Working Mom Guilt: When the Office Cuts Into Home Time

Women are more likely than men to feel guilty when work cuts into family time.

March 9, 2011— -- Thanks to technology, we can link into work anywhere, anytime, but the constant office communication can take a toll on the work-life balance, especially for working mothers.

For Jessica Guberman, 34, an evening without work calls has become a distant memory.

"I struggle often because I love my career, so I have a desire to work at all times and be in the know. When I do take a call at home, my kids are getting old enough now where I am starting to get the 'look' from them, like 'Really Mom? Now you have to take that call?'" said Guberman, who is vice president of marketing and development at Community Options in New Jersey and mother to a 4- and 5-year old.

While Guberman said she feels blessed to have a career she loves so much, she feels "guilty at all times" that she works as much and as hard as she does. "When the workday ends, it never really ends," she said.

Guberman's dilemma is shared by women, who tend to feel more guilt and psychological distress than men do when the office calls at home, according to a study published today in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

The study found that while women could balance work and family life just as well as men could, women tended to feel more guilt when work followed them home.

"Although men did report higher levels of work contact while at home, what we saw was that the level of contact didn't make a difference for men's' feelings of guilt or distress. It did for women," said Scott Schieman, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto and a co-author of the study.

Chained to Your Cell -- Working Moms at Home

At a time when technology allows us to work anywhere, anytime, this flexibility has an impact on our lives, said Schieman. "Is this just another way that work can take control of our lives?" he asked.

While men and women may feel equally annoyed or inconvenienced by those late-night work e-mails flagged "urgent," this kind of out-of-office intrusion seems to disproportionately affect women, said Schieman.

ABC News spoke with more than a dozen working mothers who reported nearly identical feelings of guilt or stress when they allowed work calls, texts and e-mails interrupt their family time.

"I dread looking at my BlackBerry on the table next to where my son and I will be giggling and playing, because chances are the red light will be blinking with a new e-mail or missed call," said Bri Bauer, a 27-year-old publicist with a 6-month-old son.

"I actually feel very fulfilled ... to juggle working full-time and being a mom," she said.

But lately the evening work calls have had some tangible effects on her stress level: When nursing her son, Bauer has noticed that the work calls can stress her out to the point of reducing her milk supply, which makes her feel "like a horrible mother who isn't even providing enough nourishment to my son because of my job."

Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody, co-director of the perinatal psychiatry program at the University of North Carolina Center for Women's Mood Disorders, said that Bauer's experience highlighted some of the physiological aspects of motherhood that might predispose mothers to this kind of work-related stress.

New mothers have very high levels of oxytocin, a hormone associated with touch, nurturing and especially breastfeeding, and so they will get very annoyed at anything that distracts from their nursing of their babies.

"This is a biological adaptation," said Meltzer-Brody.

"A lot of this stress may also have to do with role perception," she said. "There's the notion that mothers should be at home caring for the child more so than fathers, who work to provide for the family. These are stereotypes, but these societal influences are still there," Meltzer-Brody said.

Easing the Juggling Act

Not all mothers ABC News spoke with reported they felt plagued by work guilt. Despite busy schedules and full-time jobs, several women said they could juggle their work duties and not feel as if they were neglecting work or home life.

Irina Baranov, 39, who works in marketing in Philadelphia, said that having flexibility in her schedule allowed her to align her work time with her kids homework and school time, which made the balance easier. Also, she and her husband have designated times when "phones/computers/BlackBerries are off," such as during dinner.

For the moms who haven't been able to align home and work so neatly, knowing that other moms feel the same guilt they do may help, Meltzer-Brody said.

"A lot of moms are reluctant to admit that they are having a hard time. If working moms had more support and understood that these feelings are common, they may feel less isolated," she said. "It would be more of a sisterhood of working moms."