Earlier this month on my way home from work I was stuck in traffic due to an accident and there was nothing that I could do about it. I had no backup to get my kids off the bus and take care of them until I got home. I was experiencing the ugly side of the reality of being a single working mom that I have been experiencing since the boys were infants. However, my personal growth was obvious to me when I realized that I wasn’t having an out-and-out panic attack or emotional meltdown because I was unable to be where I needed to be. Instead, I calmly called the school and asked them to make sure the boys didn’t get on the bus and requested that they have them wait in the office until I could get there. I took care of business. The situation was out of my control and getting upset wouldn’t change that. I took control of what I could–calling the school and making sure my kids stayed put–and then let the rest of it go. There was a time when I would have fretted and worried all the way home about what the boys would think and what the school would think and start beating myself up that I hadn’t left work early enough or start hating my situation as a single mom and on and on and on. I am happy to say that I have moved way past that self-loathing and anxiety-ridden stage.
Nevertheless, I would be lying if I said that the “mom guilt” was completely a thing of the past. Perhaps I am not as immersed in it as I once was. It is certainly not the number one most frequently felt emotion. I don’t dwell and wallow in it any longer. But it’s always there lurking in the shadows of a missed bus or a late meeting or a forgotten appointment or a home run that I didn’t see. And when I think about how often I do feel guilty about not being where I think I need to be instead of just being present to where I am, I start to feel…well, guilty.
I know that I am not alone in this and that many, if not all, working mothers feel this same way. Leaving my kids as infants was especially traumatic because it seemed the guilt was everywhere. I felt that I should be home with them and that even though I had found a very loving caregiver for them, I should be the one shaping their newborn lives. On the other hand, leaving the house to go to work was a break for me. Time to remember that I was still someone other than that lady with the milk who wakes up several times in the middle of the night to change diapers and give bottles and check if her kids are still breathing. And I felt incredibly guilty that I craved such a break. Of course, once at work, I would spent a good deal of my day thinking about the little guys and then I would feel guilty because I wasn’t as focused on my job as I should be. And then I would race out of the office at 5:00 so I could get home in time to relieve my sitter and feel guilty about that. Guilty if I was late because she had been there all day. Guilty because I never used to leave the office on time. Guilty because my children were spending 10 hours a day with someone else. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.
When the boys were a little more than a year old and I realized I was essentially paying my salary to my babysitter, I knew I had to find a new job with better pay. I liked my job and my boss was super understanding of my “situation”, but there wasn’t any opportunity there. So I started searching. As luck would have it, I landed an amazing job! In New York City! With a New York City salary! (sort of). Which required me to move across the country and find new child care. And this time leave my toddler sons for 11 hours a day while I commuted to and from the city every day. And while I had enough money to pay for child care (barely), suddenly my stress level was through the roof.
I wanted to do a good job in my new position. I was working for one of the most prestigious institutions in the world. I love the energy and culture of NYC. I was making my way in the world. But…I was constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I felt like from the moment I woke up in the morning to the moment I laid my head down at night I was in a marathon. No, each day was a sprint in the epic marathon that had become my life. Getting up, taking care of my baby boys, getting them to day care, getting myself to work on time, trying to be awesome at work, dashing out the door at 5 p.m. to make it to daycare on time, loving on my boys so that they would not remember that I had just left them for ELEVEN HOURS and feeding them and ready-ing them for a new day. I’m exhausted just thinking about it. How the hell did I do it? And what I just described was a good day. Now throw in one little monkey wrench: sick child, traffic, long meeting at work, perfectionist micro-managing boss (ok, so that was every day) and it was a recipe for mind-blowing guilt and anxiety.
And I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve had, for the most part, extremely understanding employers and when that flexibility wasn’t there, I had the option to get another job. I have had financial help from my family when I couldn’t quite make everything add up. I’ve been able to find kind, loving, helpful and flexible caregivers for the boys that have assisted in guiding them into the exuberant, smart, caring, flexible little fellows they are today. Many working moms need to work more than one job and hardly get to see their kids at all or have to send their kids to a daycare they don’t particularly care for because it is one they can afford.
I also know there is a whole set of guilt that goes along with being a stay-at-home mom too and this post isn’t meant to stir up any working mom vs. stay-at-home mompetition. This is simply about mom guilt in general and my own personal journey down the rabbit hole.
My guilt definitely lessened when the boys went off to school. I don’t feel like I am “missing out” as much. Of course, when they have cute little parties or activities during the school day that I can’t attend, it all comes rushing back. Or if I have work to do in the evening that I choose to do before they go to bed so I am not up until all hours of the night or so that I can actually have an hour to myself AFTER they go to bed…guilt loves to keep me company. So, yeah, as much as think I’ve seen the worst of it, I’m not out yet. I am still down here. In the hole. Some days, I feel like I have the balancing act all worked out. Other times I have these terrible thoughts like, “If only I had done something about my work situation sooner, I could spend more time with my kids and not have to worry about any of this” or worse, “It’s too late. By the time I make a change to be able to support myself out of my home or doing something that wouldn’t preclude me being an active part of my sons’ lives, they will be grown.”
I’ve recently experienced another change where I again need to find after-school care for my kids. I could put them in an after-school program and call it a day, but then they wouldn’t be able to participate in all the activities that help make them happy, well-rounded little boys. Talk about guilt-inducing! So, I’m looking to luck out like I have in the past and find a responsible, reliable, fun, patient, nice person who will look after the boys and cart them around until I can get home from work. And again I’m realizing that finding someone to care for my kids is the most stressful part of my life. Even though I’ve found a job I really love, for an organization that does amazing work for the world, with supervisors that appreciate and respect my work, and who are also amazingly flexible and understanding about my schedule and my family–it is still stressful to think about leaving my kids in the hands of just anyone and I still feel guilty that I can’t just stay home and do it myself.
Why do we working moms have so much guilt? Do working dads have that guilt too? Or is this leftover from some antiquated idea that moms should be home with their kids? Or is it not really antiquated at all and moms and dads have always wanted to be with their little people but knew that life required someone to bring home the bacon? I’m doing my best to just accept my reality for what it is and let the guilt go. I’m thankful to have been able to leave behind a lot of the anxiety which accompanied me through the early years of being a mom. That’s major progress as far as I am concerned. Guilt, you are being put on notice. You’re the next to go.