Experiences of Maternal Guilt and Intensive Mothering Ideologies in Graduate Student Mothers, Faculty, and Sessional Instructors

By Dr. Kimberly M. Hillier  


Guilt is a common emotion often expressed by mothers. Testimonies of guilt typically revolve around notions of perfection and standards that are unattainable. These unattainable standards typically function within the context of intensive mothering ideologies (Hays, 1996). Premised on the notion that mothering requires an abundance of time, energy, and resources, intensive mothering ideologies also maintain the idea that in order to be an effective mother, one must invest plentiful amounts face time, money, and enriching activities (Parsons, Pacholok, Snape, & Gauthier, 2012). In doing so, intensive mothering ideologies disregard the experiences of mothers who are unable to uphold these demands and thereby, disregard the intersection of social class, race, and other social justice factors (Crosier, Butterworth, & Rogers, 2007). Mothers who cannot practice this form of mothering are often disciplined by society and deemed inadequate (Friedman, 2013). Grappling with the tremendous strain and pressures caused by these expectations, intensive mothering often leads to experiences of decreased mental health and high levels of maternal guilt (Rizzo, Schiffrin, & Liss, 2012).

Intensive mothering ideologies and discourses of the good mother serve many functions. By controlling what mothers do, it ensures that women take on the child-rearing. By controlling what women feel, it ensures that women will adhere to the socially constructed norms of motherhood and not transgress them. By defining what a stereotypical good mother appears like, it maintains racial, social, and gender-based stratification in society. These functions continue to place undue anxiety on mothers, between mothers (e.g., ‘Mommy Wars’), and perpetuate intensive mothering ideologies. The pressures placed on mothers to perform the script of a “good” mother have been around for decades and often conflict with contemporary styles of mothering while contributing to higher rates of parental burnout (Butler, 2010; Meeusen & Van Laar, 2018). While shifts in the economy have called for more dual-income earner households (Statistics Canada, 2016) there remains the deeply entrenched hegemonic understanding that mothers remain largely responsible for the childrearing. With mothers still considered the primary caregiver (Nentwich, 2008), many mothers find themselves contending with undue levels of stress despite performances of a double day.

The increased demand in unpaid domestic labor and childcare responsibilities often leads many mothers to perform a ‘double day’ (Weiss, 1988) or ‘second shift’ (Hochschild, 2003). Similar to the double day, the presence of working a second shift and even at times, a third and fourth shift are a common occurrence for many mothers. Aside from the fact that these occurrences have women performing household and childcare responsibilities at unequal rates, the double day and second shift often forces mothers to make decisions that ultimately affect their career trajectories (Mason & Goulden, 2002). With more women and mothers in the workforce, intensive mothering ideologies must shift to account for the demands placed on women, and men must increase their participation in childcare responsibilities and unpaid domestic labor. Failure to do so may leave the demands placed on mothers as status quo, leaving mothers continuing to struggle with maternal guilt when they realize these expectations are simply unachievable.

Maternal Guilt

Independently, guilt can be described as an “interpersonal moral emotion that aims to repair or inhibit behavior that causes harm to others” (Rotkirch & Janhunen, 2009, p. 92). Guilt can occur in relationships where another’s welfare is the primary concern, such as communal relationships and kin relations. Guilt and shame are terms that are often used in conjunction. Despite their mistaken interchangeable usage, shame focuses on self-directed emotion, while guilt focuses on wrongful behavior that is connected to a concern for others and how the behavior affects that said other (Rotkirch & Janhunen, 2009). For mothers, guilt is a frequent emotion that is often felt as a result of transgressing dominant social norms that dictate the ‘good’ ways to mother.

Despite a history of stigmatization and shame, guilt is an emotion that has become increasingly accepted as an inherent part of motherhood by society and emotion that is to be expected (Sutherland, 2010). Ultimately shaping society’s feelings about motherhood, these ideologies permeate society, popular culture, and everyday interactions, oftentimes perpetuating mother-blame, and in turn, feelings of mother guilt, inadequacy, isolation, commonly experienced by mothers. The increase of women into the workforce, specifically academia, runs against traditional thinking that women must choose between family and career. As a result of transgressing their prescribed gender norms, working mothers, and particularly those who are occupying fields that are historically deemed as men’s, are condemned as selfish, unnatural, and even dangerous to their children and society (Wilson, 2006). The psychological implications of maternal guilt can range from feelings of isolation and frustration to a decline in overall mental health (Liss, Schiffrin, & Rizzo, 2012). Maternal guilt has been found to be associated with a variety of adverse effects including time inflexibility, depression, and lower satisfaction with life, organizational policies, parenthood, and time spent with children (Seagram & Daniluk, 2002). Guilt is an important topic to the discussion of motherhood because of its gendered nature and adverse effects on health that are often the result of it.

Guilt, as the literature demonstrates, is a gendered experience, complexified by intersections of social class, race, and other social justice factors (Korabik, 2015). Guilt, as a result of attempting to balance work and family, needs to be understood as gendered since it is a more frequent experience for mothers (Seagram & Daniluk, 2002; Korabik, 2015). Maternal guilt, as a result of feeling ultimately responsible for preparing children for life’s challenges, while balancing work, led to a sense of inadequacy and emotional depletion. While men and women, mothers and fathers, both experience feelings of guilt, women and mothers face guilt to a higher degree and frequency because of societal expectations that perpetuate the notion that women should fulfill their traditionally prescribed gender roles (Seagram & Daniluk, 2002; Korabik, 2015). The unique status of the women in this study (i.e., graduate student, faculty, or sessional instructor) merges the discussion of maternal guilt in an innovative context that has largely been unexplored.

Theoretical Considerations

This study utilized feminist theories as a theoretical framework to guide the analysis and interpretation of the experiences of graduate student mothers. In recognition of the idea that motherhood and mothering are deserving of their own distinct standpoint, this research drew upon William’s (2010) reconstructive feminist approach as well as O’Reilly’s (2016) concept of matricentric feminism. Research-informed by feminist theories fosters empowerment, liberation, and emancipation for women and other marginalized groups and is consistent with the broader aims of gender justice (Hesse-Biber & Leavy, 2007).

With a focus on family formation and societal expectations, this study’s theoretical approach highlighted how socially constructed gender norms are historically variable social constructs and are not natural, unchanging, or universal by-products of the ability to biologically reproduce. The experiences of graduate student mothers, sessional instructors, and faculty members were the central focus of this research. A feminist theoretical lens provided the space for women to explore topics that have been historically stigmatized, such as maternal guilt and shame. By focusing on research topics that are conducted through with the inclusion of women and these social constructs, women’s lived experiences become the central focus of feminist theoretical research and empowerment (Hesse-Biber, 2013).


Qualitative data were derived from semi-structured interviews and focus group sessions with graduate students, faculty, and sessional mothers. As a method to understand the experience, this research utilized narrative inquiry (Clandinin, 2007) to explore the lived experiences of graduate student mothers and faculty. More specifically, this study’s use of narrative inquiry provided “a way of thinking about the experience” (Connelly & Clandinin, 2006, p. 375). In line with this study’s theoretical perspective, narrative inquiry allowed the women to describe their experiences with maternal guilt in their own terms (Hesse-Biber, 2007).

In addition to the semi-structured interviews, focus groups were also conducted with a group of available participants. Divided into two separate groups, the mothers were placed into different groups based on their enrollment or employment status. The two focus groups consisted of current and recent graduate student mothers (n= 3) and faculty/sessional/adjunct instructors (n=3). The utilization of focus groups complimented the semi-structured interviews and is a method that aligns well with the aims of feminist research and the goals of qualitative research analysis (Hesse-Biber, 2007). Providing opportunities for deeper analysis and exploration of experiences, the focus groups extended the established themes derived from the semi-structured interviews (Krueger & Casey, 2009).


A total of 11 participants were included in this study. Graduate students, sessional instructors, and faculty mothers were from a range of faculties including the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Faculty of Education, Faculty of Nursing, Faculty of Human Kinetics, and School of Creative Arts. Participants were grouped according to their enrollment or employment status and included graduate students and recent graduates who are mothers (n=6) and faculty, sessional, or adjunct instructors who were mothers during their graduate school careers (n=5).

The participants ranged in age from 57 years old to 28 years (M= 36). The average age of current and recent graduate students who are mothers was 31 years old (M=31) and the average age at the time of birthing their first child was 28 years old (M=28). The average age of faculty or sessional employees who are mothers was 42 years old (M=42) and the average age at the time of birthing their first child was 26 years old (M=26). Eight of the women had their first child while in their program of study, one in high school at the time of her child’s birth, and two women had an additional child upon graduating from their program of study. Two of the women in the faculty and sessional grouping had children prior to the start of their graduate studies, while the remaining mothers had their children within the first few years of their graduate school careers. All of the participants were currently married, with the exception of one woman who was a single mother for most graduate student career. While all women identified as heterosexual, it is imperative to acknowledge that women and mothers of all sexualities face challenges related to maternal (Tuten & August, 2006).


Results of the semi-structured interviews and focus groups on the experiences of graduate student mothers indicted that maternal guilt was a pervasive and common finding throughout each of the discussions. With a total of 59 usages, the terms “mom guilt” or “guilty” were present in the interviews of each participant. Experiences of maternal guilt derived from four primary origins and were often the result of increased academic and domestic demands. The primary origins of guilt discussed in this article include: (1) maternal absence; (2) caregiving expectations; and (3) societal expectations.

Maternal Absence

For the purposes of this research, maternal absence includes the experience of tending to academic tasks rather than domestic or childcare related tasks. It encompasses any instance that mothers were absent due to academic related activities. A consistent finding throughout the interviews and focus groups was that when academic tasks and work called for the mothers to be more absent from familial obligations, a strong sense of “mom guilt” was sure to follow. For many of the mothers, guilt while tending to academic tasks was chronic, but her son’s age allowed her to feel a sense of relief in knowing he would not remember the times she was not present:

It was easy when he was younger, he slept all the time, right? I guess I felt guilty because I was focused on finishing, but I mean he never knew, right? He was just a little guy. (Graduate student, 36, married, one child)

Academic tasks that required a period of maternal absence largely included writing their thesis, reading literature for their thesis, engaging in networking or department functions, and participating in conferences. Maternal guilt was markedly higher during times that the mothers would otherwise be engaged in familial related activities but had to complete academic tasks instead. This was evident for a number of participants and expressed in the following ways:

When I go home, I want to have time with my family and all that and weekends so sometimes if my schooling gets really demanding I’m doing a lot with studying or papers, I have to spend time away from them and I feel that guilt. The mom guilt… it’s very real! (Graduate student, 34, married, two children).

Within this response is the presence of an intensive mothering ideology and the assumption that mothers should be the primary caregiver or constantly present. Also present is the management of emotions and stress that follow feelings of maternal guilt. An increase in emotional labour to manage maternal guilt is a common occurrence and one that many of the mothers in this study grappled with.

Also relevant to the discussion of maternal absence is a discussion concerning their husband’s perceived emotions regarding their absence, which again contributed to their increased levels of emotional labor. Concerns about their husband’s mental health and inability to engage in activities they enjoy was a primary concern for mothers related to their absence. This was expressed by a participant who often required the weekend to tend to academic-related tasks:

I feel guilt even when my husband you know on Saturdays if he has to stay home on Saturdays I feel guilty that he’s missing things that you know because I signed up for this and even though he’s encouraging, I just feel like he’s missing things that he finds enjoyment from (Graduate student, 34, married, two children).

Further, when mothers expressed the role their husbands played in terms of supporting their absence to tend to academic-related tasks, a sense of “owing” them was often present in their narratives. While many fathers were simply fulfilling their role as a father, a sense of guilt regarding their participation was present. Interestingly, fathers’ level of participation never seemed to relate to the domestic and childcare related work the mothers were often undertaking:

Some days I feel like I have it all together, and all sorted out and then other days, a kid is sick and something comes up and there’s a lot of mom guilt…If I had to be selfish one weekend, I feel like I gave it back the next. So, it was back and forth but I think all moms suffer from some mom guilt. We don’t feel like we balance it out well, but we try. (Sessional Instructor, 39, married, two children)

Noting similarities between their experiences of guilt, a sense of owing back time to their spouse was also eminent in the experiences of graduate student mothers:

It was nice in a sense he was able to help with the kids so I could go back to school, but it also caused me to have a lot of guilt as well for the work he was doing. I feel like I owe him a lot now that I’m done to try and make up for it. (Graduate student, 34, married, two children)

Despite an increase in caregiving related tasks from fathers (Ungar, 2018; Houle et al., 2017) mothers are still held primarily responsible for unpaid labor, such as childcare and management of the domestic domain. These accounts demonstrate the expectations placed on women and mothers to assume the role of primary caregiver. In feeling that they ‘owed’ back time, it reveals that fathers were performing a role that is not ‘typical’ and one that creates a loss of time, based on their personal accounts. Once a woman becomes a mother, she is bound by the expectations attached to her new role (Lynch, 2008). The expectation to be both physically and emotionally present at all times when their children were home was inherent in the mothers’ responses and highlighted how many of the women felt ultimately obligated to do so. Feeling like they owed back time to their spouse for the time they spent as the primary caregiver was common, and an experience that highlighted gendered expectations in caregiving responsibilities. When academic-related tasks demanded a greater amount of time, especially when this time infringed on reserved family time, a greater sense of maternal guilt was often the result.

Caregiving Expectations

One of the primary tenants of intensive mothering ideologies is that mothering requires abundant amounts of time, energy, and resources (Hays, 1996). Intensive mothering ideologies also maintain the idea that in order to be an effective mother, one must invest plentiful amounts of each, and be the sole provider of time, energy, and resources. In addition to maternal absence leading to a sense of guilt, several mothers in this study felt a sense of guilt when they were not the ones providing care for their own child or children. Relying on their spouse, extended family, friends, and childcare providers, many mothers felt guilty in doing so, and having to rely on others for help was often the result of increased academic responsibilities:

I felt horribly guilty adding in another daycare day, paying that account of money because I couldn’t work much during grad school, so there was always this fine line I was kind of walking. (Sessional Instructor, 39, married, two children).


The financial implications of childcare also lead to feelings of guilt and was a significant contributor of overall stress for several of the mothers in this study. Reflecting on her experiences with paid childcare, one of the mothers recalled a time when she faced significant guilt and stress regarding a loss in subsidized childcare because of her student status:

I forget exactly how they worded it but what they said was that because we were in graduate studies and not in undergraduate studies, they were not going to subsides childcare for us. If my memory serves, we wrote letters to city officials, we threatened to take it to the newspaper. We really had to go big or go home because we simply could not afford childcare costs and knew that if we didn’t have childcare costs, I wouldn’t be able to finish the program and I would have to drop out. (Sessional Instructor, 33, married, two children).


Faced with an either-or predicament, this mother demonstrates how financial stress and guilt can lead to gendered attrition rates in graduate programs, which are more pronounced among women, especially women with children (Lynch, 2008).

While the societal attitudes toward attrition rates paints a picture of “opting out”, we see here how at the governmental level, mothers facing challenges in terms of childcare are left with very few options. This either-or dilemma is often regarded as mothers making a choice between mothering and graduate studies, but as we see here, there was hardly any room for choice or negotiation. Regardless of choice, judgement from other mothers often followed and ultimately exacerbated feelings of guilt.

Judgements from Others and Self

Motherhood experiences are often dominated by sociocultural ideologies that insist that good mothers are happy mothers and that mothers should seek this unrealistic goodness and happiness at all costs (Held and Rutherford, 2011). As a result, mothers often feel inadequate and faced with judgements if they cannot be the “supermum,” “superwife,” “supereverything” that society expects them to be (Choi, Henshaw, Baker, & Tree, 2007). Within this study, mothers noted how societal expectations caused them to be harder on themselves and how these expectations often misconstrued their perceptions of their own mothering abilities.

Noting the pressures to maintain illusions of perfection, mothers in this study reflected on their own early experiences of motherhood and mothering. One mother noted how this pressure interfered with the experience of mothering, causing her to feel as though she was missing out:

I think as mothers, and I kind of felt that in the beginning of motherhood, we’re always so hard on ourselves and we’re always trying to be so perfect and do everything perfectly, and the right way. At the end of the day I think we suffer the most because of all that pressure we put on ourselves and I think we miss out, you know? (PhD student, 30, married, one child).


The season of new motherhood, often referred to as the postpartum period or fourth trimester, brings with it a new reality that may be vastly different from what new mothers envisioned, and difficulty transitioning into this phase may exacerbate that difficulty (Sawers & Wong, 2018). Changes for new mothers including bodily changes, activities, workload, and social roles, may lead to dissatisfaction with the actual experience of being a mother and to increased disappointment and frustration when compounded by societal demands (Highet et al., 2014). These discrepancies new mothers face between expectations and experience often lead to feelings of shame, guilt, and an overall decrease in mental health. Coming to terms with these feelings may create feelings of anxiousness, depression, and failure, which in turn create feelings of shame and guilt (Dunford & Granger, 2017).

While reflecting on their early experiences of new motherhood, the women in this study also noted the competitive nature between mothers, as well as the competitiveness between non-mothers and mothers. Noting a lack of support, one of the women touched upon the pressures women place upon one another, particularly within academia:

The thing in academia is that there are the mothers vs the non-mothers. I mean not across the board, but I was talking to some mothers and the mothers can be hard on the other mothers because they’ll say “well I did this, I did that” … not all mothers are saying that to non-mothers and not all mothers are unsupportive, but I feel like the biggest problem women have is that we do not support each other and that really bothers me. (Faculty Member, 44, married, two children).


While “mommy wars” typically refers to discourse, or an expressed judgment between mothers who work for pay and those who stay at home with their children (Crowley, 2015), it has more recently emerged as a significant part of those who are mothers and those who are not. Based on strong beliefs regarding appropriate maternal practices, perceptions of mothering are often regulated by those who are not mothers themselves, as was the case in the narrative above.


This study focused on the lived experiences of graduate student mothers on a Southwestern Ontario campus. The study provides many insights into the challenges faced by Canadian graduate student mothers and within a context that is largely unexamined. This article’s focus on maternal guilt provides an understanding of a facet of motherhood that is largely shunned in conversations of mothering and motherhood. Discussions of maternal guilt within this particular study highlight a variety of ways that higher education institutions and family formation may potentially contribute to levels of maternal guilt. Experiences of maternal guilt in this study often resulted from an increase in academic demands and were exacerbated by family dynamics, caregiving and scheduling responsibilities, and societal expectations concerning their role as a mother.

Concerning family dynamics, fathers may alleviate feelings of maternal guilt by increasing their overall participation in domestic and childcare related tasks. Support from partners could also lead to an increase of women in doctoral programs, leading to an increase of research being conducted by and for women. Reflecting the stigma attached to expressions of maternal guilt, the women in this study expressed engaging in trade-offs with their significant other, primarily around time allotted for recreational and leisurely activities.

The results of this study contribute to the literature on motherhood and academia, while adding to the conversation of maternal guilt, which has been historically stigmatized by society. The results of this study also contribute to discussions of maternal mental health, which may have implications for graduate student attrition rates, postpartum experiences, and overall maternal health and well-being (Hollis-Walker & Colosimo, 2011). Future research should explore the implications of maternal guilt and student success rates for mothers. This research allowed mothers to safely express their experiences with maternal guilt, and in doing so, helped unearth different ways in which partners and campuses can alleviate the emotional burden of this complex emotion.


Although this study brings forth new insight into the experiences of Canadian graduate student mothers and adds an important feature to the conversation of maternal well-being, it is not without its set of limitations. The primary limitations of this study were the demographic composition and the context of the research itself. The context of this research was conducted in an institution that is rooted in socioeconomic privilege (Ward & Wolf-Wendel, 2012; Williams, 2005; Tuten & August, 2006). Further, all of the women in this study were heterosexual, able-bodied women, who had the resources to pursue post-graduate education. Although the women often grappled with maternal guilt, they also had resources and opportunities that many other mothers do not have. Finally, given its complexity and difficulty in accurately measuring this emotion, levels of maternal guilt were based on verbal accounts and descriptions of experience. Despite these limitations, this study offers multiple insights into a topic that has gone unheard for far too long, and also challenges good mother ideologies within academic institutions and beyond.


Experiences of maternal guilt overshadowed a large portion of the women’s graduate school experience. Maternal guilt was compounded by and markedly increased by academic demands and family, caregiving, and societal expectations. Maternal guilt also mitigated and seemingly regulated a token system whereby the women felt they owed it to their spouse to give back time they spent away from their family while engaged in academic related tasks. While experiences of maternal guilt vary for all women, many commonalities were found within the context of academia, demonstrating universal characteristics for many women. Implications for maternal mental health and on campus resource development strengthen the initial scope and aims of this research.


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