I was about to take attendance in my second block when my phone rang. The number of my daughter’s school flashed on the screen. “Delaney has a low-grade fever,” the nurse said. “Her throat hurts and she wants you to come get her.”
It’s safe to say that most moms have received similar calls. I’ve already received six from the nurse this school year, and it’s only January. My husband, on the other hand, has not received any, and his name is listed on the contact form right next to mine.
Perhaps it’s the nurse’s assumption that I can drop everything to pick up my daughter, and my husband cannot. After all, I’m the mom, and for years society has dictated that my husband should have the career while I care for the children.
The Origins of Mom Guilt
Dr. Donna Sotolongo with Thriveworks Explains
Dr. Donna Sotolongo, licensed clinical psychologist at Thriveworks in Virginia Beach, reminds us that as members of the animal kingdom, all mothers have the instinct to nurture and protect. Pregnant felines and other animals search for safe corners to deliver and nurse their young. Similarly, expectant women spend the hours leading up to labor in a frenzy of preparation, commonly referred to as “nesting,” creating a safe, cozy environment for the newborn.
Because humans are thinking animals with the capacity for more than instinctual behaviors, we are often subjected to beliefs about motherhood that have been shaped by our culture. The mother cat isn’t thinking about whether or not she is a good mom or if the space she found for her litter was the best one available. She is simply operating on instinct. But human moms compare, worry, and feel guilty that we might not be doing what we believe is expected of us or what we expect of ourselves.
“Guilt is a social phenomenon, not a biological one,” says Dr. Sotolongo. “It surfaces when you break the rules of culture and society and feel bad about it.” While necessary for recognizing right from wrong, guilt is a negative emotion that can become unmanageable and damaging, and we have to learn to turn the switch off, she suggests.
“We have a finite amount of energy, and guilt is a waste of that energy,” continued Dr. Sotolongo. “If we focus [our energy] positively, we can get something amazing in return.”
Before I entered the ranks of motherhood nine years ago, I had a specific picture of what motherhood would look like for me. I planned to stay at home and raise my children. I also intended to breastfeed until each child was a year old.
It’s fair to say I set myself up for disappointment with these aspirations. Living off one salary was not realistic for my husband and me, and I returned to work 12 weeks after my child was born. Because I had to pump in a bathroom stall at work, my milk supply dried up several weeks later.
Only a few months into motherhood, I felt like I was failing because my experience was not what I had envisioned or what I thought was expected of me. Was I a bad mom? Not at all. My children were fed, loved, and pampered, and I had a rewarding career. We were doing fine, but at the time, I was wracked with guilt.
Benefits and Challenges of Being a Working Mom
Nourishing Yourself is Important
Because society has sent the message that it is the mother’s responsibility to be at home caring for her offspring, many moms feel they are cheating their children when they join or return to the workforce. But that’s not the case.
The working mom is nourishing different sides of herself, experts say, and that can be vital for a woman’s identity and overall well-being. “Choosing a career does not mean rejecting family,” says Dr. Sotolongo. “We have the right to be defined as more than Tommy’s mother or John’s wife.” Moms should not be judged because they want fulfilling careers, but it is important to recognize the challenges that many moms face.
For starters, mothers are always mothers, whether they are at work or at home. Men, on the other hand, tend to be better at compartmentalizing work life and home life. While there are certainly exceptions to this rule, basic biology separates us in this way.
Secondly, we don’t have a culture that supports working mothers. Because working moms are already so busy, we don’t have time to connect with other working mothers. We miss out on important opportunities to share our experiences and discuss our fears, failures, and successes.
Then, after being at work for eight hours or longer, we pick up the children from school or daycare and automatically switch to mommy mode. We get the kids started on their homework and begin fixing dinner without having any time to unwind from our day. And we often feel guilty when we can’t do everything as well as we hoped.
While some mothers choose to work and raise children, Dr. Sotolongo emphasizes that this isn’t the case for all working mothers. Many widowed and single moms report feeling guilty because they have to work in order to pay the bills and feed their children. There is no other adult provider. Many of these women state that they feel especially guilty when they take their babies to daycare early in the morning and pick them up after sunset.
“When women report these feelings, I try to remind them that they do still have choices. They have a choice in how they look at their situations. They may even have a choice in where they work,” she said. “I remind them that bringing in money and providing children with food and clothing should never be discounted.”
Dr. Sotolongo also acknowledges the stress that results from doing so much for everyone else, and she encourages all working mothers to do more for themselves. A quick walk during a lunch break, a cup of coffee, or a hot bath are all small ways to practice self-care and combat feelings of powerlessness.
Maintaining a Work-Life Balance
A Supportive Family is Key
When working mothers have the support of their families, a work-life balance is much more attainable and guilty feelings are less likely. Even though we have many societal expectations in terms of acceptable roles for moms and dads, those are shifting. There are many fathers and grandfathers performing childcare duties today that men weren’t as likely to perform years ago. If mothers hadn’t begun working, men wouldn’t have stepped into some of these roles and wouldn’t be as involved in their children’s lives as they are.
When my first child was born, my husband changed, bathed, and fed our son, once we switched to bottles. We have been a parenting partnership ever since. Both of us help with homework, take sick days, and alternate attending events at our children’s school. I’m fortunate that my husband has always supported by decision to have a career.
Parents will always feel inadequate to a certain extent. Expecting perfection is unrealistic and completely unnecessary. And if people around us are making us feel guilty, we should try surrounding ourselves with different people.
There was a time when I constantly felt guilty about working, but not as often anymore. I realize that everything I do adds value to our lives. Teaching makes me a better parent, and parenting makes me a more compassionate teacher. My own children will always come first, but I’ve asked the school nurse to contact my husband on occasion for non-emergency messages. He’s beside me on the contact form... and in life.
Melissa Face is the author of I Love You More Than Coffee, an essay collection for parents who love coffee a lot and their kids...a little more. Her essays and articles have appeared in Richmond Family Magazine, Sasee Magazine, and twenty-one volumes of Chicken Soup for the Soul. Read more at melissaface.com.