Maternal guilt: Measurement, correlates, and policy solutions in the Italian context (MatGuilt)

Research Focus

This project investigates the role played by maternal guilt in employment and childbearing in the Italian context.


For the past few decades, Italian society has been struggling with low levels of female labor force participation (ISTAT, 2020a) and “lowest-low” fertility rates (Eurostat, 2021). Sociological and economic research documents how Italian women are considerably less likely to be employed than their European counterparts (Dotti Sani & Scherer 2018). It also shows how family life negatively affects Italian women’s employment status, earnings, and pensions (Dotti Sani 2015; Dotti Sani & Luppi 2020).

The puzzle

Economic theory predicts that the lower engagement of Italian women in the labor market would be accompanied by higher levels of fertility (Becker & Lewis 1974). In contrast (and paradoxically) the country’s Total Fertility Rate (TFR) dropped from 2.4 children per woman in 1960 to 1.19 in 2019 (excluding migrant women) (Eurostat, 2021), leading to a situation that scholars refer to as the “demographic trap” (Mencarini & Vignoli 2018).

Contrary to countries that managed to achieve sustainable levels of fertility and female employment, such as the Nordic countries or France (Eurostat, 2021), Italy is one of the European countries where women work less and have fewer children, indefinitely struggling with a state of “unstable equilibrium” (Esping-Andersen 2009) that is problematic from a demographic perspective and also for the achievement of societal gender equality.

What makes reconciling labor market participation and the achievement of sustainable fertility so difficult in the Italian context?

Much research has identified the lack of family policies as a major culprit for Italy’s paradoxically low levels of female employment and fertility (Brilli et al., 2016; Del Boca et al., 2004).

Instead, the MatGuilt project provides an original contribution to the field by investigating the role played by cultural and normative factors in the Italian low female employment / low fertility paradox. Specifically, the project focuses on a critical yet understudied feeling: maternal guilt.

Maternal guilt is defined as mothers’ feelings of inability to live up to contemporary cultural ideals of the “good mother”, which set overly high standards in terms of maternal physical, psychological, and intellectual dedication toward children. The impossibility of conforming to the “myth of motherhood” results in the feeling of maternal guilt (Sutherland, 2010). Most studies on maternal guilt have been carried out in the US (Sutherland, 2010; Seagram & Daniluk, 2002), while very little research has explored maternal guilt in Italy (Collins, 2019).

This project hypothesizes that the idealization of motherhood and the consequential feelings of maternal guilt are highly relevant and likely to have a profound impact on Italian mothers’ labor market and reproductive behavior. In terms of employment, guilt might lead mothers to cut down their working efforts, hours, and aspirations, or drop out of the labor market in an attempt to live up to the motherhood myth. In terms of childbearing, women might decide to limit or forgo their fertility to minimize the guilt that would derive from not conforming to the ideal motherhood standard.

Thus, the premise of the MatGuilt project is that debunking motherhood ideals may be a critical step toward higher levels of female employment and higher fertility.

Research Objectives

To assess the relationship between maternal guilt and employment and fertility, MatGuilt poses three main research objectives, which come together in the form of three working packages described in detail below.

1) To conceive a measurement of maternal guilt and identify motherhood ideals in Italy, a context for which very little empirical evidence is available.

2) To examine the relationship between maternal guilt and women’s preferences and behavior concerning: a) labor market participation and b) childbearing and fertility intentions.

3) To explore whether remote working – a way of working that gained popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic – influences maternal guilt and whether it could become an institutionalized tool to ease work-family reconciliation, eventually supporting fertility and fostering female employment.


Work Package 1: The measurement of maternal guilt and the myth of motherhood

The goal of WP1 is to contribute to the understanding of maternal guilt, and its relationship with cultural ideals of what it means to be a “good mother” (Sutherland, 2010). The package aims to identify the presence and salience of maternal guilt in the Italian context, study its individual and societal determinants, and its relationship with motherhood ideals. To answer these questions, WP1 provides a measurement of maternal guilt and examines the characteristics of idealized motherhood in the Italian context by conducting an online survey targeted to mothers and women of childbearing age, i.e., between 20 and 50 years old. The second task of WP1 will be to portray the “motherhood myth” in the Italian context by relying on a conjoint survey experiment. Overall, WP1 will provide i) a measurement of maternal guilt in the Italian context, ii) the attributes characterizing good motherhood, and iii) the links between the two among different categories of respondents.

Work Package 2: To explore the nature of the relationship between maternal guilt, employment, and childbearing decisions

First, we seek to investigate whether guilt, as measured in WP1, has negative repercussions on mothers’ work – in terms of participation in the labor market but also working hours and career aspirations – acting therefore as a “straight jacket” on mothers’ choices and behaviors (Aarntzen et al., 2019). Second, we argue that guilt might account for part of Italian women’s hesitation toward the achievement of (higher-order) fertility. Thus, our second research question is whether women and mothers who experience more vividly the clash between normative notions of “motherhood” and “worker” will be less likely to plan (additional) children even if they might desire them. These questions will be addressed using an online survey targeted at women and mothers (introduced in WP1).

Work Package 3: Remote work and maternal guilt: insights from the pandemic

Leveraging on the unique experience offered by the application of remote work during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, WP3 asks whether remote work can become an institutionalized tool to ease work-family reconciliation, unburdening mothers of their sense of guilt and ultimately support both their presence in the labor market and their fertility intentions. Relying on a combination of qualitative research techniques, WP3 explores in depth whether and how remote work affects: (1) maternal guilt, (2) mothers’ career aspirations, (3) work-life arrangements, and (4) fertility plans. In-depth individual interviews will be conducted with around 50 mothers who experienced the shift from working on-site to working from home during the pandemic to explore their perspectives, behaviors, attitudes, and perceptions on the four issues mentioned above. To include the point of view of all agents involved, 10 additional semi-structured interviews will be conducted with employers and people responsible for welfare and working arrangements in the investigated organizations, who will be asked to provide their perspective on work productivity and ambition of female workers.


Giulia Dotti Sani (Principal Investigator) is an Associate Professor of Sociology in the Department of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Milano. Her main research interests are the sociology of the family and women’s employment. She also works on public opinion and political participation from a comparative perspective. Her works appear in international peer-reviewed journals such as the European Sociological Review, the Journal of Marriage and Family, and Sex Roles. Link to personal webpage.

Nevena Kulic is an Assistant professor in the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the University of Pavia. Her research is centered on the topics of social stratification, educational inequality, women in the labor market and education, intra-household dynamics, and adult and child well-being. Her work was published in journals such as the Annual Review of Sociology, the European Sociological Review, Sociology and Work, Employment and Society. She has also worked in scientific and policy institutes and universities, as well as consulting for international organizations such as Eurofound and UNDP.

Gemma Scalise, PhD in Sociology, is an Assistant Professor in Economic Sociology at the University of Milan Bicocca. She is a member of the Editorial Board of the journal Sociology and Principal Investigator of “CITILab Project: Compound inequalities and labour market outsiders“. Her works appear in international peer-reviewed journals such as European Societies, Journal of European Social Policy, European Journal of Industrial Relations, and South European Society and Politics. Link to full bio.

Anne-Marie Jeannet is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Milan. She studies how changes in the social structure, such as deindustrialization or immigration, alter political life. She is interested in how the public perceives these social phenomena and the role of family and community in shaping people’s responses to these occurrences. She is currently the principal investigator of “Deindustrializing Societies and the Political Consequences” (DESPO), a project funded by an ERC Starting Grant.

Project lifetime: October 2023-September 2025


The MatGuilt project is financed by the Italian Ministry for Education under the PRIN 2022 grant scheme (Bando Prin 2022 – Decreto Direttoriale n. 104 del 02-02-2022 – Settore ERC SH3 “The Social World and Its Diversity”).

Foto di Dan Aragón su Unsplash