How I Overcame Working Mom Guilt

How to Manage Working Mom Guilt
by Kristen Terry
Photos Mimi Nguyen | October 26, 2016
When I was in high school, I was adamant that i'd never get married or have children. But things change.
After I emerged from my teenage years relatively unscathed, I began to imagine a future that included a husband, maybe a few children, and a career that I loved. My mother had always worked outside of the home—in fact, most of the women in my life did—and I was confident that was the way to do it.

It turns out life’s rarely that simple. Like with major career or personal changes, there are distinct phases when transitioning from single career girl to mother with career. And there are some days when you have no idea whether you’re doing it right. Here’s how I learned to adapt to the unexpected, and evolved from a world-traveling 20-something to a mother of two without losing sight of myself, my passion, or my work. 

PHASE 1: THE CAREER GIRL

After college, I found a job and threw myself wholeheartedly into it. A few years later, I got married, but my husband and I both remained focused on building our respective careers. Eventually, I realized I was actually quite unhappy with my job, and when I couldn’t ignore it any longer, I quit. I decided to travel across the globe—sans husband—because it was something I had always wanted to do. I figured it was now or never so I took the risk and left commitments behind.  
I tortured myself with thoughts of all the “firsts” I would miss: first time rolling over, first time sitting up, first steps.

PHASE 2: THE CLASSIC WORKING MOM

Upon my return, I found a job that I loved, that involved long hours and lots of variety. Soon after, my husband and I decided to start our family. I’d agreed to return to work after eight weeks leave, confident that I was the epitome of a working mom. But after my son was born, I was panicked by the idea that I would have to leave him. As exhausted and overwhelmed as I was, I couldn’t imagine not being there for his every waking moment (and those rare sleeping ones).

I tortured myself with thoughts of all the “firsts” I would miss: first time rolling over, first time sitting up, first steps. I spent evenings sobbing on my husband’s shoulder (yes, postpartum hormones may have played a part here) as he tried to reassure me that it would all work out.

PHASE 3: THE HYBRID APPROACH

My first day back at the office, I went into my boss’s office and tearfully asked her if I could cut back to three days a week. 10 months—and countless missed mama moments—later, we both agreed I should try shifting into freelance. I embraced it wholeheartedly. Working as needed provided a stimulating creative outlet, and I began spending more precious time with my little guy. We added a daughter to the mix a year and a half later, and I focused on my time with them—with an occasional freelance producing-gig thrown in.  

PHASE 4: THE WORKING WOMAN

But then came a three-month contract offer that was too good to pass up. Three months of guaranteed work. Three months of one steady paycheck for our little family (my husband is also a freelancer). Three months to nurture the career I’d slowly but surely been growing through ongoing contract work. I decided to accept the offer, and we began the difficult search for a full-time nanny—a nightmare first step in our transition.

We’re about one month in, and it’s been quite an adjustment. Until recently, my son cried every morning when I left, and for at least the first week, I did too. I race home every evening, desperate to hold them both. Although my daughter has finally started sleeping through the night, I relish the evenings when she wakes up, and needs cuddles from Mama.

The push and pull in different directions is difficult. I enjoy working. I like speaking with other adults throughout the day. I feel proud when I bring that paycheck home twice a month. But every time I ask my son what he did during the day, it still breaks my heart that I don’t already know, because I wasn’t there.
The struggle to balance the needs and wants of everyone is constant, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop wondering what I might be missing. But I also can’t change the fact that having a career is important to me.
I will admit, most days, I feel like I’m failing. My attention is always divided, and I’ll never feel completely certain I’m doing it right. For every article written about how good it is for children to see their mothers working outside the home, there’s an opposing argument for why children need their mothers with them. In my roughly five years of being a parent, I’ve always tried to do the best I can and to remember that if something isn’t working, I can change it.

So is there a right way? Absolutely not. Every family needs to figure out what works best for them—you won’t hear me passing judgment on the variety of ways people make it work. In the end, it’s pretty simple: each day I get up and try to be the best mother and employee that I can be. I remind myself that as long as my children feel loved, I’m not doing too badly.

Does it get easier? Yes, it definitely does in some ways. But the struggle to balance the needs and wants of everyone is constant, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop wondering what I might be missing. But I also can’t change the fact that having a career is important to me.

HOW TO STRIKE A BALANCE

Although we’re still finding our rhythm, I do have a few tricks to balancing a career with motherhood:
  • Saturday evening is Family Movie Night. The concept is pretty simple—dinner and a movie on the couch—but it gives us all something to look forward to.
  • We practice technology-free Sundays. No email, work or personal; no Instagram; no Facebook; no text messages or phone calls unless vitally important; no TV.
  • I make time for Mama dates with my children, both separately and together, trying to do something special with them at least once a week.
  • I leave notes for my oldest to find in his lunch box, and I send our wonderful nanny pictures throughout the day to share with the littles.
  • I try to occasionally leave the office early to make it to swim class, or go into the office a little later so we have time to walk to the café for coffee together.
Side note: Next up on my personal to-do list is figuring out how to balance working outside the home with motherhood AND marriage.
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Are you considering becoming a parent? What worries you most about striking a balance between your career and family goals?