Human condition: Motherguilt: why it's not your fault

Guilt is as much a part of modern motherhood as disposable nappies. Little wonder, says a controversial new book, when mothers are in the firing line more than ever before. Aminatta Forna reports
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"For me, motherhood just comes with a book of guilt," says Claudia, with absolute conviction. Julia feels the much the same way. "Sometimes I look at him while he's asleep," she confesses, "I feel it inside. He trusts me so much." Letitia is rare in knowing what she feels guilty about. She's a single mother. "I feel for her that she doesn't have a father, that's what makes me feel bad. I should have done better for her."

Ask three mothers at random whether they ever feel guilty and these are the three answers you get. Yet Letitia's daughter is a talented athlete who does well in school and for whom home is a small but beautifully appointed home. Claudia is a 28-year-old part-time nursery teacher with a husband and three apparently happy and balanced children. Julia left work to look after her young son and is studying for an MA in social work. To the casual, even informed, observer, it's something of a mystery why they should feel so bad. To everyone, it seems, but another mother.

Maternal guilt is so common, so apparently endemic that we have come to think of it as natural. It appears to be part of the territory of motherhood, one of a range of emotions that comes under the umbrella of maternal instincts, perhaps even the roots of some primeval protective urge towards the children we brought into this world and to whom we feel we therefore owe everything.

My interest in maternal guilt goes back a few years, to when I began to write about motherhood. Time and time again in interviews with mothers the subject of guilt has arisen, the emotions evoked are always intense. Fay Weldon, author and mother of four, whose work is filled with powerful references to the dark, often unspoken emotions motherhood evokes, told me: "It comes from in here," placing her hand on her belly. "You can try to challenge it, but you will never be able deny it."

But the idea that these feelings are somehow hormone-driven is just the latest explanation in a line of currently popular social Darwinist ideas. Ask a Christian, they might tell you the root cause of maternal guilt is Original Sin. A psychoanalyst would try to persuade you that it is the expression of the deep, unconscious rage we all feel against our mothers. Meanwhile, a new book making tidal waves in academic circles in the United States scotches all these theories. Psychologist Diane Eyer says women feel guilty because they are made to. Motherguilt points the finger at all those, from politicians to social workers to babycare books, who have made a career out of blaming mothers for everything from their child's bed-wetting to the national crime wave (but notably, and this backs up Eyer's hypothesis, not the decrease in crime - the politicians and police took credit for that).

Recently, the motherguilt debate was fuelled by the arrest and jailing of a Danish woman who left her baby outside a restaurant in New York, while she went inside to have a sandwich. Annette Sorensen was officially branded a "bad mother", charged with child endangerment and her child temporarily taken away. Her protests that babies were left outside restaurants and shops all the time in Denmark, as they once were in the UK, went unheeded. Once the firestorm has died down, this will be one woman who is sadder but wiser. If she didn't have a guilt complex before, she will almost certainly have one now.

Similar stories are constantly being repeated around the Western world. Guilty! The verdict handed down to working mothers by the BBC's controversial Panorama programme "Missing Mum", aired earlier this year. Guilty! Australian working mothers were delivered the same verdict in a book by an eminent child psychiatrist, causing the country's Prime Minister to step in and put and end to a "wholly unhealthy trend". Guilty! Too old to be a good mother, was the public's verdict on the woman who set a new record by giving birth aged 63.

Maternal guilt is rising. Estela Welldon, a psychologist at the Portman- Tavistock Clinic in London and author of Mother, Madonna, Whore, describes it as "absolutely pervasive" in modern mothers. For many years, women have been handed the sole job of nurturing and raising children. Today that task has become tougher than ever. Janice Williams, a psychologist with a private practice, who witnesses daily her clients' tussles with guilt says: "New parenting styles have become a quest for perfection. At worst, children have become trophies, but most ordinary people simply want their children to have everything."

Mothers not only have more to do, they have less time to do it in. The biggest problem of all for modern mothers, the really big guilt-trip (and, in a sense, this is obvious) is over-work. In our society, work is still seen as conflicting with good mothering practice, despite the fact that a full 60 per cent of British mothers work. Women may regard it as their right to earn a living, but they haven't learned to cope with how bad it makes them feel. Take a look at the findings of this study recently published in the US and spot the apparent contradiction. Forty-one per cent of American women think it is better if a woman stays at home with her children and the husband goes out to work. Yet, when the same sample were asked if, in an ideal world, they would prefer to be stay-at-home mothers or to work, three quarters said they would rather work. In addition, 56 per cent thought they were less capable as mothers than their own mothers had been.

So, it appears that what women want and, in fact, do is not the same as what they think they ought to do. Modern motherhood has become a paradox. "It's a mixture of resentment and guilt," says Judith Stacey, a sociologist and the author of a book on the politics of parenting in the 20th century. "These mothers, the middle-class ones, are under pressure to produce high-achieving kids to justify their own entry into the workforce."

Nothing has made life harder for 20th-century mothers than the near-obsession in the West with psychological explanations for social problems. In fact, blaming mothers even has a name in the profession, "mal de mere". "Psychology has built up a religion around motherhood. It has forgotten about fathers and driven women crazy by putting them in the untenable position of having to be everything to their children," says Diane Eyer, who has found invitations to speak at professional forums quietly withdrawn after her tendency to spray intellectual graffiti across sacred Freudian theory has been uncovered.

For mothers, it's a lose, lose situation. That the extraordinary degree of guilt displayed by British and American women is a social and culturally constructed phenomenon was recently and graphically illustrated to me in conversations with mothers from non-Western cultures. When I asked if they ever felt guilty as mothers, most of them, quite frankly, didn't have the faintest idea what I was talking about. Some wanted the question explained. "What have I done?" asked a Bolivian woman, looking genuinely hurt.

The difference for them is to that they have raised their children in cultures where children are more of a community and less of an individual responsibility. So they don't carry as much of the burden. Plus, even though we tend to think of those countries as more "traditional" than ours, even middle-class women in poorer countries usually have to go out to work. Hence there is far less conflict over ideas about mothering and work. And, it can't go unremarked that there are probably fewer practicing psychologists on the entire African continent than in Greater London alone. The tragedy is that, according to Williams, the longer immigrant women spend in the West, the guiltier they start to feel.

Welldon is convinced that nothing will change until men start to take on a vastly greater share of parenting. Eyer believes it will take a radical restructuring of ideas about mothering, the place of women in work and of the balance between work and raising children. Meanwhile, "you have to recognise that the personal really is political. It isn't just you, and it won't be solved by going to classes in time management. It's the way the game is set up and it's stacked against mothers."