“Why bother having children if you don’t spend time with them?”
Playwright and author Sarah Ruhl distinctly remembers her mother saying this about moms who worked full-time. After Ruhl had her own children, her mom’s words continued to haunt her, she writes in her excellent book 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater.
For many working moms, these words haunt us, too. Maybe you work from home, and wonder if you should be able to get your work done in the margins of your day—before your child wakes up, during naptime, after bedtime. Maybe you barely make enough to cover your childcare (and wonder if it’s fair for your spouse to foot the bill since you’re the one who chooses to work). Maybe you’re just starting a start-up, and your salary is lower than low. Maybe you have a time-consuming career and a long commute, which means your child spends most of their weekdays in daycare. Maybe you’re working full-time and going to school.
Guilt is tough because it’s a signal that you’re doing something wrong. So when you feel guilty, you become convinced that you’re taking some terrible action.
But sometimes guilt is a false alarm. And it, unfortunately, tends to ring especially loudly for mothers.
“Mothers have a unique type of guilt that shows up in a variety of ways, and working mom guilt is a particularly difficult brand of maternal guilt,” said Stephanie Sprenger, a writer who pens the blog Mommy, for Real and co-edited The HerStories Project‘s essay collection: So Glad They Told Me: Women Get Real About Motherhood.
She encouraged moms to open up about their guilt, whether it’s talking to a therapist, mentioning it in a moms’ group, or writing about it inside your journal. “Talking about it may seem scary, but it actually makes our guilt less of a powerful force.”
Below, you’ll find additional tips on navigating your guilt—and making it less powerful and persuasive.
Identify the source of your guilt. Kate Rope, author of Strong as a Mother: How to Stay Healthy, Happy, and (Most Importantly) Sane from Pregnancy to Parenthood, stressed the importance of identifying why you’re feeling guilty: “Is it because you really think something should change and you are not doing what you believe is the best thing for you and your family? Or is it because you’ve internalized ideas from other people in your life or society in general and feel like you are not living up to those ideas?”
If the former is true for you, she suggested rethinking how you’re structuring your life so it better aligns with your wants and values (if that’s possible). Maybe that means asking your boss if you could work from home a few days a week to cut down on your commute, and spend that time with your child. Maybe that means changing jobs, so you have a less demanding position or a more flexible arrangement. Maybe it means going part time, and having your kids attend daycare three days a week. Maybe it means doing a split-shift, where you work until 2 p.m., spend time with your kids, and then work for several hours after their bedtime. Or maybe it means leaving the workforce all together. (Either way, there are so many ways to design your life with kids—as the comments illustrate in this post on Laura Vanderkam’s site.)
If the latter is true for you, that your guilt is coming from messages outside of yourself, tune into—and keep tuning into—your beliefs and what’s best for you and your family, Rope said. (More on that below.)
Don’t put guilt in the driver’s seat. One of Sprenger’s favorite books is Feel the Fear . . . And Do It Anyway! Her personal motto is: “Feel the guilt . . .and do it anyway!” That is, acknowledge how you’re feeling and explore it—but if your guilt isn’t pointing to some deeper truth, keep doing what you’re doing.
And don’t change a thing. As Sprenger said, keep working at a job that fulfills you, skip bedtime to take a yoga class, or pay a sitter so you can get a massage. “The guilt may or may not go away, but that doesn’t mean you have to let it take the wheel and guide your decisions.”
See the value in your work. When Rope interviewed Lauren Smith Brody, the author of The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity and Success after Baby, for her book, she shared this tip: Make a list of what you get from your job (a paycheck totally counts!), and what you bring to your job. “Both of these will help you see the value of your work for yourself and for a larger community—your organization,” Rope said.
See caregivers in a different light. Think of your kids’ caregivers as growing their community, introducing them to different perspectives and helping them develop skills that might not be in your wheelhouse, Rope said. For instance, Rope has had several sitters, including her mother-in-law, who are great artists and have helped her daughters nurture their interest and abilities in art.
“My mom always told me, ‘the more people who love your child, the better,’ and I really believe that. We were intended to raise human beings as a community, and children benefit and learn from a wider community.”
Consider the lessons. Your children can learn a lot from your work. For instance, according to Rope: They can learn from you providing for them, and they can learn from the kind of work you do. If your work feeds your soul, they can learn the importance of caring for yourself, and if your work serves others, they can learn the importance of caring for people beyond your loved ones, she said.
Realize that you’re not failing. Moms often feel like failures because we can’t keep up: We’re expected to be on top of work—and on top of the latest parenting information and advice, to “be all things at all times to our kids,” Rope said. However, there’s very little support for these massive expectations, including inadequate maternity leave and inflexible workplace policies, she said.
“There is no such thing as daddy guilt, which demonstrates the incredible burden we put on moms to be the primary, all-knowing caregiver.” And yet “it takes a village to raise a child.”
When Ruhl recently asked her mom to clarify what she meant by saying, “Why bother having children if you don’t spend time with them?” after taking a moment to think, her mom replied: “Probably I was just jealous of the mothers who worked full-time.”
Guilt is a tricky emotion. Sometimes, it really does reveal an underlying desire—which might mean making a big change. And other times it’s a false alarm (no matter how roaring its ring). The key is to dig deep and identify which one it is for you. And whatever you choose, know that there’s value and worth in all of it.