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How Nurses Cope With Guilt as a Working Parent or Guardian

Gayle Morris, BSN, MSN
Updated January 21, 2023
    Many working parents and guardians experience guilt. Use these strategies to stay present and build a healthy family foundation.
    • “Mom guilt” is a term used to describe the distress working moms and guardians experience when they must leave their children in the care of strangers or even family members.
    • Fathers and male guardians are not immune to these feelings of guilt and sadness as they often want what’s best for their children.
    • Working nurses can consider several strategies to reduce their guilt, which may help them build a healthier family foundation.

    However easy or traumatic your path to parenthood is, most moms and female guardians might experience “mom guilt.” This is a feeling of being torn between two worlds that triggers an emotional and sometimes physical response. And it’s a feeling that is familiar to most working parents or guardians since parenting takes time and money.

    Nearly anything can trigger feelings of mom guilt. This includes returning to work or having a different parenting style than your friends and family. We spoke with two nurses who shared their experiences and the suggestions they have to help parents and caregivers deal with feelings of guilt as a working parent or guardian.

    Nurses Experience Mom Guilt, Too

    Mom guilt is unique to women, but all parents and caregivers can experience feelings of guilt when they leave their children in the care of others. There are nearly 3 million registered nurses (RNs) in the U.S. and 86.74% of those are women. More men are entering the field but at a slow rate.

    In 2010, 10.19% of nurses were men and by 2019, that percentage had grown to only 13.26%. The large number of women in the field can lead to a large portion of the workforce experiencing feelings of mom guilt each time they leave for work.

    Moms describe feelings of inadequacy about being a parent when they have to leave their children with strangers while they go to work. They worry they aren’t good enough and doubt their ability to parent their child or children.

    It’s not unusual for moms to feel sadness about not being able to spend more time with their children or have mixed feelings about wanting to return to work. Another factor that adds additional stress is the concern over the cost and quality of daycare.

    Traditional expectations for women and mothers add more pressure. Women may have aspirations to be perfect moms, business women, and spouses. Yet, this expectation is not realistic or fair and adds to the burden of guilt that moms carry.

    Fathers are not immune to these feelings of guilt and sadness. They often want what’s best for their children but are torn between spending time with them and being a provider. This is especially true for single fathers like Jay Goff, who is an RN with Brooks Rehabilitation and foster father to three boys.

    “Every time I leave the house, I feel guilty. I overthink and run scenarios through my head about how I am going to miss out on important milestones,” he says.

    Working nursing shifts has pros and cons when compared to people who work a standard 9-to-5 job. Nurses in a stable relationship may have the advantage of their children being in daycare for just a few hours at the end of the day if their work starts at 3 p.m. and their partner arrives home at 6 p.m.

    However, without a partner, it is more challenging to find a daycare provider willing to work the second shift to care for your children. Also, nurses who work the day shift are gone most of the time their school-aged children are in school.

    Working the night shift may benefit some families with school-aged children since the parent or guardian is gone while the children are sleeping, and the parent or guardian is sleeping while the children are in school.

    9 Ways Nurses Deal With Guilt as a Working Parent or Caregiver

    Crystal Slaughter, DNP, APRN, ACNS-BC, CNE, ACHPN, is a faculty member at Walden University College of Nursing. She and Goff discuss many of the strategies they use to deal with their feelings of guilt and how they help their children and family adjust to working parents and guardians.

    1. Acknowledge Your Feelings

    Sometimes, nurses try to push their feelings away when they believe they can function better without feeling guilty. Unfortunately, this often adds to the underlying stress parents and caregivers experience.

    Take the time to acknowledge and respond to your feelings. Keeping a journal or speaking to other working caregivers can help identify and acknowledge your feelings.

    2. Stay Present

    Overall, staying present in the moment helps protect your mental health by reducing stress and improving your emotional fitness. Persisting in negative thoughts or feeling guilty increases your risk of experiencing greater sadness or depression. Goff works hard to stay present when he’s with his children.

    “I constantly remind myself that I am doing an amazing job. I know this every time I see their smiles or hear their laughs,” he says.

    3. Use a Routine

    Goff uses a set routine to help his children feel stable and secure. It also helps him engage with his children in ways they anticipate and enjoy. Routines create structure and promote physical, mental, and emotional health.

    “I give each kid my undivided attention when I am home. I go through homework with each kid individually. I read to the kids every night despite how tired I may be. And on my days off, I cook breakfast and transport the kids to and from school,” he says.

    4. Ask for Help From Friends and Family

    It took some time for Slaughter to recognize that it takes a village to raise children. The people in your village are family and trusted friends. She engaged the help of her support network when she couldn’t be there for important events. Going to work with a bad attitude only made for a bad shift.

    “It took me some time to see that I had a village to help me, and while my daughter missed me at times, I was there for many, many important events,” she says, “and the ones that I missed were because I was providing for us.”

    5. Choose Your Job Carefully

    Several nursing positions allow parents and caregivers greater flexibility to be home when the children are home and awake. Some nursing positions that offer greater flexibility include school nurse, home health nursing, legal consultant, clinic nurse, case manager, and nutrition and fitness nurse.

    6. Be True to Your Word

    Children thrive on structure and knowing when things will happen in their homes. If you promise to be finished with work in 15 minutes, then set a clock and stop working in 15 minutes until they go to bed. Being true to your word promotes trust within the family.

    “So, I have made it a point to set a timer, and when it goes off, I take a break and find her. I am intentional with that time and make sure she knows I am there for her,” says Slaughter.

    7. Give Yourself Grace

    In some cases, nurses are their own worst critics. While you may be experiencing mom guilt, your children may be happy and content with the quality time you spend with them. Although working moms may spend less time with their children, they spend more structured time where they are actively engaged with the children.

    Daughters raised by working moms are more likely to be gainfully employed, and one Danish study showed children whose mothers worked during childhood had a higher grade point average at age 15 than children of mothers who didn’t work.

    8. Take Advantage of Digital Communication

    Slaughter is intentional about her communication with her children and spouse while she is working. She sends a message to her husband, thanking him for his support and expressing how much she loves him. She believes it’s important to be intentional about her communication with her children as well.

    “I will also text my children. I set reminders on my phone to call family members. I get so busy, and time goes by without me even realizing it, I need tangible reminders to ‘show up,'” she says.

    9. Flexibility Is Key

    The nursing profession is all about flexibility. Patients can suddenly require critical care, schedules change, and many nurses have an on-call schedule. Slaughter believes it is vital that nurses and their families are flexible. She says that when she has to change plans for a family event, she needs her family to be supportive and flexible.

    “Loved ones of a busy working professional can help by being ready to step out of their comfort zone to help,” she says. “A father who stays home with the kids all day while mom is out of the home working is potentially stepping out of their comfort zone but providing the spouse with comfort knowing the family is taken care of.”

    Meet Our Contributors

    Portrait of Jay Goff, RN

    Jay Goff, RN

    Jay Goff is a newly single dad and an RN with Brooks Rehabilitation. He has been a foster parent for the last year and currently has three boys. He previously fostered a sibling group for a few months. He hopes to adopt the boys that are currently placed in his care within the next year. Jay knew he wanted to be a dad and a nurse from a young age, and he is working hard to make those dreams a reality.


    Portrait of Crystal Slaughter, DNP, APRN, ACNS-BC, CNE, ACHPN

    Crystal Slaughter, DNP, APRN, ACNS-BC, CNE, ACHPN

    Crystal D. Slaughter received her doctor of nursing practice at Saint Francis Medical Center College of Nursing in May of 2012. Slaughter joined Walden University in 2013 and serves as core faculty in the RN-to-BSN program. Professionally, Slaughter has worked as an advanced practice nurse with an intensivist/pulmonary service to provide care to hospitalized ICU patients and with inpatient palliative care. Her research interests lie in nursing education and evidence-based practice initiatives to promote improving patient care.