Humans thrive when they find meaning in life. That meaning is often tied into a purpose. Finding one’s purpose is often closely linked to some kind of professional activity or cause. Whether we are daughters, sisters, wives or mothers, there is more to us women than that. A purpose is an individual journey and one we tend to discover and pursue at work. To feel fulfilled in life as well as to survive, we need work. For women this is no different. However, we have the additional burden of social expectations – from others, from ourselves – and when we have children, things can get pretty messy.
These days we can have it all – we can pursue meaningful careers and raise families. For many working women, this is no longer an either-or choice. We accept the guilt that comes with being away from our children as part of the sacrifices that one makes while pursuing a career.
Recent research has shown that working mothers have no reason to feel guilty. Growing up with a working mother has shown positive effects on both daughters as well as sons. There is a role model function of seeing their mothers working that positively affects both. Yet somehow we feel guilty as mothers. Mostly the guilt is not coming from complaints of our own children – they are happy with every minute of our time. Mostly it is the burden of social norms and gender expectations that weighs heavily on our souls.
So, rather than wishing the guilt away or giving up work altogether, here are some tips to work on (or live with the guilt):
You are a good mother. Your children are the least likely to actually reinforce your guilt, but gender norms and expectations (even your own) make you feel guilty towards them. So acknowledge the important example you are setting for them and feel better about yourself. While you feel better about yourself, do book a few fixed time periods when you will be with them. I personally like the bedtime rituals and the Friday evening pizza. Make those moments count and don’t sweat the small stuff! You are enough and you would be amazed how wonderful your children think you are.
You do not have to be perfect. The reason we feel like we cannot have it all, is because we think that if we have it all we should do everything perfectly. Get to grips with some imperfections. Some things you will need to simplify in order to focus on the important things, e.g. don’t bake your own cookies (unless that gives you great joy) and buy them and spend more time with your kids. You may show up late at school occasionally, or maybe driving back and forth to school cannot work in your schedule. Learn to prioritize and be forgiving to yourself for the occasional glitch. Lear to choose some things to focus on and other things to drop. You can have it all – if you do so wisely. Some work, some motherhood, some other important activities like networking, but some things should not be stealing your time from you…
Release your mental load where you can. The problem with unpaid care work is not just the actual work that working women are adding on at home, there is also the mental load. Although we can outsource quite a lot of work to our support system – nannies, husbands (if you chose a good one!), family members – often the project management of all these activities is still with us. We need to remember on which days the children eat at school and which days at home. When which birthdays are happening so gifts can be bought in time. By which date to pay the school fees or what medicine to buy for that cough. This keeps our mind running throughout the day. Give your aunties’ or husband’s telephone number to the school, make sure no one calls you during the day unless there is an absolute crisis. Try to unload the project management role for whichever domain you can.
I can imagine a father feeling just as guilty arriving home only to find his lovely kids asleep. Yet this is often not so. It makes me think these are really the gender norms and societal expectations that burden us. It is by no means a bad thing in and of itself, as it allows us to prioritize our time with our children. However, let’s analyze these feelings and let’s share the burden and the joys with the partners in our lives! After all is that not why we married them in the first place?
“Shonda, how do you do it all? The Answer is this : I don’t.”
– Shonda Rhimes
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