Negotiating Guilt and Shame in Academe

jean-anne Sutherland

A few years back I presented at a sociology conference, discussing my dis­sertation on mothering, guilt, and shame. I spoke of the social construc­tion of the good mother ideology, the impact this ideal has on the lives of women, and specifically the manifestation of guilt and shame. Afterward, I was meandering through a reception, making my way down the hors d’oeuvres table, when I struck up a conversation with a female colleague who had attended my session. The tone was, “Ah yes, what we women go through,” as we considered the egg rolls and the little quiches. She then said to me timidly, laughing a bit, “Yes, but, aren’t good mothers supposed to feel guilty?” I had spoken for twenty minutes on the social construction of good mothering, how it sets mothers up to feel badly about ourselves, and to feel guilty, which makes us doubt ourselves and we then pay the psychological costs. And yet, what she revealed to me was the prevailing orientation to mothering: if you are a mom, you feel guilty, and if you don’t, well, you must not care very much, ergo you’re a bad mom. And all I could say to her in that moment was, “Um. . .”

Working my way through graduate school, soon after the birth of my daughter, I was all too familiar with the phenomenon known as “mother guilt.” It can start as early as pregnancy and creep up behind us, even when we are anticipating it. But, in the midst of graduate school, I found that I experienced another variety of guilt simultaneously—worker guilt. A good worker produces quality work. A good graduate student is competitive and devoted to her studies above all else. If she fails, even for an instant, she feels guilty. And if she doesn’t, well, she must not be very serious about her work.

Guilt is one of those words tossed about so frequently that it has no shock value. We even jokingly compete over inflicting the worst kind of guilt. (Catholic and Jewish friends of mine claim to know it best, though coming from a southern, Protestant background, I can attest to its pres­ence there as well.) We are not entirely sure of the meaning of shame; we tend to call it all guilt. Yet scholars of social psychology and emotion draw a distinction between guilt and shame. Guilt is typically thought of as a negative self-evaluation focusing on specific acts or behaviors. Shame tends to strike at one’s guts, igniting negative self-evaluations about the entirety of one’s self. I think mothers feel both. There were times when I felt I should be doing more. That’s guilt. There were times when I ques­tioned how I could call myself good, or scholarly when my very method of being in graduate school felt less valued. That’s shame.

Work, Family, and Guilt

Academic studies and the popular press make clear it’s difficult for mothers to combine work and family. In her book Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do about It, Joan Williams describes our culture’s glorification of the “ideal worker.” The ideal worker, designed, of course, around norms of masculinity, puts in more than the requisite forty work hours per week, experiences advantageous mentoring and social con­tacts, and earns promotions at rates exceeding those working in part – or flex-time positions. As Williams points out, the ideal worker has a family life only if a “marginalized worker” performs the family work. More often than not, that marginalized worker is the mother. This is to say, being an ideal worker and mothering necessarily conflict. As Williams notes, “[W]hen women find that they perform as ideal workers, they are condemned as bad mothers; if they observe the norm of parental care, they are condemned as bad workers.”1 Williams’s analysis is applicable to all manner of work, whether blue – or white-collared.

Working mothers have a difficult time negotiating the labor force within the boundaries of what our culture deems the good mother. Good mother­ing, or “new momism” as Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels describe it in The Mommy Myth, has three key features: motherhood completes a woman; mothers are a child’s best caretakers; and mothers must devote themselves fully to their children: physically, intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically.[7] [8] When we fall short, we often blame ourselves, second-guess ourselves, and feel guilty. I am not suggesting that all mothers, across racial, ethnic, sexual-orientation, and social-class lines, perform work and moth­ering in the same manner and experience them the same way. However, within the context of these differences, mothers in our culture still share common experiences. The macro-level good mother ideology is simply too dominant and pervasive for most to escape. While different groups of women work in varied contexts, mother in different ways, and have differ­ent fears and concerns for their children, the ideology of the good mother still affects us all.

But isn’t the academy so much more sensitive than corporate Amer­ica, finding ways to value the mother and the worker? Well, yes and no. Some academic programs do accommodate motherhood. But, like corpo­rate America, the halls of the academy also revere the ideal worker, reward­ing those who work the longest, produce the most and, in terms of graduate school, finish first. Subsequently, mama-guilt can go both ways. As mothers we often feel guilty when we do not perform according to the ideal for good mothers, such as when we are away from our children, allowing others to provide care. The guilt also kicks in when we feel we are not living up to some ideal of scholar-in-training.

My daughter, Savannah, was born the year I transitioned from the MA to the PhD program. I was a nontraditional graduate student (a delicate descriptor for the older ones), and an “off-time” mother (the medical field was less delicate, slapping “advanced maternal age” on my medical chart the day I turned thirty-six). I wanted to finish my PhD in a reasonable amount of time. I also wanted, as the expression goes, to be present for my daughter. Thus, I found that I felt guilty a lot of the time, both as a worker and as a mom. And so, I went out and talked to some mothers; not sur­prisingly, they felt much the same way.

My experiences juggling motherhood, graduate school, guilt and shame prompted me to write a dissertation titled, “‘What Can I Do Different, What Could Be Better, What Could You Do More?’: Guilt, Shame and Mothering.” I was amazed at how little systematic research existed on this topic, not only in my field of sociology but across disciplines. When I told others, male or female, about my dissertation, responses included com­ments like “Well, you should talk to my friend/sister/wife. SHE could tell you about guilt!” Another response was often nervous laughter, which sug­gested, “Well, of course mothers feel guilty. Do you really have to study that?”

My discussion below focuses on mothering in the context of gradu­ate school, though I suspect it is applicable to those in faculty positions.

Mothers in the academic world, as in the broader work force, feel pulled between the ideals of the good mother and the good worker. We want and need to be both, but the struggle is tiresome and frustrating. We forego sleep to the detriment of our health. We bounce between worlds, merging the two when and if we can. While we experience the pull in myriad ways, there are three specific areas in which it is acute: pace, focus, and frenzy.


As most of us know, there is an acceptable window of time, varying from program to program, in which one is expected to complete her PhD pro­gram. There is also a less formal window of time to which many of us hold ourselves accountable. In this case, there are two important Don’ts: 1) Don’t finish an awkward number of years behind those who began with you, and 2) Don’t wait around your department until colleagues begin to joke, “Are you still here?” In the race to avoid these don’ts, one must establish a steady pace of course work, comprehensive exams, dissertation research, and writ­ing. Clearly it is much neater, faster, and more efficient to fit through this window when one is performing as the ideal worker.

Unfortunately, graduate school is all but neat, fast, and efficient. Most graduate students are not only taking a full course load, but are also work­ing as teaching or research assistants and trying to publish their work. All of these activities add up to fifty or sixty work hours per week. While we would like to think that enlightened scholars grasp the complexities of work/family balance and the ideal worker, we know that, in most cases, the graduate student who plows through at breakneck speed, puts in those long hours, and produces the most is the most valued and revered. The grad student-mother then has a series of choices to make. First, we will assume that she does not have a marginalized worker at home, performing the family work. (I am not gendering parenthood here, just acknowledging the ample research which indicates that while fathers are performing more child care and housework, the majority still falls to the mother.) She can slow her pace, take fewer classes, or postpone comprehensive exams. Or, she can work at the ideal pace, spend less time with the children, and also work what Arlie Hochschild terms the “second shift.” If she chooses the for­mer she runs the risk of feeling less than her colleagues. If she chooses the latter, she runs the risk of feeling very, very tired and possibly quite guilty. Her choices strike her at the level of her identity: bad worker or bad mama?

During my pursuit of the PhD, I knew I was not keeping pace with tra­ditional students, though in the end, I finished roughly one year after other

members of my cohort. I thereby avoided Don’t number 1—I finished before hitting the awkward mark. But I did not escape the second, encoun­tering “Are you still here?” countless times until one day it morphed into, “So you finally finished?” When Savannah was a baby, I took her to class with me, to department gatherings, even to brown bag lectures. In those days she fit snuggly on my body and I could slip into my office to nurse her, or she slept. But as she grew, it became increasingly difficult to bring her along and increasingly difficult for me to not spend time with her. Instead of three classes, I often took one. Like so many other mothers, when I was at work, I often felt guilty, as if I was missing out on such a sweet and fleeting time in her life. But, when I was with her, I often felt guilty that I was letting my work slip by.

I’ve heard others talk about pace, about finishing on time. My depart­ment once held a graduate student brown bag discussion on this topic, but I was not invited. I suspect I wasn’t asked because I wasn’t yet finished, though I initially feared it was because I embodied the model my depart­ment wanted to shield from new graduate students. From what I heard, they discussed how to finish quickly, with praises given to a graduate stu­dent who had just finished the program in a jaw-dropping three years. I realized that my department, which provided such a safe and comfortable zone for me as a mother, still at its core valued the ideal worker and I sim­ply could not play that role as long as I also played the role of mother. Enter the feelings of guilt and shame.


How many times has a new mother complained that she is having a diffi­cult time focusing? As every new mom knows all too well, we are tired a lot of the time. Of course, we don’t have to be new moms to be tired. Braun Research’s survey of some five hundred mothers found that 54 percent say they don’t get enough sleep.[9] And when many of them finally get into bed, they lie awake worrying. (Mothers reading this may now collectively emit a resounding and sarcastic “Really?”) Sociological research has also shown that mothers experience parenting differently than fathers do. Mothers, for the most part, feel responsible for the minutia of parenting; the hair, the teeth, the clean sheets, the doctor’s appointments, and the scout meet­ings. I am not suggesting that fathers are not involved, are not tired, and

do not feel pulled between worker and parent identities. However, gender differences arise in terms of how the work/family pulls are experienced. Of course, when a mother feels hyperresponsible and pulled in numer­ous directions, her ability to focus on the academic work before her can be affected. Is her focus forever impaired? Of course not. But, for us to not acknowledge it allows the guilt to fester.

While pregnant with Savannah I was enrolled in one class. I thought this approach ideal. By taking one class, I could maintain a good pace, show everyone that motherhood needn’t interfere with my progress and have something to focus on besides the impending duties of a new mom. Sure, I thought, I will birth this baby one day, and return to class a few days later. My body was in good shape, and my energy for academic work was thriving. And then labor came. All of my plans went awry. Instead of the healthy, natural birth I envisioned, I experienced every medical procedure the hospital’s menu had to offer: epidural, forceps, suction, episiotomy, and a cesarean. Toss in a fractured tailbone to make the story more dramatic. Instead of bounding from the hospital with my newborn cub and rushing back to my social inequalities class, I was wheeled to the car, crouched over and groaning from aches and cuts in every conceivable body part.

My first few weeks at home with Savannah involved not only physical recovery, but emotional and psychological recovery as well. I could not walk very well. I looked something like Tim Conway’s old man character on The Carol Burnett Show, who shuffled along, face to the ground. I was instructed to avoid stairs and since we lived on the second floor, I spent the first two weeks largely indoors. I had to find interesting ways to nurse considering the two locations of stitches and the sore tailbone. As if any of this needed an additional cloud, one existed in the form of postpartum depression. I sat there in my rocker, on my pillow, wearing my big skirt (the only one that fit), in that strange land where the ecstatic meets the melancholy, holding my guts in, and trying to read something about social­ist societies and stratification theory. Two weeks earlier I had found this material engaging. In that moment, however, it felt like something I could grow very old without. The harder I tried to read it, the guiltier I felt that I was somehow failing as a serious graduate student and potential scholar. I didn’t plan for the blues that made me want to hide away with my daugh­ter. I certainly didn’t plan for the multiple injuries that made sitting in one spot without an odd pillow excruciating. I didn’t plan on feeling so tired, physically, emotionally, and psychologically, that focusing on work would become an issue.

As time passed, so did the postpartum depression. The ability to focus on more than a favorite sitting position returned. Of course, other aspects of mothering affected my focus and always will. When Savannah didn’t feel well, I felt more present to her fever than to advanced data analysis. When she started preschool, I cried when I left her, and didn’t get a lot done that day (okay, so I thought the postpartum depression was handled). The truth is, we learn to work within the context of mothering. Our chil­dren always distract us, breaking our flow and focus at times. This does not make us bad workers or less-valued scholars. It is important to acknowl­edge it so that the conflict itself does not breed the guilt and shame.


I cannot recall how many different ways and times I was told that gradu­ate school would be a frenzy of work and overload. That is what training often is—a frenzy. We can live with that. But what if we have children too? Now, there is a frenzy of sit-com proportions. In the pursuit of our degrees, we are trying to keep pace and trying to remain focused. We are teach­ing, grading, attending classes, reading, writing papers, and researching. It can feel frenetic. But in the midst of it all are these creatures, or in my case, just the one creature, who create and sustain a unique frenzy of their own. On any given day a mother has to decide which frenzy gets her full attention. And, rather like the popular children’s book If You Give a Pig a Pancake, if you give a mother this kind of choice, well, she’s just going to feel guilty.

One way I sought to resolve the dilemma of mama-and-worker guilt was to study it. While researching mothering, guilt, and shame I came face to face with some of my own issues of guilt, and with good mother ideologies. I also found that many mothers struggle with similar issues and place sim­ilarly high expectations on themselves. Yet, even with a topic as engaging and personal as mine, life was often frenetic, and writing was often diffi­cult. I taught two to three classes a semester, which meant writing lectures and grading, grading, grading. I picked up Savannah from school two to three days a week and spent those afternoons and evenings with her. I had a number of life events colliding, and some days it felt like I lost my scripts, and played all of my roles badly.

A wise friend suggested that, for the sake of sanity amid the frenzy, I get myself a mantra. Something I could repeat and live by. Something that would help me to focus and—look at that coincidence—keep the pace! My mantra became: “Savannah, Self-Care, Dissertation.” Nothing more, nothing less. My job was to take care of myself, which provided the energy to take care of my daughter, which gave me the space to write the disserta­tion. Another wise friend made an addendum to my mantra, which she wanted posted on my office door: “Not Even a Casserole.” She knew all too well my tendency to say yes—to this committee, or that organization. Draw the line, she reminded me. Just say no. If the task at hand did not involve Savannah, self-care, or my dissertation, I was to rethink it entirely.

The frenzy of graduate school only adds to the mama-and-worker-guilt dance we so perfect. I was told by many that the dissertation would “con­sume my thoughts.” Some told stories of waking in the night with fresh ideas that had to be written down. Others told of working to the detriment of their health in order to meet deadlines. What of the mothers in this scenario? In the frenzy we are again confronted with questions of compe­tency. Are we performing as good enough mothers? And, are we produc­ing good enough work?

Savannah, by now in first grade, took a picture of me during the final weeks of my dissertation writing. My office was a complete horror. My mantra did not include words synonymous with organized or clean. Articles and books lay spread across the floor. My wall of Post-it notes was almost artistic in its seemingly random display. Dirty coffee cups sat perched on the edge of the desk. Mounds of drafts spilled off a table. Savannah and I reveled in it. She had been counting down the weeks with me. I had kept her informed of the process and she was living amid the frenzy. As I wrote to Savannah in my acknowledgments page, “I won’t soon forget the day I felt the weight of deadlines and asked, once again, for your patience. Temporarily forgetting all of my understanding of the trappings of mater­nal guilt, I said to you, ‘Give me two more weeks and I’ll go back to being a good mama.’ You smiled at me and so lovingly said, ‘Okay, but, you’re already being a good mama.’”


As it turned out, I did finish my PhD. While it was at times a struggle, I found that I could be both a good mother (however I defined that) and a good worker. Sometimes one upstages the other, but both are key compo­nents of who I am. When Savannah was born, I wasn’t prepared to nego­tiate guilt and shame as I bounced between worker and mother identi – ties—trying to be good at both. As mothers and workers, we need to give ourselves permission to slow down when our bodies tell us to. We need to remember that it is okay to be with our children when we feel pulled to them. We need to remember that doing so does not make us bad workers. We need to also give ourselves permission to truly love the time we spend in our work. Working well does not make us bad mothers. Recognizing the ways in which we are set up to experience guilt and shame is progress. It’s not easy to negotiate this paradox, but naming it is the first step.