Surviving an Attack of Working Mom Guilt

Yesterday as Dave and Maya and I were having dinner, Dave told me that Maya had said this to him on their way to pick me up at the sea bus. “Daddy I don’t want Mommy to be a lawyer. I want Mommy to be a Mommy.” All of the good feelings I had built up while writing my last two posts about successfully challenging the guilt of being a working mom came crashing down. Thud. Heart starts breaking. “No!!!” I said and covered my face with my hands. Dave shook his head. “I shouldn’t have told you. I knew it.” Maya looked at me “Are you crying mommy?” “A little it.” I peer at her between my hands. She smiles. “Cry mommy!” she says with glee. She is laughing. “You little scampy scamp!” And the moment passes.

That night, as I helped her get ready for bed, my love for her felt like it was going to leap out of my chest. I desperately wanted her to know how much I love her. The tinge of desperation in that desire was reminiscent of me as young woman and the agony I felt when I would fall crazily in love with a man and frantically want him to know how I felt. It should not have come as a surprise that the most common reaction was for him to run, quickly, and as far away as possible. Thinking about it now makes me cringe. Desperation is really not my most attractive quality. Understandably so. So I reined it in. Maya and I had several tickle fights and read some Christmas books together and I MAINTAINED CALM within myself.

This morning I felt a familiar dark weight in my heart as I thought of those words, “I want mommy to be a mommy.” In my past that darkness could be, and often was, invasive. It would take weeks out of my life with its suffocating presence. It reminds me of when I visited Australia and a guide on one of the excursions I went on described the introduction of a new species of toad to Australia. Cane toads were brought from South America to Australia for the sole purpose of ridding the sugar cane they were trying to grow of a particularly destructive bug. What seemed like an easy fix, however, turned out to be a disaster. The bugs and the toads didn’t share the same sleep cycle; when the toads were awake the bugs were asleep. They didn’t share the same habitat either. The bugs lived on top of the sugar cane and the toads lived on the ground. The toads were very poisonous, but the animals, not having experience with these particular toads, ate them and died. The toads, having no natural enemies, proliferated, and are now threatening to destroy the entire ecosystem. So it is with this darkness. Originally I’m sure it had a valid purpose. A cue, a warning that there was some loss or sadness that I should pay attention to. But like the cane toads, it had no enemies, nothing to limit its growth. Left unchecked, each day it would grow just a tiny imperceptible bit until suddenly I would be paralyzed by its murky weight.

I am well aware of the toll that darkness can take if I allow it. It can take weeks, months to climb out of that hole once one has fallen in. I used to be terribly judgmental of that woman who allowed herself to be sucked into that hole over and over again. I judged her mercilessly, that dark and angry girl who held all of my sorrows. I hated her. I wanted her imprisoned, locked up in a cold, black place with her misery and her pain. It took me a long time to be have the strength and courage to face her. To look into her angry eyes, unafraid, and give her permission to release all of her grief and rage and to love her anyway. It was me that had locked her there, left her there alone with her pain. No wonder she was angry.

Now, when I feel that tinge of heaviness in my heart head, I know that I must face it head on. But I take more of a Buddhist (my version anyway) approach to it now. I name that weight. It is grief. I give it permission to wail all of its sorrows. “This isn’t fair! I don’t want to work anymore. Why are we so poor? Why do I have to work? This is too hard! Maya will hate me. She will think that I have betrayed her. She will think I don’t love her. She will feel abandoned by me. She will love Dave better.” I listen, but not with judgment, which only made the weight in my heart dig its claws in deeper in defiance. Instead I listen from a position of curiosity and compassion. As I listen, there is a part of myself who notices, “So this is what I do when I feel grief and guilt about working. I think this. I feel this. How old is this part of me? Quite young. Interesting.” And there is a part that observes all that is being released with compassion, what I would feel if a small child was in pain. You love them even though you can’t take the pain away. And then, I move on.

I have found that this stance of curiosity and compassion is the best way to melt the heaviness, lessen the guilt, and get on with my day, as I must. I have found that as I nurture compassion within myself, I feel more compassion for others. I laugh more. I don’t take life as seriously. My mantra is one that I learned from a speaker at a conference I attended. His name is John Briere, a psychologist who specializes in working with people who have been profoundly traumatized from war, torture and abuse. He described humanity and our connectedness like this: “We are all just bozos on the same bus.” His humour and irreverence were endearing. My favourite line at this conference, however, was when he was explaining to a room full of “experts”, mostly doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists, how important it was to have compassion and not judgment for their patients. He said “If you had lived through the same experiences that these people have, you would be sucking that guy’s cock too.” I loved that. Years later he came out as a practicing Buddhist. His brand of irreverent compassion is what I try to emulate.

Now, I feel back to myself again. All of the empowering messages I wrote about in my last two posts come flooding back, and I am calm, resolved and knowing that it is Friday and I have two full days with Maya. And that is something to be grateful for.

The Four Guilts of the Apocalypse – Working Mother Guilt Part II

The second of my Four Guilts of the Apocalypse of the working mom is guilt in relation to work. I have worked since I was 14 and have been accused of being very driven and having a ridiculously high work ethic. I read with horror not too long ago that a recent trend with some American employers is to purposefully not hire or promote mothers for the simple fact that as mothers, so the argument goes, their work will suffer, their productivity will decrease, their loyalty will be divided and as a result, their value as employees, such as it was prior to childbirth, will now clearly be greatly diminished.

 Why these same conclusions about working mothers are not applied to working fathers is just another part of the mystery that is gender discrimination. I suppose that in a “traditional” family fathers were not expected to, nor did they participate or particularly value the mundane routines of family life. Here is my idea of the perfect (from an employer’s view) “traditional” (perhaps mythical) working father. Father would come home from a long and difficult day at work. He would regale the family with his heroic antics at work, his children and wife listening with rapt attention and awe. Father would then devour his meal, lovingly prepared by his wife, play with the kids for a moment or two, and then retire to the study to work some more while mother would get the kids ready for bed. He would greet another working day well rested, with a good breakfast in his belly, ready to work some more. Father was the star of his own movie; the king of his castle. His life had importance and his achievements had meaning. As my ex once explained to me (in the way one explains difficult concepts to a small child), “My time is more valuable, Julie, because I make more money.” He may have actually patted me on the head.

But there is a potential downside to that traditional/mythical father. When he is older, and his children are all grown, and his achievements, viewed with hindsight, are, perhaps, not so heroic, a sudden realization will hit (often categorized as a mid-life crisis). He has missed out. Perhaps he will realize, with a jolt, that his relationship with his now grown children is superficial at best, or, at worse, nonexistent; he may even recognize that he doesn’t actually know his children nor have a clear idea of who they are as human beings apart from what they have achieved. He may, as a result, experience intense grief and say to himself “What have I done?” But the beauty is, being a man, he can try again; he can marry again, have children again and embrace a second chance to be the kind of father he wished he had been the first time around, had he known then what he knows now.

Women, clearly, are not physiologically equipped to give it another go. If we miss out on it all the first time, that’s it. There is no second family, no second chance unless it is with another mother’s children, which comes with its own set of unique challenges. Women, as such, don’t have the luxury of ignoring their children to promote their careers. Mothers, when they work, juggle competing priorities. If one is going to trump, I can almost guarantee it will be their children. Does this mean that employers are right when they say that women’s work will suffer once they bear children, but not men’s? It is an interesting question.

I believe that today there are both women and men who are shrugging off the traditional script of the working parent. They are changing the way things have always been done. No longer are many women and men content to make a forced choice to sacrifice their families for their careers. When that invitation is offered to them, they calmly but defiantly turn it down. Work-life balance is not a new catch phrase, it is a reality. Without it, I believe, we all suffer. I don’t think it is a coincidence that as the stresses of balancing life and work have increased, so have the rates of mental illness, marital breakdown, etc.

I, interestingly enough, have recently entered a profession in which work-life balance is an inside joke. When I attended a panel discussion on how to be successful at interviews the panelists all agreed that addressing work-life balance in an interview was professional suicide. In one of my classes on employment, in which work-life balance was discussed, a female classmate pronounced definitively that “Women just can’t have it all. They can’t be a good mother and a good employee. It’s not possible.” To be fair, when I decided to take the leap of faith and enter this rather challenging profession, it was partly because I had been informed that I wouldn’t be able to have children, so it made sense to enter a profession that had a reputation for being all consuming. It’s not like I had anything better to do. 

Then Maya, my little miracle came along. Oops! What had I gotten myself into? Perhaps it is the fact that I entered a new career with another one under my belt, or perhaps it is my history of irreverence, but I decided that when I looked for a job I would not heed the panelist’s advice, I would break those rules. I would not take any job that came my way, but I would search until I found a place of employment that matched my own values, one that recognized that promoting work-life balance actually produced better, happier and more productive employees.

When it came time to look for a job, I was lucky to have several interviews. Going into these interviews I felt a bit like a woman dating in her 30’s who wants to settle down and have a family. She can’t any longer biologically afford to date someone for a couple of years here and there; she needs to know, within the first five minutes of meeting a prospective mate if they are on the right page. Men who are not are given short shrift. In each interview, therefore, I asked the forbidden question. I asked how their organization supported working mothers. I expected a standard formulated response. What surprised me was that the question was so unexpected that they didn’t even have a standard reply. And because they hadn’t a standard reply, I actually received some honest answers, most of which sounded a bit like this: “That’s a good question. We haven’t quite figured that one out yet.” Yikes.

The one place that had an excellent answer to that question was the place I chose (luckily they chose me too!). It is not as prestigious or glamorous as some of the other places I considered, but from what I can tell thus far, it is real. The people are authentic. They work hard and do excellent work, but not at the expense of their families. I had heard that when they started many people predicted that they would fail; that there was no way an organization in this profession could succeed if work was actually balanced with life. What I love about my new employer is that they have proven the establishment wrong. They stuck to their vision and instead of failing, they have been quite successful; a fact that is ultimately threatening to the established order because it is evidence that promoting work-life balance does not equal failure, does not create less productive employees.

Instead of being filled with dread at how I will manage work with a family, I am excited. I can see myself having an amazing and fulfilling career there. The opportunities for personal growth in my career are both expansive and exciting. But, unlike many of the organizations I visited, I also envision a future for me with my family, a future in which I grow old being connected with my daughter and my husband, and knowing that with the right support from my family and my workplace, I really can have it all, or at least mostly all, without sacrificing either of them. And if I can have it all, so can Maya. 

The Four Guilts of the Apocalypse – Working Mother Guilt

While mommy's at work

Being a working mother of a toddler, I’ve started to read a lot about working mothers. Here is what I have gleaned thus far; mothers working will be the death of civilization as we know it, and, on a side note, when mothers work they are not just terrible mothers, but terrible employees too. It reminds me a bit of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; pestilence, war, famine and death. I wonder what horse working mothers would ride? Would it be pestilence or war? The women’s movement has often seemed like a war over who will wield power in public and private life. The gains women have made to have a legitimate voice in our homes and our communities are countered with a backlash of opposition. The ridiculous notion of “legitimate rape” and attempts to revive the abortion debate are just recent examples. But I have also seen the phenomena of working mothers described as a type of pestilence; we are the plague that will destroy society as we know it.

 There is no doubt that the women’s movement has impacted society in remarkable ways. The average age of mothers at the birth of the first child has increased by almost a decade in one generation. The number of mothers working (by necessity or not) has increased dramatically, with the numbers of stay at home fathers increasing as well. These changes have had ripple effects on private and public life. On the public side, employers have, by necessity, had to adjust or risk losing a significant portion of their workforce. The profession of law is a good example. The research suggests that after five years of working in private practice, where the culture expects an 80 hour work week, women, and increasingly men, leave in droves. There are committees that have been created to try to quell this exodus. So far there have been no workable solutions proposed, because to work it would involve restructuring the entire firm’s method of making money.

 On the private side, both women and men have had to create new scripts and modify gender role expectations. What does it mean to be a mother when she works full time and is not fulfilling traditional gender roles? What does it mean to be a father when he is a stay at home dad and also defying traditional gender roles? I had not realized how powerful gender role expectations were until I challenged them. One side effect of that challenge, however, is guilt. It’s not just the guilt of being a working mother. Instead of the four horses of the apocalypse, I suffer from the four guilts. The first is the working mother guilt in relation to my family, that I am missing out on the mundane routines of everyday life with a toddler, minutes and hours that are irrecoverable. The second is the working mother guilt in relation to my job; I am not able to give as much to my career and my employer as I should. The third is the older mom guilt, that I will likely be dead by the time my daughter is my age; I will be too old to appreciate and know her children, if she has any. The fourth is the guilt that she will be an only child, and will truly be orphaned when Dave and I are both gone, having no siblings with whom she has a shared history of our family.

 My four guilts, if I let them, would likely suffocate me with their combined messages of how terrible a person I am. How do I deal with them, you may ask, and prevent them from sucking the very life out of me on a daily basis?

 I strongly believe that a lot of our personal misery is as a result of the meaning that we make of our lives, our choices, our roles etc. There are powerful messages all around us that try to influence how we make meaning, but it is possible to defy them – I like to engage in small acts of protest whenever I am faced with a meaning that is soul sucking, instead of life affirming.

 In relation to the first guilt, today’s topic, the meaning that I have made out of my life and my role as a working mother is this. Maya’s introduction into my life was a miracle. I was told by specialists that she would not be (without heroic and expensive efforts), and I spent two years mourning her loss. The whole time I was in mourning, however, that message did not make sense to me. Since I was a young child and envisioned my future, I had always envisioned a child. One child. In this future my job was unclear, the man with me was unclear, but the child was a certainty. “How could this be? How could I be childless?” I wondered. I had trusted in that future. And then, when I least expected her, when I had come to terms with my barrenness, she was created in a relationship of love and healing. She was created after I took a stand for myself, by leaving my husband after being told “You’re too masculine, too driven, too much like me. (I think his exact words were – “You’re me with a cunt. I don’t like it”) I know plenty of women who can raise children, work full time, make the meals and clean the whole house without any help. My time is too valuable to help. What is wrong with you?” I told him to go find a woman like that, if they were so plentiful, and he did. And I was freed.

 I have noticed that every time I take a leap of faith into the unknown in order to be true to myself, it has been acknowledged. By what, I’m not sure, but I believe that somehow we are connected to an energy, something undefined, unknowable. It is important to me that Maya see her parents being true to themselves. My truth is that I have always believed that I have something I am supposed to do in this world beyond being a mother. I have something to offer, even though I’m not entirely sure what it is.

 Maya is growing up seeing both her mother and father follow their dreams. She is in a family where dreams are supported, even if it results in a non-traditional looking family, where mom works outside of the home and dad works inside. My life, despite my honest efforts, has not been traditional. Why would I expect that I would be a traditional mother? I actively protest the socially constructed meaning that by working I am a terrible mother. Yes, there are days when I feel tremendous loss and grief when I’m not with her during the week. There are days when I believe that if I won the lottery I would quit my job tomorrow and never work again.

 But the truth is, working is who I am just as much as being a mother is who I am. I have worked in some form or another since I was 14 years old. When I was a child, the women in my family told me I could be anything I wanted to be. They hadn’t had that choice in their lives, theirs had limits. Although they all went to university, it was with the understanding that the most important degree was an MRS. I grew up understanding that work increased one’s personal power. I once told my mother I wanted to have lots of money when I grew up. She responded with “Well you had better marry someone rich!” I responded with “Why would I do that? I’m going to make my own money!”

 I am increasingly aware of the millions of shoulders I am standing on, the shoulders of women who sacrificed and who fought for the choices I have the freedom and support to exercise. I honour those women by being the best mother I can be, and the best woman I can be. The best woman I can be involves work. I don’t believe the two are irreconcilable. Maya will grow up not just knowing in an abstract way, that women can dream without limits, and their dreams can be realized, she will see it in action. And this, perhaps, is the best gift I can give her as a working mother.