I’m currently (scratch that)...I’m ALWAYS in an “it’s complicated” relationship with mom guilt.
It’s been hard to wrap my mind around the way mom guilt impacts me because it’s strength varies on a daily basis. As an example, here are some of the working titles of my post about mom guilt as I brainstormed how I would write about it:
3 Ways to Push Back Against Mom Guilt
Mom Guilt: How to Drown In It
The Mom Guilt Made Me Do It, a Memoir
How I Defeated Mom Guilt
Wait, No I Didn’t
Mom guilt flies at us from a lot of directions (looking at you, Pinterest) as we try to perfect what it means to be a modern-day, well-rounded, high-functioning woman. We feel inadequate as stay-at-home moms, as working moms, as how-do-her-kids-always-look-so-put-together-moms, and as I’m-going-to-let-screentime-be-a-parent-for-a-moment-while-I-go-hide moms.
My most recent dose is rooted pretty deeply in the fact that when I had the choice (and it’s a privilege to have this choice) to be a stay-at-home parent or a working parent, I chose work. And I’ve continued to choose work in increasing intervals ever since.
Last year when I became pregnant with Phoebe, I made the choice to go all in. I’d work for myself in my own business with both girls in full time childcare and no guaranteed income.
Goody! What a fun and guilt-inducing little experiment!
We are already over a month into our new normal. I returned to work in mid-January and started pouring myself into work. I started teaching courses again, picked up some amazing copywriting and communications clients, and committed to developing my business by creating my own content and deeply investing in networks of strong, inspiring women.
And you know what? It has been...awesome. Truly. I have felt motivated, creative, driven, proud, and happy. So far, my experiment has been nearly a best-case scenario.
You know that annoying co-worker at your office? The one who stops by your cubicle to make small talk with you right when you’re trying to focus?
Don’t make eye contact, you think, but it’s too late. They’re making their way over to you, and you’re going to be stuck for at least 15 precious minutes. Your focus is interrupted. Your productivity is thwarted. Your frustration builds to a low simmer.
THAT coworker for me is Mom Guilt.
I’m working from home in the middle of the day. During a mental shift between projects, my eyes drift over to Peppa Pig, who is lying face down on the living room floor where she was abandoned in the morning rush to get out the door.
Poor Peppa! She looks so sad and lonely. Poor Lucy! She wanted to take Peppa in the car.
Mom guilt wedges it’s way in. It jams a foot in the closing door and holds it open. Oh, yay! It’s you again, I greet it as my thoughts wander away from my work and to my girls at daycare.
I should have been more patient this morning.
I should be working harder so I can pick them up sooner.
I should have kept Phoebe home during flu season.
Mom guilt lurks in the corner at evening networking events. It makes a guest appearance when I stop for lunch by myself between meetings. The second I check Instagram or let my mind wander out of productivity, it’s back.
I’ve tried different coping strategies to beat back the mom guilt.
Justification: OK, so I wasn’t happy as a stay-at-home parent, I thought. I’m showing my girls that they get to choose a life that’s best for them and aligned to their strengths.
Validation: You know who else is a working mom? Shonda Rhimes! Michelle Obama! Queen Elizabeth! Brene Brown! Ruth Bader Ginsburg! Joanna Gaines! JK Rowling!
Productivity: If I only do excellent work all day long, I don’t have anything to feel guilty about.
Surrender:That’s it, I’ve said through tears. I’m not doing good work, so I’m going to pick them up.
In a way, all of those strategies work, but they don’t stop the mom guilt from coming. They don’t change my inner dialogue, and they don’t de-program the worldview that I didn’t even know I was carrying: that being a loving and attentive mother means spending a lot of time with your kids. And time is exactly what I just opted out of.
We all have to make choices about what we opt into and what we opt out of. It’s not realistic to choose ALL. We can’t be all all the time, so we choose what’s best. We choose what’s right for us, knowing that there will always be something that tells us it’s wrong. Well, maybe not wrong, but not quite enough.
I had an epiphany the other day.
I was drinking coffee with a woman who wanted to learn more about starting a business as a copywriter. She’d been on my website, listened to my TED talk about side hustles, and read some of my blog posts.
“So, did your business grow out of wanting to maintain some side projects while raising your kids?”
“Pretty much,” I said. “When I realized that I wanted to work more than I thought I would after having kids, I started slowly building up projects and…”
I built an entire career out of mom guilt.
Would any of this exist if I hadn’t taken on side hustles that allowed me to spend more time with Lucy when she was a baby? Would I have been willing to jump fully into my own business if I didn’t think that it would give me more flexibility to be present at my kids’ activities? Would I have worked this hard if I didn’t feel so guilty?
When I was 23, I left a job at a magazine when I didn’t see the work/life balance I desired for my future with children. I went to grad school to become a teacher.
That’s pre-mom guilt.
Moms, let me ask you a question. What have you done because you wanted to be a “better” parent? I bet I already know some of the answers.
I speak more kindly about my body now that I have daughters.
I started my company because I wanted to show my kids that they can go after what they want.
I went back to school because I wanted my kids to see me commit to education.
I talk about my failures and struggles with vulnerability because I want my children to understand that we can all do hard things.
I learned how to cook to accommodate my child’s food allergy.
I work hard at my job every day because I take pride in contributing to my family.
I am kind to strangers because my children are mindful of the way I treat people.
I hand-crafted 38 Valentines hated it, but I knew how happy it would make my kid.
I became a vocal advocate because I want a better future for my kids.
Even at its most discouraging, most debilitating, and most disheartening, mom guilt is a motivational superpower.
Since mom guilt is never going to go away, I’m choosing to see what it’s given to me instead of what it’s taken. It's given me work that fills me up and makes me happy. It's given me purpose and direction.
It’s the secret weapon makes me try my best (and often fail) to be a better, more intentional person. Sure, it’s made me lose focus and compare myself to other people. But having to fight those feelings of shame and inadequacy has made me work harder, love myself more, learn new things, and take risks I would have avoided.
Think about it, moms, whether you’re home right now with your kids or sitting in an office somewhere. In any other season, have you ever been as tired? Have you ever felt stretched so thin?
And have you ever worked harder, anyway?
“I’m going to build you an empire,” I whisper to my smiling baby as I buckle her into her carseat.
And then, I go and try.