A Working Mother's Guilt Relieved

Are you a Mom and a Professional?  Do you suffer guilt over not being a “better” mom?  Then consider these words of wisdom from my son who was 15 years old at the time. May they relieve some if not all of your guilt. (For working Dads who are Moms too.)

I returned to work as a manager in a Fortune 100 company when J. was 3 months old.  By the time he was two I was a full time graduate student.  I left for school early Monday, stayed overnight, and did not return home until Tuesday around 8:00 P.M.  I always brought J. a special treat from the bakery near school.  I can picture him now, sitting in his high chair at the kitchen table, Dad by his side, excitement blazing in his eyes, smiling from ear to ear.  “Did you bring me a treat?”  Always.

For the following 6 years I ran a consulting business, attended classes and worked an internship.   Psychology texts became bedtime stories, allowing me to study and us to spend time together.  At the age of five he asked about my dissertation, “Mom, if you took all the pages and put them in the driveway would it be longer than the car?”  Made me laugh.   I had him copy all my papers from the computer’s hard drive to a CD when he was 7.  He labeled it “Psycho Mom.”  Made me laugh. 

I felt guilty that I wasn’t home more – baking chocolate chip cookies together, arranging art projects, and taking trips to the park. Friends and co-workers assured me that my son, my husband and I had wonderful relationships and no one was suffering. It was the quality not the quantity that mattered.  None of this relieved my guilt very much.  But I was compelled.  I loved my work, and I did not want to stop or slow down. 

When Jordan was 15, I considered taking a job and no longer running my own business so I could spend more time at home. The teenage years are so very important and kids that age are vulnerable in so many ways.  Jordan, my husband Bob and I talked about the change.  Jordan was practically dumb-founded  “Why would you ever want to do that?  You love your work.  You wouldn’t be you if you didn’t work, or did something you don’t love as much. You’d be unhappy, and that would make the rest of us unhappy.  Things are good just the way they are.”  That young man stopped me in my tracks.  I had not valued one of the most important life lessons he was learning.  Be who you are, your authentic self – and the rest will be okay, hard perhaps but okay.

Jordan is 19 and a college freshman.  When the year began people asked how he was adjusting.  The word “adjusting” never occurred to me in relation to my son and college.  He is an amazingly social person and very independent. He began doing his own laundry at 12.  At 14 he cooked meals for himself and often for friends.  He shopped for groceries before he could drive.  He loves college – the independence, the freedom, the life. 

Recently a friend whose son is also a college freshman discovered that he had not attended classes at all second semester.  Instead he slept late, played video games and partied with friends at night.  I asked Jordan what advice he might give my friend about her son.  “Get him out of there,”  he said.  “That kid doesn’t know how good he has it, and they shouldn’t be wasting their hard earned money sending him to college right now.”  My son – I am very proud of who he is and what he values even if he didn’t have as many fresh baked chocolate chip cookies in his day. 

We all give our children many gifts.  Enjoy the ones you are giving them.  Some day they will let you now how they’ve received and grown from these lessons.   


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21 Responses to A Working Mother's Guilt Relieved

  1. John Reh April 23, 2009 at 3:51 pm #

    Great life lesson for us all – Moms and Dads – it’s not how much time you spend with the kids, it’s how much you teach them.

  2. Mama Bee April 24, 2009 at 1:35 pm #

    Anne, this is a fabulous piece. For working moms with younger kids, it’s an incredibly helpful perspective from someone who understands both the rewards of working and the self-doubt we experience from time to time. Thanks so much for posting.

  3. Sue Zisko May 1, 2009 at 2:15 pm #

    Thank you for this! I’m constantly comparing myself to the other moms (my daughter is 14) and wondering if I’m doing it right…I agree that “If mama isn’t happy, nobody’s happy.”

  4. Elizabeth May 3, 2009 at 9:47 am #

    Thank you for sharing this experience. I am a first time mom of a wonderful 10 month old son and often struggle with pursuing my career ambitions and being a mom. That guilt of “am I doing enough?” is constantly there. But a lesson in hard work and pursuing what your passion sounds like a lesson that we want our kids to learn and there’s no better way than to lead by example.

  5. sarah May 7, 2009 at 10:06 pm #

    Thank you for telling your story. So many people judge the working mothers today, I will bet my grandmother that had 9 children was not constantly baking cookies, taking her kids to mommy and me classes and driving her kids to 5 different club team sporting events. Yes she was at home but she ran a farm with alot of chores to do. All of my Aunts and Uncles learned how to work! Children lead by example!!!! I am a feamale firefighter paramedic and my son loves coming to the fire station to visit his mom! Oh my what would Dr. Laura think?

  6. Liz November 7, 2009 at 1:43 am #

    I’m just starting out in my new promotion after being a stay at home mom for the last 5 years, I find myself overwhelmed with the workload and balancing enough time for my 3 girls, although I don’t regret my decision to accept the promotion. I’m struggling with leaving work at work and not taking out my work frustrations out on my little ones. I’m 39 and my patience grows thinner each year so sometimes it’s a big struggle to not turn that towards my girls (when they’re all needing something at once). I’m just trying to find my balance right now and feel a little lost, thanks for sharing.

    • Anne November 7, 2009 at 8:43 am #

      Liz – Congratulations on all that you are doing. Lots of change in your life right now and it probably involves new kinds of work, new relationships, new manager, etc. That alone is stressful for most people. On top of that you are trying to balance it all.

      I just returned from a women’s leadership conference where I spoke about alternatives to “balance,” which is a myth for most managers. When I asked how many felt it was a myth all 30+ hands went up. When I asked how many felt guilty about their mothering roles all 30+ hands went up. You are not alone. Several of the women committed to off-loading some of the at home work – getting a cleaning person, buying groceries on-line and having them delivered.

      A visual exercise may help you leave work at work. Imagine a container large enough to hold all the work frustrations. Picture that it can be shut tight.See that it has some kind of valve that will allow you to place one thing at a time into or remove one thing from the container if it is useful to do so. Now that you have your container, each day before entering the house or picking up your girls picture all the day’s frustrations moving into the container.

      See them as a mass – not as individual items. The mass may be liquid, gaseous or even a solid form. Let the mass move into the container, taking as much time as you need. When as much of the mass goes in as can possibly go in, check on the percentage that is in the container. If less than 100% ask yourself what you need in order to let the rest go in. Then repeat the previous step. When as much of the mass of frustration is in the container as will go in at this time, see yourself seal the container shut. You might use tape, glue cement – whatever it takes. Then see yourself putting a sign on the container that says, “I will open this only if it is helpful.” Some people then like to see the container dropped to the bottom of the ocean, moved to a cave or atop a mountain.

      Take a few deep breaths and check in with yourself to see how you’re feeling at that moment.

      Other things that may help –
      1. Involve your girls in a transitional routine that helps you and them “Get home.”
      2. Support from others who are doing “it all” – a phone call to a really good girlfriend who will make you laugh or empathize when you’re about to go over the edge can shift your perspective – and that’s what you need at those moments.

      Best of luck and please check back in.

      Regards – Anne

  7. Maia November 7, 2009 at 2:05 pm #

    Thanks ! That’s exactly what I needed to know.

    • Anne November 7, 2009 at 2:20 pm #

      Maia – Glad it was helpful. Curious about exactly what you needed to know.

  8. Anjali November 12, 2009 at 9:03 am #

    I am about resume work full-time after a break of 1 year. My son is 11 months old and I freak out every time I imagine him alone at home. I worry if his nanny can read his cues, if he will get along without me and the most important thing – whether I am spoiling his childhood. After reading your article, I am so relieved. Thanks Anne.
    .-= Anjali´s last blog ..Top Ten =-.

    • Anne November 12, 2009 at 9:31 am #

      Anjanli – What a beautiful name.

      Returning to work after being at home is incredibly stressful, so of course you are worried. Imagine if you weren’t. Wouldn’t that be an awful sign.

      I am delighted this article helped. Sadly, this is one of the most read and commented of the all the articles I’ve written. Working Moms are walking around with a huge burden of guilt. So I thought I might share this with you and others as I think it will help to relieve some of the guilt.

      D.W. Winnicott, M.D. a famous child psychiatrist coined the phrase “Good Enough Mothering.” He suggests that a “perfect” mother (Dads can be moms too)- one who meets every need – gets in the way of the child’s developing ability to recognize and address their own needs. Failing to predict and immediately respond to the child is necessary for him to develop the ability to recognize his own needs then initiate and complete activities to meet those needs. Given that as adults we must be able to do this, “good enough” is perfect. In addition, the ability to empathize with others and recognize their needs also depends on one’s ability to do that for self first.

      Best wishes on your return to work. Keep me and other readers posted, please.

  9. Sherri December 3, 2009 at 10:32 am #

    I am going through an intense period of guilt right now – feeling that I have not made enough of an effort to build memories with my 16 year old daughter.
    I have had such an intense couple of years (long term illness and death of father, death of grandmother, suffering harassment in the workplace and moving into three different jobs) that I believe I’ve become withdrawn and a little bitter, frankly. I do a good job of hiding this frm her, however you know how kids are – they see everything.
    I make sure to hug her, tell her how proud I am of her, and keep up with her needs as far as social, school and her part time job go. She seems happy. Still, I ache to be ‘better.’ I ache to project happiness instead of just getting through each day, which is how I feel.
    Thank you for this article. It helped me to know that kids are resilient and that they can do well even when mom’s attention isn’t firmly and completely on them 24-7.

    • Anne December 4, 2009 at 10:45 pm #

      Dear Sherri – Thank you for sharing your personal and heart felt post. Perhaps it will help to know that you are not alone. This article is the most read and commented on Germane INsights and has appeared on a number of other sites as well. There are a lot of Moms (and some Dads) who feel as you do. I don’t know you or your daughter so this is not a recommendation but a different view to consider. Perhaps you could share some of what you are feeling with your daughter. As you say, kids see everything. Sharing is not to burden her or ask her to take care of you but to share that both of you have your struggles.

      Hope happiness makes a stop at your door soon.

      Warm Regards,
      Anne Perschel

  10. Amanda Alexander March 5, 2010 at 12:36 pm #

    Mums face tremendous forces, pulling them between family and finances sometimes, it is so right to remain grounded and to believe in yourself and what you are doing at all times.

    Amanda Alexander PCC (ICF)

    Professional coaching for working mothers

  11. Mary Wilson May 9, 2010 at 4:30 pm #

    Anne, this is a wonderful post. Your son sounds like a terrific, wise human being thanks to you.

    Your story reminded me of my grandmother, who was way ahead of her time. After my grandfather died in an industrial accident, she returned to college to train for a teaching career. Since there were no child care centers in 1923, she took my dad along to her classes. He quickly learned, at a very early age, not only to behave properly, but how to cook, iron and take care of a house. Quite unusual for a man of that era. He turned out just fine, even though my grandmother (who never remarried) taught school full time until she was 70 and loved every minute of it.
    .-= Mary Wilson´s last blog .. =-.

    • Anne May 9, 2010 at 7:57 pm #

      Mary – Thanks for sharing your grandmother’s story. She is a wise woman who knew how to integrate work and life. Like your father, our son was undaunted by laundry, ironing and cooking when he left the nest for college. Here’s to the men and women who have clear new pathways.

  12. Dorothy Dalton April 19, 2011 at 11:01 am #

    Anne – the story of a working Mum’s life – that’s why women are so good at finding balance – because we do it, despite the all round guilt. And as you say the kids are appreciative – eventually!
    Dorothy Dalton recently posted…70 or bust No! Bring forward workplace changesMy Profile

    • Anne April 20, 2011 at 10:55 am #

      Dorothy – The day before reading your comment I spoke at length with Tony Schwartz, former journalist and current CEO of The Energy Project, a consulting firm on a mission to create better workplaces. His mother Felice founded Catalyst Inc., and organization that provides research and resources to companies about the contributions of professional women. Tony, much like my son Jordan, expressed appreciation and no regrets that his mother’s mission involved working in the world outside of home.

  13. Gwyn Teatro April 19, 2011 at 11:28 pm #

    Anne, there is so much about this post that takes me back to my time as a working Mom. When my first son was born in 1969, I went back to work after six weeks at home. Maternity leave benefits were limited, with six weeks being the maximum allowed before the job was gone. I spent years feeling guilty about not being able to participate in my son’s life, as I would have wanted. Many years later, I had occasion to talk to my son about those times and to express my regret about not being there as often as I thought I ought to have been. He said something like, “Hey, I had a great childhood!”
    For the record, he also grew up to be a very decent, kind, funny, sensible man…and a fantastic parent himself. So, really, I’m thinking that the guilt I wore might even have been something I chose or something others gave me to wear. What I also learned is that children grow up and live their lives in spite of their parents. What matters is what we teach them and how much love we give them when we are with them. And, I’m thinking too that happy people make much better parents than unhappy ones.
    Thanks for this post. It is a timeless one.
    Gwyn Teatro recently posted…Encouraging Innovation &amp The Story of the 5 MonkeysMy Profile

    • Anne April 20, 2011 at 10:50 am #

      Gwyn – I hope others will read your comment and be both relieved and inspired.

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