Why do parents feel guilty all the time? Part II

Note: The "Part II" in the title probably clued you into the fact that this post is one in a series. You can read Part II without reading Part I, but I hope you'll go back and read it for the unconventional pizza recipes. 

I left off with two men--a food writer-novelist-podcaster-dad and an executive coach--who are suggesting that hey, let's just not feel guilty. 

A fascinating article from researchers at George Mason University suggests that we are living in one of the guiltiest parts of our country's timeline. So what do those two men know that the rest of us don't?

Peter Stearns and Ruthann Clay used Google Books' Ngram Viewer to trace the frequency of references to guilt over the past three centuries. Essentially, they use our literature's references to guilt as evidence of how guilty we, as a population, were feeling at any given time.  

Stearns and Clay noted a precipitous drop in references to guilt between 1800 and 1940. This drop, they hypothesize, resulted from increasing societal tolerance (you needn't feel guilty about a formerly taboo practice that is now mainstream) as well as increasing secularism (you needn't feel guilty if there was no deity to judge you). But around the middle of the twentieth century, references to guilt climbed back up.

Stearns and Clay review three explanations for this emerging guilt. First, American psychologists have been drawing a contrast between guilt and shame, arguing that while the latter could be psychologically harmful, the former could be psychologically helpful. That distinction is still at work today in popular personal improvement books like Daring Greatly, in which BrenĂ© Brown distinguishes between guilt and shame: "We feel guilty when we hold up something we've done or failed to do against our values and find they don't match up. It's an uncomfortable feeling, but one that's helpful."

A second explanation is that the increased frequency of the word guilt may be a response to globalization. As we learn more about the injustices of the world, we feel guilt over our own privileged positions within that world. 

A third explanation for today's guilt is rooted in the 1970s and 80s, when new expectations for women crashed into old ones and built mountains of guilt that guilt grew even bigger with the lack of satisfying childcare options for working families in the U.S. 

Stearns and Clay aren't satisfied with any of these three explanations. They acknowledge that the emphasis on guilt as a positive emotion has certainly raised guilt's profile, but they question whether "fashionable optimism" associated with guilt plays out in practice. They aren't completely satisfied with the globalization theory either, because while it could explain guilt in the 1960s it doesn't do as good a job of explaining guilt in the preceding decades. Stearns and Clay argue that the women-in-the-workplace explanation doesn't fit the entire picture either, as guilt was on the rise before the shifting workplace culture of the 1970s.

Stearns and Clay offer a fourth explanation. Much of this guilt may stem from is the "parenting industry," namely, "the steady increase in the volume and detail of advice about what a good parent must be able to accomplish."

Stearns and Clay link the sharp increase in references to parenting guilt between 1960 and 1980 to the rise of parenting books. Experts have always asserted that parents should not feel guilty, from the father of the parenting book as we know it--Dr. Spock--to the parenting manuals of the 1980s and 1990s. "Ironically," Stearns and Clay guess, "many of the same experts who clucked about the distress of guilty mothers and fathers were actively contributing to that same distress."

It's not hard to imagine how parenting books might be making us feel more guilty, despite their assertions that we shouldn't feel guilty. If you read La Leche League's guide to breastfeeding but a medical emergency prevents you from establishing nursing, you might feel like you've failed. If you model all the practices of Bringing Up Bebe but your child refuses to eat anything green, you might feel like you've failed. If you're letting your child passively sit in front of a screen so you can finally read through that book about Montessori parenting, you might feel like you've failed. If your kid doesn't lean his 100 sight words before kindergarten, you might feel like you've failed.

So what make me, the guilt-ridden parent, different from those men I wrote about a few weeks ago? 

They didn't read parenting books. 

The one parenting issue my husband stresses--let alone feels guilty--about is the quality and limited quantity of our son's preferred plain-pasta diet. Guess which one book my husband has read about parenting? 

I, however, feel guilty about

  • how my son and I spent too much time reading and not enough time playing

  • whether his sleep schedule is the right fit for him

  • letting him watch PJ masks while I cleaned up from dinner

  • the fact we haven't rotated the toys in the playroom recently

  • the fact that we have so many toys that they require rotation

  • that my not being outgoing enough may be hurting his ability to forge new relationships

These were just the things I felt guilty about yesterday. 

What if the main problem isn't that I am female, or that I went back to work, or that I can't afford enough childcare hours in which to finish that work? What if it's that I read too many parenting books? 

Just this week I've read Jill Smokler's Confessions of a Scary Mommy (hilarious), Amber Dusick's Parenting: Illustrated with Crappy Pictures (ditto), and Ilana Wiles' The Mommy Shorts Guide to Remarkably Average Parenting (so many funny parenting writers...maybe I should just stop trying to be funny in my own writing), as well as seven books about cooking with kids for an upcoming article. 

If parenting books are the portal to a guilt vortex, I'm in a world of trouble.  Photo by  Lysander Yuen  on  Unsplash

If parenting books are the portal to a guilt vortex, I'm in a world of trouble.

Photo by Lysander Yuen on Unsplash

Reading these books is part of my job, so perhaps guilt is an occupational hazard that comes along with the limited work hours, flexible vacation schedule, low pay, and internet trolls. Even if I wasn't writing about parenting for a living, there would be the stacks of books I read before my son was born (including, I'm embarrassed to admit, one pre-pregnancy book that I refuse to link here because I will not contribute to your guilt no matter how much affiliate income it might earn me.) 

Their data set goes through 2008, so it's not clear exactly what parental guilt has looked like over the past decade. But I have a hunch. Jill Smokler launched Scary Mommy in 2008. It and blogs like it have certainly resonated with readers, because in a Forbes estimate from 2014, there were 4.4 million "mommy blogs." 

I'd bet you a dollar that, once we have data on parental guilty from 2008 to 2018, we would see another climb. The field of parenting experts has exploded, and scores of them are still asserting we shouldn't feel guilty about our parenting. But they're also telling us how to parent. 

Stearns and Clay are not trying to draw any definitive conclusions about guilt here--they note the limitations of using references to guilt as evidence of the emotion of guilty and describe their research as "still-exploratory." Still, their research opens up an important question for those of us writing or reading about parenting.

So now I have a new thing to feel guilty about. In maintaining snackdinner and adding my own book to the shelf, am I responsible for a tiny uptick in parental guilt? Is there a way to both write about parenting and make parents feel better about their own? 

More on that in Part III.