As women, we are under a lot of pressure in modern society. We must look “better” than what is natural for our age, be strong bosses at work, have, but not need, a partnership in our personal lives, and if having children happens for us, be the most loving, nurturing, and adoring mother that ever lived.
Have you ever met anyone who can do all of those things? I haven’t. But I’ve met plenty of women who have felt most, if not all, of these pressures.
The biggest pressure I have ever faced as a woman is the pressure to be a good mother. After having my first daughter, I had to go back to work. We needed the money in order to live the lifestyle I wanted for my children. Could we have found a very small place to live, skip preschool and private music lessons, and pray we didn’t have any medical emergencies?
Sure. Lots of people do that and live wonderfully happy, fulfilled lives. They have well-adjusted, joyful children who enjoy having their mothers around all the time. I am happy for those families: I just didn’t want to be one of them.
In truth, I like my job, and if it meant having more material comfort, opportunities for my children, and financial security, I wanted to go back to work.
However, my decision to go back to work was not as easy as flipping a light switch. I worried about losing my child’s love. I worried about missing her milestones. Also, I worried about the diminution of my own free time and freedom. In short, I worried about everything. Though I know I made the best decision for my family by going back to work, it was not easy to make. Overcoming mom’s guilt can be a full-time job by itself.
During my journey towards self-acceptance, I learned a lot to alleviate the constant pressure I put on myself. And if that guilt ever comes creeping back in, here are four things I remember.
1. Listen to the Research
Harvard Business School Professor Kathleen McGinn and her colleagues completed extensive research that examines the effects of mothers returning to work. It turns out the results were overwhelmingly positive. The study discovered that daughters of working mothers are more likely to be employed, to be in leadership roles, and have higher incomes.
Sons of working mothers are more likely to respect women in the workplace and be better advocates for women in the workplace. Kids of working moms are more likely to have better educations. Children of working mothers have all of those advantages, and they report being just as happy and satisfied in adulthood as children of stay-at-home moms.
If you go back to work, your child may thrive, not languish. With news like that, it makes you wonder why you ever felt guilty in the first place.
2. The Better Mother
You can read all the research papers from all of the Ivy League Universities in the world, but when it comes time to kiss those small faces goodbye, it’s tough to power through. It’s during those times that I have to give myself a pep talk. Does guilt make me a better mother?
No, it does not. Does guilt make me enjoy time with your child more? It definitely does not because I am more consumed with leaving and missing something that I can’t be fully present when I am there. When you are with your child, don’t stress the past or the future. Be in the present. If you have to work, there’s no point in feeling guilty because it will not make one minute with your child a happier one.
3. Happy Mom, Happy Life
You may have heard the mantra, “Happy wife, happy life.” I think it is more fitting to say, “Happy mom, Happy life.” There are truckloads of research affirming the fact that the happier a mother is, the happier, healthier, smarter, and more successful a child will be. Children of unhappy mothers are also more likely to develop mental health disorders and be unhappy themselves.
Your happiness matters. A lot. It matters more than how much time you clock with your kid or how many home-cooked meals you prepared. You can spend sixteen hours a day staring at your child’s every move, but if you are unhappy living that way, which is the case for most healthy mothers, you are doing more harm than good.
Take time for yourself. Enjoy your commute to work. Don’t stress that occasional night out—order takeout when you need to. Don’t rush to clean the living room. If it helps you feel more rested and balanced as a woman, take advantage.
4. Culture Wars
The last thing I tell myself is Just because our culture puts such unyielding demands on its mothers, that doesn’t mean it should. In France, for example, mothers are encouraged to live a balanced lifestyle where no one facet of life overtakes any other.
Our current parenting ideals are not a part of natural law. These ideals are culturally based upon what our media, corporations, social media, celebrities, and various other sources tell us they should be. Do you think medieval mothers stopped milking the cows and darning socks to stare at their baby all day? Probably not. I’m pretty sure Victorian mothers didn’t even know who their children were. Children used to work in factories in horrible conditions.
Fortunately, we have improved the lives of our children immensely. However, we may have overdone it a little. Our society’s focus on child-centered parenting might have gone a little too far. As Dr. Michael Mascolo, Ph.D. so eloquently stated, “there is a fine line between being ‘loving’ and being ‘indulgent.’”
We need to make sure that we are allowing our children to build enough perseverance to be able to cope with stress and disappointment. As their mothers, we aren’t going to be able to follow them throughout life and make everything better.
Children need to learn not only how to handle our absence but to thrive in it. Do we really need the mom guilt if we are building our children’s character and resilience by working? Other cultures don’t think so, and maybe we shouldn’t either.