How I Overcame My Working Mom Guilt

guilty working mom

Freud did a nice job of spelling out our hangups about sex. According to his Madonna-whore complex theory, men enjoy sleeping with beautiful, lascivious women, but will only marry a “good girl.” (Cue Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.”) Women — in a bid for men’s attention and approval — bought into this paradigm, tamed their lustful ways and painted themselves as sexless women — devout wives and mothers with ne’re a lusty thought to be had. They teach their daughters: Good girls don’t.

In other words, it is impossible for a woman to be both an evolved sexual adult who enjoys pleasures of the flesh, while at the same time being a devoted, loving mother.

Thankfully, we’ve come a long way. As a single mother who actively dates, I have found myself in a sexual awakening that happens to coincide with becoming a parent. And most women I know are awesome moms who chat casually about their pursuit of sexual fulfillment. I don’t hear many men complaining.

But we still have a long way to go when it comes to being a working mother. Despite the decades that we’ve been breaking through glass ceilings and rising through the ranks at jobs outside the home, so many women suffer a big complex about being a working mom. This working-mom complex is making your family life hell, compromising your professional life and your own sanity.

Don’t take it from me. Recent studies are all over this. A full 40 percent of respondents to Pew’s 2009 General Social Survey told researchers they believed a mother’s working was harmful to her children — up eight points from 1994. A more recent Pew survey found that the majority of Americans say it is harder to raise kids when the mother works outside of the home — despite the fact that women now account for 40 percent of families’ breadwinners.

Therein lies the paradox: We need to work, yet we feel bad about working. The message is this: You cannot be a good mom and also work outside the home.

The culprit behind this insanity is the notion of the stay-at-home mom who devotes her time solely to the unpaid care of her children and home. This is an advent of the last 50 years. Until then — and still today, in the vast majority of the world — women have always contributed financially to their families. They worked in fields and did other farm work right alongside the men. They also ran households when this was a task of manual labor — splitting firewood, tending a vegetable garden (and not a hobby crop of heirloom tomatoes — produce required to live), preserving food and scrubbing floors far before Cuisinart and Roomba made these tasks fun and easy. Except for the very wealthy, women had no choice but to work in order for their families to survive. Oh, and they did this all while raising babies.

Now, I get that times have changed. It is very different to raise children when your work is inside the house, versus today’s economy, which often requires parents to work outside of the physical home. I understand that paying for child care can be prohibitive. There is far less family and community support for mothers than there was in generations past. But life is far more like life was 150 years ago — and 1,000 years and 10,000 years ago — than many want to believe. I worry that today women romanticize a fantasy history that never existed — a fictional world where mommies spent their days charged with the sole task of nurturing young frontal cortexes and preparing wholesome meals. That is the stuff of women’s magazines over the last half century — not reality.

This is the crux of so many professional women’s Madonna-whore complex as it relates to being a working parent. If you buy into the fantasy that once there was a utopia where women cared for babies all day without any economic obligations, then it is a very bitter antidepressant to swallow each morning when you drop your kids off at daycare or pick them from after-school care after a long day. If you spend your whole work day feeling lousy for working – even if you know in your mind and heart and bank account that you must work — it can be difficult to ignore the societal message that a mother who works is a lesser parent.

I had my own working-mom issues. When my kids first went to day care a few years ago, I intellectually accepted this was a necessity. I was going through a divorce. Financially, I needed to work and build my business. But my actions spoke to my guilt: I paid the daycare until 4pm each day, but I told the school that I would pick up the kids at 3pm — buying a cushion of time in the event I needed that extra work hour. Guess what? Each day at 2:15 I would find myself cruising along writing a story or answering client calls. The guilt would kick in:

2:35: Should I call the school and inform them of my 4pm pickup? If I did, would my kids be waiting tearfully, feeling neglected by their overly ambitious mother?

2:48: But I could really use that extra hour to tackle my project – especially since I am wasting all this time feeling like a horrible mom.

And then one of two things would happen: I’d be a “3 o’clock mom” — an advent of my own fantasy in which good moms pick up their children at 3pm. But when this mom did collect her children, she’d then stalk her iPhone while pushing said kids on the swing or worry while going down the twisty slide whether she’d tweeted enough that day. Tweeting thoughts! On the slide!

Or, I’d be a “4 o’clock mom” — a lesser parent but a productive professional (in my own warped mind). But not that productive, because I’d be working with a nagging pit in my stomach resulting from my self-criticisms for failing my own (unrealistic) expectations of myself as a mom.

No one won. My kids got a stressed-out mother, my business suffered and I was a strung-out train wreck. All because I felt bad that I was working and mothering. From the same body.

A friend helped me see how this daily decision to be a “3 o’clock mom” or a “4 o’clock mom” served no one. I read a little history (“The Little House on the Prairie” series is helpful. I’m serious.) and came to terms with the fact I bought into someone else’s unrealistic fantasy about what my life should look like. I accepted the normalcy of my financial need to work.

More than that, I embraced my passion and desire to work — and that it is healthy and productive to embrace these feelings in the same way it is normal, healthy and productive to embrace my love and passion for my children.

You Might Also Like:
It’s Time to End Working Mom Guilt
Having It All Doesn’t Mean Doing It All
Coach Me: I Feel Guilty Putting Myself First

Join the Discussion