Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Sabotaged by Guilt?

Some of the comments on Moxie's post today have me thinking about work and home expectations, and thinking in particular about the extent to which we let our guilt about "wanting it all" sabotage us.

Now, to a certain extent, I agree that you can't "have it all"- but I also think a lot depends on how you define "it all". I don't think I am trying to have "it all" right now. I am trying to be a good mother, have a reasonably satisfying career, and have good relationships with the family and friends who matter to me. I am not trying to be super fit, or look as good as I could every day, or be a gourmet chef, or keep a spotlessly clean house, or grow all my own vegetables, or.... you get the idea. I absolutely agree that something has to give when you have kids, but I don't agree that the something that has to give is necessarily your career.

When I say this to women who don't have kids yet, I sometimes hear "but I can't imagine giving up my underwater basket weaving!" To which I reply: if underwater basket weaving is still important to you after you have kids, you won't give it up. Motherhood has been a strict filter on my life. It has shown me with stunning clarity what really matters to me and what doesn't. The things that matter get done. The things that don't really matter... well, they don't always get done. In fact, they just drop off my radar screen altogether.

This sounds so simple, but it ignores the big role that guilt can play in our lives as working moms. How often do we do things and work or at home because we feel guilty? It is fine to stay late at the office sometimes- but only do it  if it is what you want or need to do. Don't do it because your colleagues make you feel guilty about leaving at a reasonable hour. It is fine to decide that you'll make all of your baby's food from scratch- but again, only do it if that truly is a priority for you. Don't do it because some other mom has decided to do it for her baby and you feel guilty for buying little jars of puree at the grocery store.

I think sometimes we get caught in a terrible guilt feedback loop. We feel guilty about leaving "early" when colleagues are staying late. So we stay late. And then we feel guilty because we aren't home in time to make dinner for our kids. So we decide to throw an elaborate play date and make all the food from scratch. And then we feel guilty because we haven't called our best friend in ages. So we go out to lunch with her and are late for a meeting at work.... and then we're right back at the start.

I say we should just stop it. Stop feeling guilty about things that don't really matter to you. Take advantage of the clarity that motherhood provides about what matters- i.e., the things that you consistently make time to do. Ditch the other things without guilt.

I won't pretend that I have this all figured out, or that I go through life without ever feeling guilty. That isn't true at all. But I do try to stop and think about why I'm feeling guilty. If I'm feeling guilty because I am not doing something that really matters to me, then I will try to change things to fix that. If I'm feeling guilty because of other people's expectations, then I try to let it go.

Trust me, this gets easier with practice. I was talking to a colleague in the lunch room about Petunia's recent back to back to back illnesses, and another woman wandered up and expressed surprise- no, shock- that Petunia was already in day care at 10 months old. There was a time when that would have brought on a wave of mommy guilt. But this time I just laughed and said she actually started at 5 months old, and I thought that worked out great, because she got used to day care before she developed any real separation anxiety. I know that Pumpkin is thriving, and she started day care at the same time. I haven't seen any data to make me think that high quality day care is likely to have a negative impact on my girls' development. And I love Sarah Hrdy's hypothesis that humans have always been collective breeders. So I don't feel guilty about putting my girls in day care.

So much of the mommy guilt I see around me (and feel myself) is based on things that probably don't matter. I don't think our kids will look back on their childhoods and say "gee, I'm sure I would be healthier today if my mom had made the baby food from scratch" or "if only my mom had found time to do more art projects with me, I'm sure I would be more successful." I think what matters is that we love our kids, and do our best to meet their needs. And there are as many different ways to do that as there are families, so why should we feel guilty if some other mother is doing it differently than we are?

At work, I will absolutely try to rearrange my schedule to stay for a late meeting if I think there is a valid reason for it. If I think the meeting is being held late because someone is too lazy to find a better solution, I decline to attend. I will log on and work after the girls are in bed if I have work to do that I think is important. I won't do it for busy work that someone else thinks they need right away- particularly if they didn't give me much time to get it done. There is an old saying in IT: "Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part."

I think the key to making this approach succeed at work is to do it without apologies. Sure, I'll say I'm sorry that I can't make the meeting- but I won't offer to rearrange the child care situation unless the person convinces me that this meeting is important and really needs to happen after 5. The problem with guilt is that it makes you second guess yourself. And it makes you send the signal to other people that you think you are in the wrong. You aren't. You're allowed to have a life outside of work. Get your work done. Be professional, and try to help others get their work done when you can reasonably do so. And just assume that this is enough. Don't apologize or feel guilty for not doing more- if you do, other people will pick up on that guilt. And maybe they will start to think that you should be doing more.

I have definitely been very lucky in my bosses since becoming a mother. They have all judged me on my productivity and not my face time. But I have also had a total of five different bosses at two different companies in the time since Pumpkin was born. So maybe it is not all luck? Maybe part of the recipe for success* as a working mom is to let go of the guilt, and just assume that our best is good enough.

*To me, success is being happy in my life, and feeling like I am raising kids who have a good chance to go on and be happy in their lives. It is not necessarily all work-related success- but if I felt constantly thwarted at work, I doubt I'd be very happy. 

Also, I am not AT ALL judging anyone else's life decisions. We're all so different, living such different lives- what would I know about what is the right thing for someone else to do? I'm just putting this out there as an observation that I have made about the insidious effect of guilt.

Finally, yes, I really do know how lucky I have been. I know some people have terrible bosses, etc and all I can say there is that I hope you can find a way to find a better job. No one should have to put up with unrealistic expectations at work.


  1. This is exactly what I was thinking, too. It's a balance and we should be able to figure out the right formula for ourselves and our families. The point about guilt from the outside is a good one. But also of letting go of our preconceived notions about what life with a career and a family will look like if the one you have doesn't meet them. You said it much more thoughtfully than I could have. I had some long, rambling reply that basically said you can't have it all but you can decide what you do have is what you want. I think it goes back to your earlier post about having two choices and either may be good but there comes a point where you make the choice and hopefully find peace with the decision.

  2. This is a great post! You're absolutely right, motherhood is such a great filter. I'm not that prone to guilt, but the guilt I do experience is very one-sided; all my guilt is child-related, and none is hobby or work-related. In that I have no problem saying no to late meetings that I don't think are necessary (as you say-someone too lazy to find a better solution), and don't feel bad that I never play my cello, but I'm susceptible to feeling guilty that I didn't use cloth diapers on the boys, or that I haven't preserved enough of their art work, or other similar things that I'm sure really don't matter. I agree that it gets easier though, and I'm much better able to manage my guilt now than I was when I started being a mother.

  3. I know we had a recent discussion about not generalizing about women and sexism, but it does seem like men dont really have the same guilt as women.

    My mum was always doing craft with us, she worked in the evening so she could stay home in the day and although I appreciated it, my overriding memory of her is her going on about being a 'bad mother' and feeling guilty.

    Is this an example of 'acting like we want to feel'? I'm a big fan of the happiness project and I think thats one of her rules...

  4. I love your analysis of guilt as a circular, spiraling thing. Most moms feel guilty not about just one thing, but about (essentially) the inability to be in two places at the same time. I feel guilty that I arrive at work at 9:40 every morning, but because I have an hour and a half commute, to arrive before 9am I would have to leave at 7:20, which is when my daughter usually wakes up. So I'd see her only briefly or not at all in the morning, and my husband would be stuck with doing all the morning duties on his own. I cope by making arrangements to get there early when it's necessary, and to stay late when it's important. Which is sensible, but it doesn't stop me from sometimes feeling the guilt, even though I know it's pointless.

  5. Great post. I find the guilt thing creeping its way into many aspects of life because as a society we are very good at judging and expressing our opinions whether another person wants to hear them or not (look, I'm doing it now!), and a lot of people don't seem to get that their way isn't the only way. Societal judgments and guilt are good and necessary in some ways, but I think it will be a lifelong process for me to learn how to parse people's opinions without taking on unnecessary guilt.

  6. Great post. I think I am a fairly guilt-free parent. While I often think that I "have it all", it's true that it means that I have everything that is important to meet. Gourmet meals and physical fitness are just not that high on my list of priorities, so I don't really care if they don't get done.

    Love the "lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part". I have a similar statement when people call me up last minute for an emergency - I don't practice family or criminal law. No one's life or freedom is on the line. It's not an emergency, you just neglected to tell me sooner.

    Truly, I think part of it is just putting up clear boundaries, sticking with them, and not justifying them. When I returned to work after my DS I started leaving every day at 4:30 - I didn't ask permission, I just got a full day of billings done and then left. Anytime someone made a comment about where I was off to (people around here usually work until 6 - 7 p.m.) I declined to comment, or just said I had somewhere I had to be. The proof is in the bottom-line, I bill and earn just as much as those people putting 11 hour days into the office (and more than quite a few of them).

  7. You're exactly right -- you can't have it all, but you CAN have the things that are most important to you. If those things include both kids and a job, then you may be giving up other things, but that's your choice.

    I'm fairly happy with the balance that I have right now. Interestingly, my husband struggles with this more than I do. It usually comes down to him saying something like, "I really really miss Hobby X." And I tell him okay, go find something that's less important to you, and take some time out of there. He tended to take looong social lunches while at work, then work extra hours at home after our son was asleep. Now he limits himself to one of those lunches each week, finishes all his work during work hours, and voila! time in the evenings to spend on Hobby X.

    The important thing, I think, is the need to reevaluate those priorities every so often, since they do change over time. Times when you ARE feeling guilt is an excellent time to evaluate whether your priorities are where you want them to be.

  8. I'm similar to zed... almost all guilt is child related, not work or hobby related. My job is fairly high stress, with expectations of after hours work when needed, and because I'm in management, also of after hours social functions (such as retirement functions or charity functions my company has purchased a table at, etc.). But during the year and a half that I worked after my maternity leave with Rosie but before Annie was born, I did manage to make it work and find balance. And I did just simply have to say no sometimes to my boss, who is not an easy man to say no to (he actually tried to send his wife over to my house to babysit so I could attend some function, can you beleive it?). But I never really felt guilty for having to leave work at 5:00 or say no to a late meeting or function if I had to.

    But I do feel the child related guilt. Guilty that Rosie spent more time at daycare than with me, mostly. Or that I couldn't quite seem to be the kind of mom I wanted to be because I was so effing sleep deprived and, lets face it, short tempered and crankypants. Things like that.

    I like your points though Cloud about how guilt can be cyclical, and how detrimental it can be. It can make an ok situation seem bad. It put some things into perspective for me and I think that the next time I feel guilty about something, I'm going to remember this discussion and try to keep that in check. So thanks.

  9. As a mother of a rising 6th grader, I would like to add an encouragement to mothers of younger children. My daughter used to whine about why I couldn't be a good SAHM like the others. (We used high-quality and expensive daycare/pre-school/kindergarten in an affluent area where many of the moms were SAHM with full-time nannies and housekeepers and multiple homes.)

    But now that she is older and in public school, she is really happy that I have an interesting career. She's thinking ahead to her own career aspirations and very thankful that she has my experiences to help guide her.

  10. This is why I love you! Well said!

    When you were talking about hobbies and making time for the things we love, something struck me. When people, especially other mothers, hear me talk about books I'm reading, I so often get, "how do you find time to read?" I usually say that I have lots of time to read when nursing. But even when I'm not nursing, I still read plenty. It's just something that is not going to fall off my radar because it's part of who I am. I hadn't thought of it in terms like this before, but you're right. So many other things I let go on purpose or not on purpose. Reading is as natural to me as eating. Just like working and taking care of my children. The most important things make time for themselves. And I don't feel guilty about it!

  11. Thank you, everyone, for the wonderful comments. And I was worried about posting this- I thought maybe it would come off as dismissive of the very real problems faced by mothers in the workplace. Thank you all for understanding what I was trying to say!

    @Jac- I wonder if time spent charging hours helps with the work guilt? I was a consultant for 5 years, and I think it was during that time that my sense of boundaries around work really solidified. I didn't have Pumpkin until the final year of that.

  12. This is a wonderful post. It would be nice if those who don't have to/chose not to worry about this stuff could read it, too.

    Thanks for the reminder that "Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine."

  13. Unfortunately the man in my life has a lot of guilt on the work side. He cannot say no, ever. His clients are international, so he has phone calls at midnight or 5 am or whatever. The client is King. Even if the emergencies are not caused by him, they become his responsibility. It is awful.

    I wonder if *because* he is a man he feels that he can never excuse himself and come home to take care of his family. (Because there is always someone--me--doing that, even when I am tired and burned out and bitter.) He does feel badly about that, sometimes; combine that with the crushing, endless responsibilities of work, and he is a Hot Mess.

    I agree with Jac that setting boundaries is important; I just wonder if some people (either gender) are better at that others.

  14. @OneTiredEma- I KNOW that some people are better at setting boundaries than others. But I also think it is something you can learn, with some practice. I'm better at it now than I was in grad school, for instance.

    But if you have a lot of your identity invested in your work, and you've always been a bit of a workaholic... I think it would be very hard to change and start setting boundaries. Maybe (if he wants to change) he could set little rules, and then work up to something like coming home "early" once a week to give you a break.

  15. @Cloud - I think you are right that billing hours helps work guilt. My productivity is very measurable outside of face-time, or ass-in-chair time.

    I also agree that setting boundaries is a learned skill. I work on it every day and it used to feel uncomfortable. The best thing I've discovered is DO NOT offer excuses or justification. If someone asks you to do something and you can't, say "no, sorry, I can't". If they push for a reason, say "I have a scheduling conflict". That's it. As soon as you offer an excuse/justification, you leave your reasoning open to criticism - other people then get to decide if your reason is good enough. Just don't do it.

  16. Anonymous3:29 PM

    Excellent post!! Thank you for being the voice of reason and sane-living :)

    I always stayed late, but a good thing that came of being reprimanded for being 5 minutes late in the mornings was it finally gave me the courage to put my foot down about leaving on time. If sticking to the workday hours (in a field that does not have specific hours) was so critical then I was going to start following the 9-5 rule to the letter and leave at 5. Their loss since there is more to do at 5pm than at 9am.

    Also, I definitely agree that shedding yourself of the guilt of not being able to do it all is so important for the kids. I grew up on Chef-Boy-ardee and frozen dinners because my working mom had NO time. We lived in a pig sty and I never knew or felt I should be ashamed of this way of life. It's all I knew and my mom carved out so much time to play and read with me, which every kid remembers and appreciates more than a clean house.

    and I agree with @badmomgoodmom. Almost all my school friends had SAHMs who really didn't do anything other than cook, clean and chaperone. My mom was so revered by everyone because she had this super cool hobby that she involved me in (beekeeping) and she spent her savings taking me on exotic trips to meet other beekeepers.

    Kids really do benefit when their mom and dad are doing things they love and that can be shared.

  17. Thought-provoking post & I'm sorry to be getting here so late. Agree with everything you wrote. What is up with other people, particularly women, weighing in unsolicitedly about other people's life choices? "Daycare at 10 months" is not a fucking shock, I'm sorry. Not even daycare at 10 weeks! I hate that "daycare" still gets this bad rap from some idiots. When DS started daycare at 4.5 months a few years back, there was actually an opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune with a big graphic with "things that are good" and "things that are bad" and the writer actually put daycare in the bad column. WTF? Anyway, I hear you and wish we could all break the guilt cycle and see past the labels.

  18. Woo! Awesome post. ITA about finding time to do things that are important. I thought I wouldn't have time to pursue my craft hobby/business, in addition to my job and baby duties, but you know what? I still make stuff. Not as often as I did before, but it's still important enough to me to do it. My blog and Twitter are paying the price though :)

    Also, WTF about random coworker driveby?

    I can say for sure, that the days I work, I am able to recharge my batteries and be a better mom to BabyT. I love my job, I love that I have time on my own to do something I'm good at, I love that I can contribute financially to our household. I think if I did quit to become a SAHM it would strain everyone around here more.

    Though, with BabyT starting daycare in a couple of weeks, I do stress about it (!).

    I do think a lot of jobs don't expect the man to take significant responsibility for child care duties, but I think the times are a'changin, at least in the hippie west coast town I live in. My husband was able to rearrange his work schedule to be home on the two days I needed to work. His (childless) boss thought it was weird, and tried to "help" with our problem by offering "solutions" like for us to hire a nanny, or pay for daycare, etc, but my husband finally broke through by telling him he *wanted* to stay home with our baby :) His boss still thinks it's odd, but they make it work, which is phenomenal.

    I'm sad that arrangement is coming to an end (hence the daycare) but I think it'll be great for BabyT to interact with other kids, and learn some new things from people who do child care as their career.

    Anyway, long rambly post, but YAY to no guilt!!

  19. Love this line: "if underwater basket weaving is still important to you after you have kids, you won't give it up." I just wrote a post ( recently about a list a couple posted of 70 things they wanted to do before having kids. I was doing a lot of them with kids! There is no reason to feel guilty about having your own life. The idea that kids should consume your whole life is just ridiculous -- a recipe for unhappy moms (and, probably more importantly, kids!)

  20. I had such a hard time reading this post. Part of my problem is likely the "being in grad school" thing, where it is often hard to feel like you're making any forward progress...and far far too easy to have "just slacking off today because I got no sleep last night" turn into "just slacking off this week".

    I think I'm stuck in a guilt feedback loop. In almost all aspects of my life. I want to be a good mom (which is kind of hard to be sure you're actually doing), a good student, a good partner, a good daughter. None of them are really measurable. Maybe I need better feedback. But I think I just need to keep reading this post and stop feeling the guilt.

  21. @Today Wendy- I think one of the hardest things about grad school (and probably academia in general, but I only have direct experience with grad school) is that there is no help in setting boundaries. It will consume as much time as you let it. And there are plenty of people who tell you that it should consume all of your time. But I found that I was less productive, not more productive, when I let it start eating up all of my time.

    In industry we have project plans and timelines, and things to help us figure out how much work is "enough"- although there are still plenty of people in industry who act like their job is the only thing in their lives.

    Anyway, the way I dealt with this in grad school- and the way I deal with it now, really- is to set small goals for myself, sort of like a mini-project plan. So I'd say- this paper must be read by Wednesday. This experiment must be done by a week from Friday.... that sort of thing. And as long as I was sticking to my plan, I was less susceptible to the feeling that I should just do one more thing, and could goof off without guilt. Which made it easier to work, too.

    But that's just me. I'm a wacko planning type who loves to do lists....

  22. I love the idea of having a plan, and a todo list that gets updated regularly. I go through phases of getting myself all organized, and then find myself rebelling violently against all that organization. If you're familiar with Myers-Briggs types, I'm definitely a P.

    So I know the theory - make a good list, break overwhelming tasks down into smaller and more manageable tasks, look for short term goals. But it's a struggle. Mostly when I can prevent myself from procrastinating I get lots done, but as you can the moment...definitely procrastinating. Oh how I love/hate the internet!


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