduced motivation, and depression, all of which are exacerbated by high-stress working environments and the ensuing increased work-family conflict. To compensate for this shame, working mothers often react by working to become a “good mom” via extreme parenting mechanisms.
There is a history of shame integrated into Western society. In American colonies, there was a deep belief in the importance of conformity to community stability. Violating these norms subjected individuals to everything from stockades to dunce caps. Fast-forwarding to the modern era, social and cultural expectations often required that working mothers self-censor their thoughts or opinions to fit into expected molds for their roles. Mothers who perceived they possessed or demonstrated unfavorable or unwanted identity traits experienced shame.
The COVID-19 era arrived without any rules for working mothers. There is neither a formal definition of what the “ideals” are nor a semblance of established values or norms for working mothers to display. Virtually any move can be deemed inconsistent or undesirable. Many working mothers assumed primary caregiver responsibilities before the pandemic. Now the pressures of remote working coupled with remote schooling are often felt more by women. Consequently, this is a time that has essentially exposed the raw nerve for those who are attempting to work and parent simultaneously.
Working mothers who complain about feeling overwhelmed are told by society and the media to be thankful for the ability to stay home. Meanwhile, those who take the time to guide a child through schoolwork are reprimanded for missing work meetings. In both of these situations and many more, not knowing what the preferred or appropriate model for behavior is leaves mothers vulnerable for judgment. Failure to meet the unclear and variable models for what an ideal pandemic-era mother is, does, or says, unfortunately, leads many to feel shame.
Managing pandemic-induced shame
1. Create your own model
Without a template for excellence in pandemic mothering, it is important for working mothers to make sense of and define their own values to guide their behaviors, and also make peace with them. One strategy for women to mitigate shame is to craft their own identity model, including metrics for success, the way they would when returning from maternity leave. Identify a personal model to provide a framework to consciously manage demands, including caregiving needs and face time for work. Having a solid model in mind will also enable you to defer the negative self-perception of shame by clearly differentiating between personal, societal, and organizational expectations.
There is a clear tie between personal perceptions of shame and performance. That’s why it helps to have workplace strategies that clearly define both your maternal and personal identity and your professional identity. Clear expectations that reduce uncertainty and resources and strategies that assist balancing work and family have the potential to make a positive impact on you and your organization.
2. Identify and connect with supportive networks
When women find groups of like-minded allies, they are able to move away from cultural or social trappings of shame. When you don’t know how some in your professional or social circles evaluate your actions or inclinations, find a friend, a mentor, or a group that appears to be in line with your personal responses to the uncertain environment. These circles become safe spaces that reinforce what is perceived as valuable and important, and also what is not.
Supportive networks also provide empathy. Those who empathize and see the world with a similar lens will not only abstain from casting shame—they may alleviate these sentiments when they’re expressed by others. Without a clear understanding of what is desired by society, it is likely you may feel defective and isolate as a coping mechanism. Finding a community of empathetic colleagues, mothers, friends, or even new acquaintances can counter this shame and enable a sense of normalization to grow and assuage more of the negative emotions.
3. Be empathetic to yourself
Resilience is one of the best weapons against shame. It incorporates a personal understanding and forgiveness for perceived failures. Recognizing a personal vulnerability and a critical awareness of your own responses to societal expectations provides a foundation for personal empathy. Empathetic minds will view negative situations more with sympathy than distress, so being empathetic to your own situation can help you experience less shame during the pandemic.
Susan R. Vroman is a lecturer of management at Bentley University and is also an organizational and leadership effectiveness consultant.
Tiffany Danko is an adjunct associate professor at USC Bovard College and a captain in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve.
Jamie Ladge is an associate professor of management and organizational development at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University and a distinguished research professor at the University of Exeter Business School. She coauthored the book Maternal Optimism: Forging Positive Paths through Work and Motherhood.