How to Get a Grip on Guilt and Make a Smooth Return to Work


Author of Mothers Work! (Hay House, 2011) and founder of the Talent Keeper Specialists (, Jessica Chivers lifts the grip of guilt from her clients’ minds.  In this post, an insight into what drives her guilt feelings and what we can do about it.

All my guilt tends to cluster around my kids’ happiness or potential lack of it.

Take this example: a couple of weeks after we’d rescued and welcomed an au pair into our home (that doesn’t make me posh, that makes me into very affordable childcare – check out the section on au pairs in chapter four of Mothers Work!) I headed into London to give a talk about working mothers and guilt at The Vitality Show. As I tried to leave the house my son morphed into a cross between Bambi and a giant squid (big, doleful eyes and a tangle of arms and legs attempting to suck the life force out of me) pleading in a tragic Shakespearian sort of way not to leave him. That being the third episode of the week, my g-spot was well and truly rubbed. What did I do? I remembered kids can smell guilt (but not before dithering a bit, admittedly) and to stay and try and settle him with any more of a “I love you, I’ll see you later, you’d better have a really fun morning or else there’s no cake after tea” would be bad for both of us.

I left the house with his blotchy face ghosting in my brain and started to see the incident as bonus authentic fodder for my talk. And no, I didn’t feel guilty about that.

It took a few weeks before Monty got used to me leaving the house (and him in the house with his sister and the au pair) but he did get used to it. My solution was to walk out the door before daddy left so he could deal with the histrionics. Of course he got none of it; no guilt pheromones in the air I reckon. I also began to reflect that Monty’s problem was not so much me leaving as being left with Julia who to put it nicely wasn’t the jolly, fun-loving, play maker that mummy is. I reasoned that up until this point in his short life he’d only been cared for by bubbly people like me and that maybe I was doing him a favour introducing him to other styles. As mum of two Lisa says “Children need to learn from others as well as their family and by entrusting them to other carers I think everyone appreciates each other more.”

If you’re anything like me or the fifty or so other mothers I canvassed on what makes them feel guilty I expect you’ve had more than a pang of guilt about many things connected to going back to work. But where does guilt come from? And how best to deal with it?

I think a lot of guilt is socio-culturally determined. By that I mean we’ve learned to feel guilty and the root is our constant comparisons with what other mothers are (not) doing. If we were all sailing in the same direction we’d probably be much more relaxed about going with the flow without any backward guilty glances. But because we’ve moved into a time of increased choice about how we mother – indeed to a right-on age where we ‘parent’ rather than ‘mother’ – we can get caught up in a tangle of guilt-inducing comparisons with mothers who do things differently to us. I think more choice*  might have been bad for us.

Here are five of my top ten ways to get a grip on guilt (more in chapter five of Mothers Work!):

* Psychologists studying the effects of greater or lesser choice show that far from making us happier, having lots of options can make us feel less confident about our choices. This is because there are more alternatives we didn’t take that we might regret.

  1. Accept a certain level of guilt is inevitable, especially if you’re prone to excessively high standards. Remember you can’t be all things to all men, babies or bosses and why would you want to be?
  2. Re-label ‘guilt’ as ‘dissatisfaction’ or use another word instead. Sometimes it’s not really guilt we’re feeling so to call it so might unjustly intensify the feeling.
  3. Spend time with radiators not drains. Surround yourself with people who boost your self-esteem and don’t re-enforce guilt. Friends can be the hardest of all relationships to end but if they consistently give you a bad feeling it’s probably best to withdraw.
  4. Have service level agreements with yourself. These are expectations that you think are fair and achievable and you agree that guilt is undeserved if you are operating within those limits. E.g. no guilt about not spending enough time with your child if you have done X, Y and Z with her this week.
  5. Go for ‘good enough’ as a mantra for life and watch 50% of your guilt fly out the window. Give yourself a reality check by asking ‘would my husband feel guilty about this?’

Author Bio:

Jessica Chivers is the author of Mothers Work! How to Get a Grip on Guilt and Make a Smooth Return to Work (Hay House, 2011). “This is THE book employers should be giving all their women returners.” Professor Karen Pine.

Follow Jessica on Twitter @jesschivers and The Talent Keeper Specialists @TalentKeepersUK

01727 856169


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