"I'm A Terrible Mother": One Little-Known Drive That Causes Maternal Guilt

Monday, July 21, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Psychology of Motherhood

Feeling guilty? Your brain might be screwing with you. 

Our brains developed rapidly around the time group living became necessary. Higher order cognition allowed us to read social cues and compete without violence through the use of depression, anxiety, guilt and shame.

But, shame has less adaptive significance when triggered in response to societal views of maternal failure. And make no mistake about it, women are led to believe that they can fail if they are unable to live up to the standards of so-called experts.

Fuck you, Dr. Phil!

Today, society is predisposed to blame mothers. This is due, in part, to the behavioral manifestos of years past which proclaimed that children can be molded into anything if mothers provide the correct experiences. Behaviorism, and all that shit.

You know what, B.F.Skinner? Fuck you too!

Historically, shame would have been reserved for times when the benefits of stopping the behavior were worth creating a depressive state in an individual. Today, society just likes to fuck with us by placing demands on mothers that exceed our ability to maintain equilibrium. This has the ability to make us feel guilty or shameful most of time. 

And research confirms it.

In a Finnish study, published in "Evolutionary Psychology", researchers sought to uncover evolutionary reasons for the high levels of maternal guilt plaguing women1. Turns out that we are highly receptive to both societal shaming and internal drives towards adaptive guilt. I broke it down into three categories for the sake of simplicity:

1. Trouble With Emotional Expression

First, they found that women had difficulty with their emotional responses because some feelings were seen as forbidden. That weird ideal we have in our heads of the perfect, calm, martyr-of-a-mother makes women who have emotions outside of that ideal feel badly about it, even when they don't act on those feelings.

Do you sometimes wish you believed in spanking so you could slap the crap out of your kid? Don't tell...it's a social faux pas.

2. Guilt At Not Fulfilling High Expectations

This study also found that the "motherhood myth" of excessive high-quality maternal investment (like that described by Bowlby) induced high levels of guilt. So women who believe that mothers should be able to provide all the caretaking behaviors might feel badly about times when they cannot. According to researchers: 
"Guilt also arose in relation to high expectations of good motherhood. Both the mothers themselves and important others contributed to these high expectations and made it difficult to talk about failures or to live up to them." (pp. 101)

Yeah, that doesn't sound familiar AT ALL.

They found that maternal failure is so poignant a trigger for emotional upheaval that even discussing the so-called failure had the ability to become an additional trigger for guilt and anxiety.  

Feeling like a failure? Don't bring that up either.

Fucking sweet.

3. Guilt About Negative Thoughts, Conflict or Disconnection

This study also noted that guilt was reported frequently in response to thoughts that would be a threat to fitness, such as thoughts of leaving the child to join the circus or preferring one child over another (both normal thoughts, by the way). They found that guilt or shame surrounding these thoughts served to decrease acute anger or indifference, and triggered mothers to reconnect with their kids. They also found that guilt triggered the drive to reconnect in times of conflict. 

In other words, guilt is adaptive. 

Um...Say what!?!

According to researchers, guilt in these cases is a mechanism that encourages mothers to increase commitment during times of struggle, particularly if a child is already suffering from decreased investment. That decreased investment could be anything from going back to work or having another baby (which might decrease actual time spent together), to avoidance of a child due to conflict (such as an increase in arguments over television usage). This means that when we find ourselves overwhelmed after the initial investment period in infancy, our brain responds with guilt as a reflexive defense mechanism to encourage us to increase commitment, usually in the form of more physical time together and less conflict. Because it's way hard to yell at a kid when you already feel super guilty about not spending enough time together. It seems that, in addition to oxytocin bursts leading to love and attachment, guilt is one more layer of intrinsic motivation provided by our biology to encourage us to care for our young.

So, say you're busy writing (ahem) blog posts while your kids are quite happily watching an episode of Modern Marvels. Reflexive guilt from an internal mechanism might try to trigger you to put the computer away and hang out with them. To certain brain regions, the risk of being away from one's children should outweigh the desire to finish just one more post.

Apparently, it doesn't always work immediately, otherwise you wouldn't be reading this article. But later, someone may be getting extra snuggles and ice cream. Because nothing reduces guilt like ice cream.

Seeing guilt as merely a way to indicate that we there is some disconnect between our evolutionary heritage and our current practice, instead of as a way to condemn ourselves, may provide the key in trying to use guilt as a tool to allow us to look at our situation and adjust as we are able. Not only can we identify shame associated with societal ideas of failure, but we also have the ability to identify whether guilt is coming out in response to internal drives. Identifying the source might be an important first step in healing.

(And seriously, fuck Dr. Phil.) 

Related Posts: 


1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22947781

Topic-Relevant Resources

The Woman That Never Evolved: With a New Preface and Bibliographical Updates, Revised Edition
Anthropology, wit and the evolution of the modern female.

We've Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication
Judith Warner explores the misunderstood issue of overmedication in relation to children's mental health.

Mother Nature
Women, sex, competition, cooperative breeding and monkey heirarchies.

Mothers and Others
Anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy explores the history of maternal drives and assistant caregivers

Our Babies Ourselves
Anthropology and childrearing with a unique focus on the effects of culture on mothering