I remember when my son, Judge, was in middle school. On one particular day, I felt guilty about all of my work-related travel; I knew I was missing out on key events that were important to me. As a working mom, I didn’t know my absence’s impact on him.
“Judge, don’t you wish we had a normal life?”
“What do you mean, mom?”
“Well, a lot of moms at your school don’t travel with work. They also help out in the lunchroom and the classroom, and they go to all of the school-related events. Would your life be better, or easier, if I spent more time with you around school?”
He paused for a really long time. He then spoke directly, precisely.
“Never show up at my school, mom. Never.”
Well, I got the memo. I also got a refreshed perspective. His normal was all he knew – a dad who traveled with the Marine Corps and a mom who traveled with her career. He’s been in some form of daycare his whole life, including extended care. He stayed long weekends at his grandparents, sometimes at his friends’ houses. And his life, to him, felt normal.
Flash forward to today: I’ve now got a son who’s a senior and just received an NROTC Marine Option scholarship. He is healthy, happy, well adjusted, and looks forward to his next four years at the College of Holy Cross. I’m elated that his path is clear and his journey toward independence has just begun.
Was all that working mom guilt worth it? Probably not, though I think the guilt I’ve felt, and still feel today, is a warning sign to pay attention to key responsibilities in my life. There’s also unhealthy guilt, of course, which I describe as ruminating about choices you make to invest in yourself before investing in others. That’s not good.
Now, if you leave your five-year-old unattended while you spend a weekend in Vegas, that’s a criminal act – you should feel guilt.
But if you hire a babysitter on a Saturday after a long week of work to go spend two hours on a mani/pedi, let me tell you there’s nothing wrong with that. Do that, it’s important.
In that spirit, I also thought I’d lay down 10 Working Mom Tips That Can Help You Alleviate Any of the Guilt You Feel. And if you’re a guy reading this, keep reading – I know you can feel working parent guilt, too.
Here it goes:
- Only Make Promises You Can Keep. If you say you’ll be there, be there. If you can’t, don’t say “I’ll try.” Be honest. There’s nothing worse than watching the kid on the sports field looking for his parents in the bleachers and not finding them.
- Let Your Kids Understand Your Responsibilities. I try not to burden my children with the stress of my job – that’s not theirs to bear. I do, though, share with them what I’m doing so they can have pride in my career, too. This helps them recognize that you’re entrusted by people to do a good job and it’s imperative that you do your best. Kids pay attention to positive examples of hard work.
- Don’t Complain About Your Job to Your Kids. They’ll grow to resent it, too. They also will run the risk of believing work is a place of misery, versus a place of potential joy and creation.
- Know When “Showing Up” Counts. This isn’t always clear. With my boys, I always take the school calendar and their athletic calendars and seek to understand what’s important for them for me to attend, and I let them know what’s important for me.
- When You Can’t Show Up, Send a Surrogate. I’m truly blessed. My parents live nearby. I’m remarried. When I can’t be somewhere important, I send a surrogate to represent me. It’s not the same, but it makes me happy to know someone is there representing me. Sometimes a surrogate is a parent of one of their friends who’ll take a video and send it to me, as well as go out of their way to say an encouraging “good luck” to them before a race or a game.
- Eat Dinner at the Table as Often as You Can. Rather than measure minutes with your family in quantity, try quality. Quality time for me and my boys is at the table. I’m the master of the five-items-or-less meals … in other words, we eat a lot of spaghetti and tacos. I don’t have time to cook, so I put the emphasis not on the meal but on the gathering. I’m also a Hello Fresh pro – any little thing helps regarding meal prep/planning!
- Don’t Lower Your Expectations Because You Feel Guilty. This truth comes from the heart. When I went through my divorce, my boys and I grieved together. But we didn’t use our misfortune as an excuse to slack. We did what we needed to do to move through grief, but I made it clear that we still had to do our jobs – they had to clean their rooms and do well in school. I had to run a business. I felt bad, physically, emotionally, and mentally, for what we were going through. We sought help, too, when we needed it. I felt guilty for all the changes in their life, but I didn’t want to use disruption as an excuse to lose sight of the greater goals we all had for ourselves.
- Be Available for “Yes” Moments. The other day, my boys asked if we could go to breakfast. The reality is that I had food at the house and could quickly whip up eggs and pancakes. Yet, cooking would be done in a silo, and eating would be finished in 10 minutes. I’d been traveling, so I knew if we went out that we’d have to wait 30 minutes at our table … plus 30 minutes of car time and eating. That was a net gain of 50 minutes. Heck, yes, we went to breakfast. Plus, I’ve found that if I want to go to breakfast and they don’t want to, they’re not really conversational. But if they ask, they usually perk up and are chatty at the table because it’s their idea.
- Share a Hobby with Each Child: Judge and I love to downhill ski and mountain bike – that’s our thing. Gard and I play golf together – that’s our thing. In these particular spaces, we get to have a little quality time to connect. What’s your thing with your child? What’s an intersection of your interests? This type of exploration is so much fun because both parties enjoy the activity, not just one.
- Remind Yourself that Your Life is Normal: Your life might not be like the life you had. In fact, there are probably many aspects of your life that are better than your childhood. Don’t focus on what you wish you had for your kids: focus on what you have and grow confidence knowing that you’re doing really good – and your good is pretty dang great.
The older I get, the more I realize that the greater harmony I have in all my roles, the greater success I have in life. This harmony is a work in process, but I’ve already got some great practices. I’d love to hear from you, too. What’s working for you as a working mom or working parent – what do you do to relieve any guilt you feel as you juggle responsibilities?