Every time Juhi would leave her 1½-year-old daughter to go to the office, she would feel a pang of guilt.
Her toddler was well taken care of and the nanny was affectionate and responsible.
The toddler was meeting all the milestones satisfactorily.
Everyday Juhi would come back home to find her contented toddler running about and playing.
But the guilt of ‘abandoning’ her child wouldn’t leave her.
“If I had been home,” she would ruminate, “I would have played with my daughter and engaged her in so many activities!”
Juhi really liked staying home with and taking care of her daughter, but at the same time, she liked to be financially independent too.
Does this ring true for you as well?
Do you feel that elusive work-home balance stress like Juhi?
Whether you are at home or at work, do you feel like you should be elsewhere, getting something productive done?
Or does work spill into family time, as you find yourself only half-listening to your child’s story of how he chased a spider?
Or you sneak away from work to make it to your child’s football match, only to be checking your inbox fervently instead of enjoying the game?
Whether you’re a new mom returning to work after a break or a parent who’s been working for a few years, mom guilt can make you feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and defeated.
What’s more, the Covid-19 pandemic has left working moms scrambling to find solutions for their child’s education and/or child care. As a result, guilt is permeating everywhere as children spend more time on screens and moms spend more time on Zoom.
Working on letting go of this guilt should be on top of every mom’s to-do list. My therapeutic experience with working moms shows that while they have to manage the balancing act, they experience significant relief when they are intentional and mindful of their priorities and behaviors.
Here are some ways in which you can banish the working mom guilt:
1 Look at the big picture
Your mother calls you in the middle of the day and beams that your little boy has uttered his first word. As much as you're happy, you feel a sudden pang of guilt—you missed that important milestone. It is okay to feel sad, but there is no guarantee that you would be exactly present with your baby at that exact moment, even if you were not working. What if you were taking a bath or at a doctor's appointment? Right in the moment you feel like you are missing out. But what are your long-term plans? Think about why you are working.
List out all your plans and everything you dreamed of for your future when you started working. If you stop working now, what will happen to your dreams? Your future financial situation? Will you have any future regrets? What will you do once your child leaves home? Is quitting work your best option when you think of the long term?
Then, every time you think, “I feel bad about…..” it’ll help to replace that with, “I made that decision because….” and then move forward.
2 Don't compare
If you're comparing your situation with others, you will find it difficult to feel happy about your decisions. We often don't know of others' family situation, financial status or childcare arrangements. So stop following others’ rules. If one mom you admire seems super organized and put together, you might unconsciously create rules for yourself based on her actions. And when you’re unable to follow these rules, you feel guilty. But you’re not her. So your rules should be different. Make your own rules, based on your unique life situation, what your kids are like, and your career goals.
Write down the pros of leaving your child and going to work. It could look like this:
- I want to provide the best for my child and continue enjoying my independence and passions.
- I enjoy going to work and interacting with other adults
- I work for financial security for myself and my family
- I want to climb the ladder in my career and achieve my career aspirations
Then, list down the cons like childcare cost, less time with your child, etc. This can help you see your situation clearly and understand and own your choices better. If someone else’s choices (such as seeing someone’s perfect Instagram feed) brings you down, give yourself the permission to unfollow them for some time.
3 Think quality over quantity
You may have heard this many times- the quality of time you spend with your child is more important than the mere number of hours you're with her. If you're physically available with your child but are spending most of your time on the laptop or completing chores, you're not spending quality time. You don't have to spend 24/7 with your child to be a good parent. When you're with your child, be fully present with her, without your phone or any chores interrupting you.
Have daily rituals like eating dinner together, reading a bedtime story, going to the playground or enjoying a walk in the evening (without distract of gadgets and phone calls). Enjoy these little things with your child and make the most of your time at home. The chances are the grass is not much greener on the other side as well. Many stay-at-home mothers may be too burnt out at the end of the day to spend quality time with their children.
4 Revisit your Values
Think about your values and set your priorities based on them. Remembering and revisiting your values will give you the power to love your life according to them and to ignore the unimportant stuff. Write down your most cherished values and see how your day, week, and month align with those values. When mothers who consult with me do this exercise, they realize that they don’t actually live into the values they say are important to them. They are then able to use the list of their most cherished values to bring about changes in their lives.
Practice saying no to unnecessary commitments and activities that don’t sync with your values. You don’t have to volunteer for your child’s school fete or be on the managing committee for your resident’s welfare committee. But if family tops your list of most cherished values, schedule family time in your calendar by devoting a block of gadget-free time to your family on weekends, or arranging a lets-make-breakfast together activity Sunday mornings. You can also involve your child in chores you already do, like taking the dog out for a walk, packing in some one-on-one conversation, and connection time. Similarly, if personal growth is one of your values, it’ll help to schedule a time to read, learn, or meditate (or whichever way you’d like to work on your value) in your daily calendar. The more you invest in your values, the more authentic you’ll feel like a person, and the lesser the guilt you’ll likely experience.
5 Stand up for Yourself
Be it extra expectations at work, or snarky comments from your friends and family, you have to learn to stand up for yourself. Set your priorities, and let everyone around you know it. Can't make it to the 7:30 pm meeting? Let your manager know that you need to spend your time with your child. Is your mother-in-law constantly pointing fingers at you for working? Tell her why it is important for you to continue working to support your family. No matter what you do, there will always be someone who's not happy with it. So, feel free be your own judge. If you're allowing others' sarcastic or unhelpful comments to affect you, you're only giving them the power to control you.
Draw boundaries with firmness and assertiveness, but without harshness. Empathize with others' feelings before you respond. You can tell your manager something like, "I have 2 high-priority accounts, so before I accept another one, I’d like to negotiate for Flexi hours. It’ll help me manage all the additional work effectively.” Or you can tell your mother-in-law, "I really thank you for taking care of the baby. I need to work so we can manage our finances better. Do you think we should get help?" or to a friend, "I appreciate your concerns, but my situation is different from yours. You may have had a longer maternity break, but I had to start early. My child is happy and is in good hands."
6 Aim to be 'good enough'
Instead of trying to attain an unrealistic standard of perfection, try to be a good-enough parent. Lower the bar from the perfect mom who can do it all, who does everything any mom ‘should’ be doing, to one who reclaims her own life and takes care of herself. Banish the word ‘supermom’ from your dictionary. Reduce the pressure on yourself to be some mythical creature that simply doesn’t exist!
Remember the basics. Being a good-enough parent entails showing up for your child, that is, being emotionally present to and giving your child your full attention at the moment. Good-enough mums aim to be perfect (remember, there are no perfect parents!), they care for and connect with their child without sacrificing their personal needs and health.
7 Ensure good child care support
When workday morning times become an emotional battle every day, ask yourself why you're feeling guilty. Is it because you're unhappy with the childcare arrangements? You want the best for your child, and you may be frequently rethinking your choices. Look at how your child is doing at the end of the day. When your child is happy, you can relax that your fears and inhibitions are unfounded.
If you have a reliable person like your mother, mother-in-law, or a close relative, ask for help. Even if they can't help you with full-time babysitting, ask them to support you when you're overwhelmed or if the child is going through a phase like teething or illness. If you have live-in help, installing cameras can give you a sense of security. Reach out to trusted friends, neighbors, or even parents of your child’s friends. Chances are that they also need that extra help to relieve their stress. Soon, you’ll find that reaching out leads to reciprocal relationships in which everyone benefits.
8 Challenge your negative thoughts
There will be days you will likely be inundated with negative thoughts. You might think that you’re a bad mum, or that you can’t deal with the challenges anymore, or that you should quit. Notice how most thoughts that lead to guilt are quite extreme? A good idea is to learn the technique of challenging your thoughts, which is also known as cognitive restructuring. The first step in it is to identify which thoughts are causing you to feel guilty and to write them down, and the second step is to ask yourself the following questions with regard to each thought:
- Is it true? (If yes, go to #2. If not, go to #3)
- Will it even matter to me (or my child) 5 years from now?
- How do I react or feel when I believe this thought? (the answer may be that you feel guilty)
- Who would I be without this thought?
Let’s say you forgot to dress your child for the fancy dress competition and sent your child to school in regular uniform. Imagine that your thought is “My child is going to have a terrible day because she is not in a fancy dress.” Is this true? Yes, she might. Will it matter to her 5 years from now? She (or you) might remember it 5 years from now, but will it really matter? Mostly not. That’s how you can challenge your guilt-inducing thoughts and move ahead.
9 Get help
Sometimes, your feelings can be more than guilt trips. Some mums can struggle with depression and anxiety. These problems can be debilitating and you may need professional help.
Talk out your frustrations and your feelings to your spouse or a close friend. Find a ‘listening partner’, friend, or colleague who will listen to you without judging you. You can also practice yoga, meditation or other calming hobbies. If you feel overwhelmed and nothing seems to be helping, seek professional help from your doctor or a counselor or clinical psychologist.
“We expect women to work like they don’t have children, and raise children as if they don’t work,” author and journalist Amy Westervelt summed up the working mom dilemma in her book Forget Having It All.
But by following these simple strategies, you can step into your work confidently and without guilt.