Whether you work outside the home, we’ve all been there. Staring at the too-full calendar and wondering how you’re going to get the kids to their practices, get the house picked up, meet your work deadline, shop for groceries, pack lunches, make sure homework is complete, check in with your boss, and still find time for your partner, let alone yourself. It’s more than a juggling act, and it seems like someone is always getting the short end of the stick – and there’s nothing worse than when that “someone” is your kid.
Working mom guilt and regular mom guilt aren’t that far separated because regardless of the outside factors, it always boils down to the feeling that you’re a “bad” mom. Even though, logically, you know that to do the impossible as a working mom, you still feel like you’re depriving your kids somehow. Sure, your income makes it so you can afford all of their soccer camps and dance lessons. Still, all you can focus on is that you don’t have the time to join the PTA or that your energy is so depleted that you’d instead donate some money to the school carnival than try to squeeze in time to volunteer in person, even though that’s what your kid would prefer.
It’s an awful feeling, but you will still feel mom-guilt unless you can quit your job and hire help in every other area of life. It’s the way it goes, right? At least, that’s the narrative, but it doesn’t have to be this way. With the help of our employers, our loved ones, and ourselves, we can begin to overcome mom guilt — but, as they say, it takes a village.
What is Working Mom Guilt?
Let’s start by acknowledging that every mom works, whether she has an outside job or stays at home because motherhood is a job in and of itself. Moms who work outside the home (as in having part or full-time employment, regardless of if they’re remote or on-site) have one more thing that’s constantly pulling them away from their kids and demanding their full attention. For example, if a mom takes an afternoon off to take her sick kid to the doctor, she might miss bedtime stories because she has to sign on to make that time up.
There is nothing worse than looking into your little kid’s pleading eyes and telling them that you can’t spend time with them because you have to get some work done. It doesn’t matter how much time you spent with them that day or how late you stayed up doing laundry the night before to make sure that their favorite dress would be clean for their friend’s birthday party this weekend because it’s never enough to fill their “mommy time” cup. They always feel a little slighted when it looks like you’re choosing work over them.
The effects of working mom guilt
Aside from the apparent crummy feeling that disappoints your kiddo, working mom guilt can seriously affect a person’s well-being. Mentally, it can lead to anxiety, depression, and dissociation, all of which intensify feelings of guilt because you’ll convince yourself that the only thing worse than a working mom who isn’t present is a depressed working mom who isn’t present. Mom guilt can also result in irritability towards your kids and or partner and resentment or anger.
Working mom guilt can also have physical effects because it often results in exhaustion and increased stress. Feeling tired and overwhelmed is terrible enough, but if it’s prolonged, the body will respond to lack of sleep and rising cortisol levels with illness or other chronic conditions that can take a very long time to recover.
How to Mitigate Feelings of Guilt
Working mom guilt isn’t sustainable, so what can be done to help moms manage these feelings? While this is an individual internal struggle, moms can’t fight it alone. It also requires help and grace from the people around them – including their families, friends, and employers.
Tips for Mom
You’ve probably heard these tips 100 times. You may have even rolled your eyes and thought, “when do I have time for these things?” (we’ve all been there) because for you to overcome your feelings of guilt, you need to set some boundaries, relinquish control in some areas of your life, and carve out time for yourself.
On the front end, all of this work might feel like it’s just more things you have to add to your never-ending to-do list. But, once you get through the hard part initially, you’ll likely find that you settle into your new routines well and have time for yourself. Here are some tips for getting there:
Talk to your boss. Tell them that you have a lot going on at home and, while you have no intention of letting your work suffer, you will need more flexibility. Set some healthy boundaries, like turning off email notifications once you’ve sat down for dinner, and ensure your supervisor knows your intentions. If you find them unwilling to work with you, consider looking for a new opportunity.
If you have the means, hire some help. It can be as big or as small as you’d like because even something as simple as grocery delivery can free up a good chunk of time. Other options include meal kits, bi-weekly house cleaning, hiring a neighbor kid to mow your grass, or employing a “mother’s helper” who will do laundry and dishes a few times a week.
Take advantage of minor conveniences. It may seem unnecessary, but little tasks add up over time. Using things such as auto bill pay and smart light bulbs, so you don’t have to run through the house slipping switches before you head to work can make a difference. A smart assistant (like Google Home or Alexa) can keep track of your grocery list, schedule set reminders for you, and invest in organization systems throughout the house. You’ll be amazed by how much time is freed up when everyone knows where to find their stuff.
Set aside one night a week for yourself. If you have a partner, make sure they know they have kid-duty that night, hire a babysitter for a couple of hours, or order pizza and give your kids unlimited screen time for the night, whatever you need to do to have one night a week where you can watch whatever you want on TV, read a book, or do whatever it is you enjoy. Start with one night a week, and eventually expand to two if possible.
Do a weekly “date” with your partner at home. Make it a scheduled thing. For example, every Friday night, you cook, order out, watch a movie, or play a game after the kids are in bed. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, just some intentional time for the two of you so that you don’t have working partner guilt on top of it.
Set up a mommy-kid date every few weeks for some one-on-one time. If you have more than one kid, alternate whose turn it is and do something together based on their interests.
Accept that you won’t be the star PTA mom. Remind your kids (and yourself) that just because you can’t be physically present doesn’t mean your contributions aren’t helpful.
Talk to someone. If you’re feeling depressed, anxious, or are otherwise not coping well, talk to a counselor or therapist (your employer may even offer free access to one through an EAP).
How Loved Ones Can Help
Partners, friends, extended family, and even kids (if they’re old enough) can help moms manage feelings of working mom guilt. Look through the list above and think about what you can do to make these things possible for her. For example, if you have the means to hire a house cleaning service, take the initiative to find a company and schedule it yourself so that she doesn’t have to do all of the research alone. Offer to step in and watch the kids for her whenever you can (and if she says no, insist on helping). And, if nothing else, make a point to say thank you for something every day – big or small. It doesn’t matter. She will just appreciate knowing that what she’s doing and sacrificing is being acknowledged.
What Employers Can Do
Employers have a lot of power when it comes to helping moms manage working mom guilt. No one expects a company to let their employees slide because they’re parents. Still, a little understanding and flexibility will go a long way (and it might even make those employees more dedicated to you in the process). Some steps employers can take include:
Offer flexible schedules and hybrid/remote work opinions
Provide access to quality childcare, whether it's through a regular stipend, on-site childcare, discounted rates with vendors that offer emergency childcare, or allowing remote work when kids are sick (if remote work is otherwise not an option)
Establish an ERG for parents within the organization; allow them to make proposals to management for ways to improve the workplace for working parents
Provide access to an EAP or other mental health program as well as PTO for employees to attend sessions as needed to improve mental health
Strive to create a culture with a healthy work-life balance
Go Easy On Yourself
Remember, even the best mom in the world doubts herself and feels guilty for not doing enough. The fact that you’re so hard on yourself is proof that you’re doing a great job because you take your job as a mom so seriously. As a working mom, you’re juggling various things, so go easy on yourself. You are doing so much better than you give yourself credit.
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