Updated: Apr 4, 2020
The elevator door closed leaving the image of my 3-year old’s tearful face in my mind. As I headed towards office, my heart felt terribly heavy. His little hands had reached out to me in despair and I had walked away. How stone-hearted am I to walk away from my little child! Drops of tears rolled down my cheeks as I looked out of the car window. Here I am, on one hand, an ambitious woman with dreams, vision and aspirations, and on the other, a working mother who contemplates ‘quitting’ work in situations like these.
I know I am not alone in this. I bet working mother’s ‘guilt’ is an overlooked factor that affects many women and their careers. The guilt instils an underlying feeling of inadequacy, both at the personal and professional front, triggering the thought to quit. However, guilt neither helps family nor work, and quitting work is not the solution. Fortunately, it is possible to overcome this guilt by changing thoughts and actions that instil and nurture working mom’s guilt.
Here I share three things that helped me beat working mother's guilt and move on with my goals, both personal and professional.
1) Accepting that you are doing ‘ENOUGH’!
There have been several occasions when I have announced to my husband that I am quitting. His standard response has been, “It’s your decision, but let me tell you that you are doing ENOUGH as a mother!” His words have certainly been an important determinant of my continuing career in science, yet deep within I couldn’t bring myself to accept that I was doing enough. There was always something more I 'should' have done!. Somehow kids seemed to sense my guilt and even started taking advantage of it. I realized this when one day, my seven-year old said “we feel lonely when you are not around and hence watch TV”. I found myself angry, irritated, tired and helpless.
That was the time I discussed this matter with professional life coach Reena Yadav*. Her counselling helped me a big deal to overcome the guilt. When you have done enough to ensure that your children are taken care of well in your absence, why would you feel guilty? And when you are with them, if you are fully present with them, even if it is for a short while, it is contentment that would fill you and not guilt of the past or the future anticipation of you having to leave them again
When you affirm that you are doing enough and whatever you are doing is in the best interests of all, including yourself and your loved ones, guilt finds no place in your mind. Nothing goes wrong if you forgot to add extra veggies to your kid’s meals or slept off before telling your kids a story! When you are free of guilt, your children are able to sense that as well and the drama stops.
2) Knowing that this is a passing phase
“Remember, this is a transient phase!” Today they are crying when you leave, but tomorrow you may be crying when they leave. That is the nature of life! Wouldn’t it be best for you to be having something to do then?” My husband’s words not only made me realize this fact of life, but also made me want to make the best use of my present moments with kids.
When I get back home, my two little boys run towards me hugging and kissing me with excitement. I put my phone and bag away, embrace them, put on some music and we all dance. This lets me let go of everything else and be in the moment with them! When I really began enjoying my time with them, instead of feeling stressed about naughty behaviours, mis-placed toys or veggies in their meal, I was able to go to bed with the contentment that I have done enough for myself and my kids, freeing me of guilt.
Therefore, the key is to ‘be with your kids fully’-physically and mentally-when you are with them. Also, it’s only a matter of time before kids grow up and start feeling proud of your contributions to family, work and society.
3) Letting go of the need to have everything perfect
In the past I would spend a lot of time in the kitchen after coming back from work as I enjoyed cooking and was quite adamant about giving my kids fresh food cooked by me. Although I got a lot of satisfaction from doing this, I would get physically very exhausted thus lacking the energy needed to be with my kids fully. At that time, my second child who was only two years old, would often come to the kitchen tugging at my dress. I realized that my kids cared more about my presence than what I cooked for them. It is important for a working mother to let go of any needs to have her hands on everything. Hire help, allow your spouse to help/contribute (even if they may not be doing it exactly as you want) or plan/organize better, so that you don’t spend your precious time at home doing chores!
When you let go of the need for perfection, you will notice that you become more relaxed, and when you are relaxed, you become pleasant and patient. This enables you to respond to kids positively, creating a fulfilling experience for you and liberating you from guilt.
What offices can do to support working mothers!
As I have personally benefited from life coaching and self-enhancement workshops, I propose that companies organize talks/workshops to create awareness on the issues working women face, including working mom’s guilt. The awareness will help create a supportive working environment for working mothers. For example, in the Mechanobiology Institute, Singapore, where I worked earlier, the provision of a dedicated room with fridge for nursing mothers to pump milk, was a huge relief for many working mothers in science, including myself. This gave us the satisfaction of being able to provide mother’s milk to our young babies, when we were at work. These are significant steps every organization must adopt, as it not only caters to significant human needs but also helps raise efficiency and productivity of employees.