Balancing Work and Motherhood: How to Ease Mum Guilt

“I just feel guilty all the time, whether it’s at home or work. I am constantly trying to be everything to everyone and feel like I am failing at it all.” 

Sarah, one of my clients, said this to me last week on our first call together. And it’s something I hear all the time from the mothers I coach. Sarah is just echoing what most mums feel every day. 

Everyone is at their own stage of the parenting journey, but one constant undercurrent is guilt.

In a poll I ran via The Parent NEST Instagram account,  88% of those working mums who responded said they felt guilty when returning to work after maternity leave.

Image: The Parent Nest on Instagram

The struggle of balancing work and motherhood

Perhaps you’re on maternity leave, preparing to return to work, and crippled with the guilt of going from being with your baby all day, every day, to leaving them in childcare with someone that isn’t you.

 Or maybe you’re working full-time, feeling the overwhelming guilt that you’re always tired and have little patience for your children when you get home. You’ve only got one or two hours to spend with them before bedtime, but that time ends up being spent cooking, cleaning, washing and organising, rather than being quality time with your family. 

Please know that if you’ve ever felt like you are trying to be everything to everyone, a good mother, a good partner, a good employee, a good friend, a good daughter, but no matter how hard you try, you aren’t doing the best you can or want to at any of it…

You are not alone.

Balancing work and motherhood is incredibly challenging. The demands of a career, combined with the responsibilities of raising and caring for children, can lead to a persistent and often overwhelming feeling known as “mum guilt.” 

This post explores how to identify where your mum guilt is coming from and offers practical strategies to overcome it so you can reduce the weight you’re carrying, both practically and mentally, and find your own version of balance.

Identify the source of your mum guilt

The first step in dealing successfully with mum guilt is to pause and work out what exactly you’re feeling guilty about.

Guilt can stem from:

  • Societal pressures: Those Insta-perfect accounts of motherhood are not the reality! 
  • Personal expectations: Many of us have a terrible habit of “shoulding” all over ourselves.
  • Internalised notions: The belief that we should be a perfect mother and a successful professional simultaneously.

(PS: There is no such thing as a “perfect mother.” I highly recommend following Dr Sophie Brock and listening to her podcast on all things ‘Good Enough’ mothering.)

To identify where your guilt is coming from, you need to ask yourself some questions –  and be truly honest.

For example, let’s say you feel guilty about your child going to childcare while you return to work. Ask yourself:

Q. What specifically about sending your child to childcare makes you feel guilty?

I feel like I’m abandoning my baby. What if someone else takes care of them better than I can?

Q. Why do you think this is making you feel guilty?

I’m worried that my child will feel neglected or unloved because I’ve left them there all day. They might think I don’t care about them.

 Q. When did you start feeling this guilt?

As soon as I began thinking about returning to work after maternity leave.

Q. Are there other things about going back to work that you’re feeling guilty about?

Yes. I’m worried about being tired and not having enough energy or patience for my children when I get home. Plus, I worry about missing out on important moments in their lives.

Reflecting on questions like these will help you understand the root of your guilt and address it more effectively. It’s a lot easier to come up with practical strategies to tackle mum guilt when you know what you’re dealing with.

Strategies to overcome mum guilt

Once you’re clear on what’s causing your feelings of mum guilt, you can start thinking about ways to tackle it head-on. Here are some recommendations to get you started.

1. Remember your WHY

Understanding and embracing your reasons for working can significantly reduce mum guilt and can be a real anchor for you when things feel overwhelming.

You might be returning to work for:

  • Financial stability
  • Personal fulfilment
  • Mental stimulation
  • Part of your identity
  • To set a positive example for your children 

The specific reasons aren’t as important as recognising and understanding them – acknowledging your motivations helps reaffirm the value of your work. Reflect on how your career contributes to your family’s well-being and future, and remind yourself of those reasons during challenging times. It’s also important to ensure your partner and those close to you know your why, as they will be your support system during those hard days and weeks.

Check out this blog for more tips on supporting your transition back into the workplace after leave

2. Practice positive reframing

Instead of focusing on what you’re not doing, shift your perspective to what you are doing. You can reframe negative thoughts by emphasising the positive aspects.

For example, instead of,

 “I missed my child’s soccer game,”

Think, “I’m providing for my family and setting an example of dedication and a strong work ethic.

This change in mindset can reduce guilt, turn down the stress levels and help you to have a more positive outlook. Try saying what you’re doing out loud or write it down. This doesn’t just apply to the big things, the smallest of details really matters. For example, “Today after work, we sat on the floor, had a cuddle and read a book together.”

Lean on those around you; there is a lot of benefit to talking it through with friends, family, or even colleagues. Allow others to share their stories of what helped them when they were navigating this part of their journey. 

3. Set clear boundaries 

Identifying and setting clear boundaries between work and family time is crucial. Establish specific work hours and family time, and try to stick to them as much as possible. This separation allows you to be fully present in both roles, reducing the feeling of being constantly torn between the two. Be realistic but also kind to yourself. Some days will be better than others! It’s also important to communicate these boundaries to your employer and colleagues to manage expectations.

Don’t forget to revisit your boundaries regularly and evaluate what’s working and what’s not, for you and your family. It takes a conscious effort to set and maintain boundaries, but it’s essential to help you reduce the guilt that may build if you don’t.

4. Take practical steps

Once you’ve established the foundations, you can address the practicalities with specifics and changes to routines and responsibilities that work for you and your family.

Going back to our example above of feeling guilty about sending your little one to child care. You might be worried about:

  • Not knowing what your child will do all day
  • What they will (or won’t!) eat
  • Whether they will get to sleep in this new environment

You could overcome this by asking the childcare provider for a book detailing your child’s day. (Some facilities provide this as part of their processes.) Or ask them to send you some photos to let you know how your child’s day is going and ease your mind. You could also ask them to help you understand the care your child will receive with examples of their daily activities, routines, etc. 

Communication with the childcare provider is KEY to reduce worries and help you feel reassured and confident about leaving your child. Your childcare provider will be well used to worried mums and dads and will be more than happy to answer your questions. (And if they’re not, that could be a red flag!) 

For more info to help with choosing the right childcare for you, check out these free resources: 

>> Questions to ask your potential childminder

>> Questions to ask when considering a crèche or childcare facility

Depending on your family’s unique circumstances, other practical steps you can take to reduce mum guilt include:

Delegating and sharing responsibilities: Share household duties and childcare with your partner or seek help from family and friends. This alleviates the pressure of doing everything on your own.

(For more on this, read my article on how to step back from being the ‘default parent’.)

Self-care: Prioritise self-care to maintain your physical and mental health – even when it feels impossible! (That’s actually when it’s most important.) Regular exercise, adequate sleep, and taking time for hobbies and relaxation are essential.

Quality over quantity: Focus on the quality of time spent with your children rather than the quantity. Engaging in meaningful activities and creating core memories during your time together can be more impactful than simply being physically present. And these don’t have to be grand gestures or exciting adventures. Ten minutes of giving your child your focused, undivided attention while playing with their favourite Lego set before bedtime will mean the world to them and maintain that strong connection between you.

Seeking support: Join parent support groups, both online and in-person or connect with other working mothers to share experiences, advice, and encouragement. Knowing you are not alone in your struggles can be immensely comforting.

Striving for a guilt-free work-life integration

Mum guilt is a common experience among working mothers, but it doesn’t have to be a permanent state of mind.  By understanding where your guilt comes from, embracing your reasons for working, and practicing strategies like positive reframing and setting boundaries, you can start to find a better balance. 

Remember, it’s all about making small, meaningful changes that work for you and your family. You’re doing an incredible job, and with a little patience and self-compassion, you’ll find your rhythm. Keep going – and give yourself the grace and credit you deserve!

Hi, I’m Anne O’Leary, an executive coach, postpartum doula, and mother of four. I work with individuals and employers to help parents integrate their work and life in a balanced way after they extend their family.

Whether you are heading back to work or back several months and would like support in navigating this transition, please feel free to get in touch to schedule a complimentary consultation here.

For working mums seeking balance and inspiration, “The Mother of all Jobs: How to have children and a career and stay sane (ish)” by Christine Armstrong is an empowering read, offering practical strategies for managing a fulfilling career and family life.

mum guilt, returning to work, work life balance, working parents