How Do Working Mothers Harness Mom Guilt?

How do working mothers manage the push and pull of family life? Here are my thoughts on the struggle. If you are a working mother, would love to hear your thoughts.

It’s no secret that working moms struggle through a sense of guilt as they walk a tightrope between being a nurturing parent at home and an assertive leader at work.  Pixar even succeeded in monetizing on mom guilt through the Incredibles 2 movie. In this version, Helen is in the spotlight as she arises to fight the new villain, leaving Bob at home with Violet and Dash to navigate the day-to-day routines of family life.  The score brilliantly addresses the nuanced decision that Helen and Bob make as their roles shift. The chaos that ensues during the transition is rather humorous as it depicts how challenging managing a household is.  One minute, the viewer celebrates as Helen aggressively charges forward with measured risks and confidence to the massive challenges. In another moment, viewers can sense the angst felt when she is missing her kids and feeling at a loss that she no longer has immediate access to the rhythm of the home and their hearts. One line delivered by Helen pulls it all together, “I know it’s crazy, right? To help my family, I got to leave it, to fix the law, I got it break it.”  

Mom guilt comes in a variety of flavors. 

  • Have you ever struggled in leaving your child at daycare or felt pangs when you dropped them off at their first day of school?
  • Have you ever chosen not to do something for yourself or opted out not to do something with your spouse (i.e, gotten a haircut, go on a date night), because you do not want to miss out on your child’s activities or be absent?
  • Have you ever felt you fell short as a parent (i.e, not feeding your kids enough healthy foods, not playing with them or taking them to enough extra curricular activities, not disciplining them appropriately, opting not to read to them an evening because you were so exhausted)?

There are plenty of shoulds bred in our culture, family upbringing and personal expectations that any parent, even the most engaged and active, will inevitably fall short on. Guilt comfortably takes its place in the space between the line of ideal expectations and the current state. Reality kicks in with many unpredictables. While there are days where you can ticker off many of the expectations and aspirations you have drawn out for yourself, there are other days were you can miserably fall short. Inevitably, children get sick, you get sick, people get laid off from work, stress happens and the pressure starts to press on. In these vulnerable moments, when you are not the best version of yourself,  the whispered messages of guilt grow louder, “you should have . . .”

 Now add work to the equation and you have just added tons of weight to a jar that was already filled to capacity. While indeed moms carry on professionally, astutely tackling the work ahead, carrying on the balancing act quite often tugs at their heart. Some women make a choice understanding childhood is the shortest stage of life and they want to bask in that season wholeheartedly, so they leave the workplace. Others, need to work for financial reasons and others have a strong vocation. Those in the marketplace hold the tension every day. 

The question is why do working moms feel guilty leaving their kids behind when they are working? This is a short list of some of the reasons I’ve heard clients share  . . .

  • Wired to please. Is it that moms are so accustomed to nurturing and taking care of the littles that turning away feels a little bit like a betrayal of sorts? Not being present may feel neglectful.
  • Fearful of rejection. Is it that moms fear that children will turn into defiant adolescents or young adults who lash out in anger and rebellion because of the mother’s absence?
  • Fearful of missing out. Is it because there is a cost to every choice and since it’s impossible to be all things to all people, turning towards one master (work), leaves a parent with less energy and resources to pour into the family? Or just simply feeling a bit sad that one may miss out on the first words, first steps, and the other fun experiences that are part of seeing little people grow.
  • Attachment. Is it that there is a special bond between child and mother so that mothers attunement with their children make it difficult for them to simply detach and easily move on in their workday? It is like the funny comic strip where no matter where a mother is in the world, there is a string attached to her home and child so that her heart is always home. Oxytocin is a very powerful hormone after all.

Maybe some of these reasons resonate with you. In the end, it’s about how much power is given to the story that is developed. The state of ambivalence can be drawn out and experienced with much more agony if this script is allowed to carry its course. Certainly, it’s not helpful to just ignore or pretend that the tension exists. Do recognize its a battle and attend to it. This doesn’t mean falling under the weight of guilt. Whenever the pangs of guilt set in, take some time to reflect on it. What is it about? Where is it coming up? Evaluate whether the guilt felt is actually false guilt. False guilt is unreasonable and it is about blaming ourselves. Indeed, there are times where guilt plays a role. Guilt is a good thing when it drives us to recognize our wrong doings, ask for forgiveness, and work towards making amends. Indeed, if you are unreasonable and lash out at your kids with contempt and anger, your consciousness nags at you with some of this guilt. This is a good thing as it prompts you to make amends.  More often than not, however, when it comes to work situations, you are dealing with false guilt. In these circumstances, reframe the situation and adopt a new script. 

  • I am a role model. I am showing my children how they can be engaged in the marketplace while also maintaining and having a rich family life. 
  • I will make moments count. I am architecting experiences and moments with my children when I am with them that are enriching and these memories will be with them for a lifetime. 
  • I will draw a line and keep it. I am careful in creating boundaries for work so that there are margins in my life for fun and play.
  • I will surround myself with friends and family. There are no benefits in doing life alone. Build a network whom you can lean on for support and call on them frequently. 
  • I may not always be around; yet I am consistently available. Turn off work when with your kids and focus on them. When at home make it your business to be in their world. When you are home, be curious with them, engage with them. When you are not home, do what you can to make yourself available. 

Certainly guilt can come in and push its way into your conscious having you second guess your decisions.  Whether you need to work to provide for your family or whether you have made the decision to work, mom guilt will surely come show its ugly head  and try to drag you into a pitiful state. And If you let it, it will happily serve you a heaping helping of anxiety and depression.

 Stop the “I should halves” when they start lounging in your head. Adopt healthy and realistic parenting habits, kick guilt out and usher in grace for yourself and for your family. Choose to live in a space of grace. 

I’d love to hear from you, how have you dealt with mom guilt?

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