When my kids were little, I never felt the need to banish working mum guilt. I felt it, I gave it some space, I let working mum guilt just be. I think I realised quite early on that I was a mother who needed to work. There’s a good chance that I didn’t have to work, although I will never do the sums on that. I will never wonder about how we could have or should have made my being a stay-at-home-mum work. At the time, it felt so obvious that I would be a working mum that we simply never even had those conversations.
Don’t look back
Part of letting working mum guilt go is leaving hindsight and should haves at the door. It’s understanding that we make the best decision we can for our kids, with what we have at the time.
Much of working mum guilt is often tied up in things that aren’t actually within our control. We struggle to accept the boundaries that work places on our home life. For instance, when we work, we need to accept that we won’t be able to participate in a lot of the things that happen at our kids’ school. We can take annual leave or call on flexible working arrangements, but the truth is that both of these strategies are best kept for covering the 12+ weeks of school holidays instead.
This might help: 7 strategies to juggle work and teens in the school holidays
So being there for every school moment is just physically not going to be possible. Sure, our kids would love for us to be there (yep, even when they get older), but even they must concede that a mother can’t be in two places at once. That doesn’t stop kids from getting “the face” or unintentionally stabbing a knife into our heart by saying, “But all the other kids’ mums come to the awards assembly…” And don’t get me started on THE FACE we get when it’s time to drop off at holiday camp or before-and-after school care. Ugh.
At my place, I’ve managed this kind of guilt-inducing scenario in the same way I’ve managed all the other guilt-inducing scenarios: by turning the negatives into positives.
How I banish working mum guilt
1. Take care with decisions
When I know that I have given a decision careful consideration, I don’t feel obliged to feel guilty about that decision. I weigh up the options, consider the outcomes, make my decision and reflect on it at regular opportunities. I don’t dwell on my decisions and I try not to let the ‘what ifs’ or ‘should I haves’ weigh me down.
That’s not to say that I procrastinate over decision-making. A good decision is a quick decision in my book. My strategy has always been to pick a choice with the most important thing in mind first: my family. Once I set them as my first option, the rest comes pretty easy.
So you might think, “but wouldn’t she be a stay-at-home mum if her family was her priority?” Ah, not necessarily. If I was a stay-at-home mum all of my attention, all of my intensity, all of my creativity, all of my drive would be attached solely to my kids.
No one needs to grow up with that kind of focus, believe me.
There are many reasons why a mother works. Know your reasons and be proud of them.
2. Have realistic expectations
I’m not about to tell you to lower your expectations, because we both know that’s probably never going to happen. We all have certain criteria that we need to meet in order to feel good about ourselves. Only you know whether your criteria are realistic or not. The best advice I can offer here is to make sure you are regularly assessing the things you think you need and massaging them to give yourself the best possible chance of an unhurried life.
One way to approach this is to make a list of all the things in your life that you feel you need to live a good life.
Write everything down and then put your list in order of priority. Once you’ve done that, you’ve got the top five things you value in a good life. Going forward, make sure everything you take on or say yes to ticks at least one of those values.
3. Focus on the things you do
So much of working mum guilt stems from the things we don’t do. We “don’t do” reading in the classroom, we “don’t do” school pick ups, we “don’t do” family dinners every night, etc. Sure, there are a lot of dont’s when you spend a good part of your waking day away from the home.
But instead of focusing on the don’ts, choose to focus on the dos. I might not be there every morning before school, but I’m home at dinner every night. I might not arrive at every school carnival, but I drive them across town every Tuesday so they can participate in activities that aren’t in our area. I have so many “dos” and I know you do too. Make a list of them if that helps… and it helps.
Try this: SWOT Analysis for parents
4. Accept that you love your work
This isn’t every mum’s “guilt trip”, but it’s often at the heart of why many of us find it so hard to banish working mum guilt. It can be hard to admit that we want to work, rather than just “need” to work. Fact is, we’d often rather work.
I’m deeply committed to the work I do and I can feel the pull of writing when I “should” be spending time with my kids. Being a freelancer means that there are no boundaries around when I am working and when I’m not. That’s great in theory – it certainly gives me flexibility – but it’s often not so great in practice. I’m often distracted when I’m with my family and find it hard to be present. My work is one of my great loves and accepting that and making time for it has been the only way for me to stop feeling guilty about it.
Practising mindfulness and and committing to being intentional in everything I do has been the biggest help in this area. I also have small rituals that I do to transition from work to family and back again. These help me mentally finish working and allow me to be more present with my family.
5. Build your support network
We feel a lot less working mum guilt when we know our kids are in good hands. Good before-and-after school care, or family, or a nanny or a friend that helps you out. We need to know that our kids have caring eyes and ears on them them when we are not around.
When the kids are older, sometimes it’s just about having a back-up. For example, my kids get themselves home from school two days a week and I’m home about a hour-and-a-half after them. A friend is always on standby if the weather means they really can’t walk home (though I’m happy for them to take on a little rain).
It can be daunting to build this kind of network, but it really just requires us to ask for help.
The best way to ask is to say, “I’m asking this of you and I can do that in return.” You may not be around for school ferrying, but you can give a fellow mum a date night once a week in exchange. Don’t feel awkward about offering cash, either.
6. Share the guilt
One way to halve working mum guilt is to dump at least half of it onto your partner. I’m not even joking. If the kids are getting angsty about me not being somewhere, I palm them off onto my husband. And why not? The only reason my kids have an expectation that it will be me at a school or hobby event is because it’s usually mums at these events. It’s so important that they know that a father can represent the family just as easily.
I make sure my kids don’t forget this. We try to refer to “parents”, rather than “mums” and regularly ask how many dads are at events, or I point out fathers when I am there myself, or, on an exceptionally good day, manage to send their own father along to join in the fun.
Talk to your partner about the kinds of events he could represent the family at and basically make your kid’s day. Kids are so delighted to have a parent attend athletics carnivals or school assemblies. Make sure he gets to see their excitement as often as he can.
7. Bring the kids to work with you
I don’t mean in a physical sense (although that would be good sometimes. see below). I mean in a metaphorical sense. We need to keep talking to our kids about the kind of work we do, why we do it, what it means to us and what our obligations are when we are there. “Work” shouldn’t be a mysterious thing that parents do when they’re not with kids. Instead, work should be an integral part of family life.
Talk to your boss about bringing your kids into work with you every now and then. (This is a particularly good strategy when you’ve run out of options in the holidays.) Give them set jobs to do by a set time and treat them to a reward at the end of the day. This is a very quick introduction to what “mum does all day”, but it also helps kids see how hard we work when we’re not with them and why it’s difficult for us to drop everything to be with them.
8. Teach kids the value of money
While I don’t want my kids to grow up thinking that work is all about money, let’s face it, work is often all about money and that’s okay. It helps that the majority of the income I earn allows them to participate in extra-curricular activities and for us to have holidays away each year.
These are tangible benefits to having two working parents and I’m clear about that with the kids.
I took two months off work between jobs in August last year and we decided to try to live off my husband’s salary for those two months. It was a great exercise in being frugal in order to leave our savings alone, but it was also fantastic because we got the kids involved. I asked them for ideas on how we could save money and they had some unique and useful solutions.
There were quite a few things we put in place over those months that we still live with today, but a lot of what we cut out the kids were desperate to have back. Yep, they saw the value in having two working parents pretty quickly.
9. Become a FIFO school parent
Despite an antiquated school system that assumes parents (ie, mothers) are always available to volunteer, attend events and do drop-offs and pick-ups, the fact is that we get an education so we can get a job. When the kids pull the “everyone else’s mum is there” card, I remind them that I’m there sometimes too. Every mum has a lot to fit into her days and some mums have more time than others to get to school events. It’s as simple as that. This week, Jayden and Molly and Olivia and Maia’s mum can make it, but next week it might be a different bunch of mums and the week after I will try to make the time to join them.
A lot of the time I put in at my kids’ schools isn’t time they see. The P+C, the anti-bullying working group, or parent rep on the interview panel are important to the school, but basically mean nothing to my kids. Back when I had a more flexible work schedule, I used to make a point of carving out time each term to volunteer in our school canteen. I figured this was the most visible way a mum could help out at the school and I wanted to make my time count. My daughters were so proud to buy lunch from their mum and I was able to treat their friends as well. High visibility = lots of brownie points for a small time obligation.
10. Reaffirm love in ways that matter
Often our working mum guilt stems from our worry that our kids won’t feel loved enough if we are not there. We know this isn’t true, but it’s hard to shake the feeling.
Of course, kids milk any parental insecurities for all they are worth, thereby confirming our worst fear, even though that fear isn’t even true.
So, tip one is to not show them your hand. Feel the guilt, but try to keep it to yourself.
Tip two is remind our kids that love has nothing to do with the amount of time people spend together. The kind of language I have always used is saying things like, “It’s good for kids to have time away from their parents” and “It’s so important for people to have time for themselves”. Reinforce this by making sure your kids get time to themselves to do what they want to do too.
A friend of mine has always made Sunday afternoons “me time” for everyone in her family. Even from a young age, everyone spends time apart in the home, pursuing an activity of their own choosing. Nice, huh? This will happen naturally as kids get older, but so great that they are able to see this time as a positive thing and not worry that they are shutting out the family.
11. Try not to compare
It’s a bit too easy to see a stay-at-home mum and think how much easier her life must be compared to mine. Or, at the very least, wish I was in her position. Sometimes I make the mistake of ‘blaming’ SAHMs for the “everyone else’s mums” conversations I have to guilt my way through.
Working mum guilt can sometimes make a mum mean.
There are two reasons why this attitude sux: 1. I have no idea how easier or hard her life actually is and 2. feeling jealous about her choices doesn’t actually change mine. In other words, comparisons are just dumb. I try to make sure that the only time I notice what other mothers are doing is to offer a hand of support or to compliment them on a job well done.
I hope I’ve helped relieve working mum guilt a little for you. Do you have a strategy to share?
Image by Annie Spratt