I've learned that being a working mother isn't about having a guilt-free life. It's about accepting guilt as part of the rich tapestry of emotions we all experience, and choosing for yourself how you react to it.
‘I don’t get it,’ said an old friend of mine, a mother of two who works in the City and is losing her fight with working mother’s guilt. ‘How can you have four kids, work full time when you don’t need to and not feel guilty about it?’
You could say she has a point. I have four children aged 4 to 12 (referred to here as Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4) and I am working full time running my business, Baby Proof Your Life. I have a nanny who helps me with after school care and on weekends I am forever snatching pockets of time to manage email and catch up on deadlines. For the last six months of 2015 I was writing my book, Baby Proof Your Career, and I worked every weekend and even on holidays.
So why don’t I suffer from working mother guilt like every other self-respecting mother?
Well I used to. When No. 1 was born I was working as a lawyer in the City trying to compete with colleagues who were either male or childless. Unlike me they were able to work 15 hour days without worrying about what long term psychological impact their absence would have on their child’s development. This meant running out of the office at 5.30pm every evening, with my head bowed low in guilt and shame because it felt like I was slacking off early. After No. 2 was born I retrained as a Life Coach and set up my business, only to find myself working longer hours on my business than I often did as a full time finance lawyer in the City.
All of this means that I’ve spent the last 12 and a half years paying for other people to look after my children – outsourcing their care, their education and most of their diet to others – while I’ve been pursuing what was once somewhat insensitively described to me as ‘my own selfish ends’. Add the fact that I work because I want to, and not because I need to (my husband is well paid so I could afford to give up work entirely), and you’ve got the perfect recipe for working mother’s guilt.
I used to suffer from working mother it, I really did. It was definitely a factor in my decision to give up a prestigious and extremely well paid career as an international finance lawyer in the City ten years ago, and even with my new career as a business owner the guilt continued for years.
But then the moment finally came when I was able to break free from the chains of working mother guilt that would otherwise have had me second guessing my decisions, questioning my choices and feeling less than happy with my life in general.
How did I do it?
It was only when I was asked to sit down and write this blog that I shone the lens on myself for long enough to reveal how that change had taken place. I want to share what I’ve learned, in the hope that it will help you #BREAKFREE, too.
Guilt doesn’t make you special
At the end of last year I wrote my first blog about guilt, and that’s what made me realise how pervasive it was. It is everywhere, in so many shapes and forms. I myself have experienced guilt over so many things: not being a good enough friend; not being the godparent I’d like to be; distancing myself from some of my family; not exercising enough or eating healthily enough. I realised that the guilt I had felt for being a working mother was just one of countless forms of guilt that all human beings experience. Working mother’s guilt didn’t make me special. It made me normal.
Guilt is here to stay
Guilt is just another emotion. Like joy, jealousy, happiness and rage, it’s an emotional and physiological response to our choices and life circumstances based on how we have been conditioned to interpret those circumstances. If we wanted a world without guilt we would have to have a world without happiness or anger or excitement or joy. This showed me that like the many emotions we experience as human beings, guilt is here to stay. By accepting this, you can stop beating yourself up about it.
Guilt isn’t the problem
While we may struggle to control our emotions, we can control what we do with them. So if you are feeling happy, you can decide how you want to express it. You can spend the day smiling quietly to yourself, or you can skip through the street singing Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” at the top of your lungs for all to hear. When you’re angry you can shout and scream and rant, or you can choose to go home lock the door and sob privately to yourself until the intensity of the emotion subsides and you can decide on a plan of action.
It is the same with guilt. You have a choice about how to react to it, what to do with it and what to allow it to do to you. I knew I could choose to let it torture me, make me feel bad about myself and the choices I had made; or I could take a step back and make a decision about what to do.
This led me to a final discovery:
Guilt is my friend
Taking a step back to review my decisions meant accepting that guilt had a role to play in my life. That role was to force me to justify my choices. The way I saw it was, guilt wasn’t telling me I had made the wrong choices. It was just asking me to check I was making the right ones. It was trying to be my friend.
This realisation proved tremendously useful. On the few nights I get to give Nos. 3 and 4 their bedtime bath, and I am tempted to reply to emails on my ipad while they are larking about in the bath, guilt asks me: Is this the time to be catching up on emails, or is this valuable time with my boys? The answer is obvious, and I have guilt to thank for reminding me.
When I get up and go to work knowing that the children may be in bed before I make it home that evening, guilt asks me if that is the right choice. Seeing guilt as a friend trying to support me, rather than a foe trying to terrorise me, I can respond that it is the right choice because work brings me the financial security, independence, recognition and fulfilment that represent my most important values.
These are the discoveries which have allowed me to #BREAKFREE from the chains of working mother guilt. I’ve learned that being a working mother isn’t about having a guilt-free life. It’s about accepting guilt as part of the rich tapestry of emotions we all experience as human beings, and choosing for yourself how to react to it.
For me, that’s what it means to #BREAKFREE.
Find out more about why we want to #BREAKFREE from guilt here.