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Recovering from Mom Guilt

career confidence susan rietano davey

I met my friend Anne Marie through her daughter, Nicole, a classmate of my son Jackson’s at Roaring Brook Elementary School. One day I ran into Anne Marie in the school parking lot minutes before the second grade Literary Tea Party. I was pulling in on two wheels, predictably late. Anne Marie was on time, in her car, changing clothes.

“What are you doing?” I asked, shocked that anyone might think volunteering for an elementary school book reading required any wardrobe consideration.

“I had a work meeting,” she replied, pulling off a beautiful blazer. “Nicole doesn’t like me to come to school in ‘work’ clothes.”

Little seven-year-old Nicole preferred her mother, a brilliant tech professional, to come to school in yoga pants or jeans so as not to call attention to the fact that she worked.

So her mom complied, contorting herself in the back seat of a cluttered Volvo wagon to get out of a perfectly acceptable (and quite lovely) pantsuit and pumps and into something more acceptable. To her second-grader.

Before you roll your eyes, I want you to admit that although you may not have made a wardrobe change in a school parking lot to conceal the fact that you (gasp!) worked, you have done at least one similarly ridiculous thing for a similarly ridiculous reason: Mom Guilt.

Anne Marie’s seven-year-old fed one of the greatest sources of Mom Guilt: going to work. But she was too young to have an inherent bias against working women. She loved her mom and had a number of other wonderful working women – aunts and friends – in her orbit. What made her embarrassed of her mom having a job?

My guess is that some other second-grader helped Nicole along by repeating – out of context and probably innocuously – something her own mother had once said. “My mommy doesn’t go to work because she loves us too much to leave us.” What Nicole heard was: Your mommy goes to work, so she doesn’t love you.

So, Anne Marie continued the wardrobe changes for years.

I’ve never known a dad who considered his clothing choices when volunteering at his child’s school. Never met a dad who felt guilty for going to work in the morning, for serving store-bought cupcakes at a birthday party, for missing a parent-teacher conference because he was away skiing. In fact, I don’t think Dad Guilt is even a thing.

How lucky is that?! No social pressure to be perfect, dads get credit for simply showing up and doing their best.

We moms need to take a page out of the dads’ book, and we can start by doing these five things:

1. Recognize that we are “in” it. Acknowledge our role in perpetuating Mom Guilt both when we concede to it in our own lives, and when we dole it out to others by judging their mothering decisions

2. Challenge our expectations. Are they realistic? Important? Could our very standards of good mothering be hindering our children’s independence and resilience? (Yes!).

3. Build meaningful connections with our children that are based on something other than service. Talk with them. Play with them. Listen to them. But let them do their own laundry, find their own ride home, navigate a bad grade, or being cut from a team. Like our mothers did with and for us.

4. Take care of ourselves. “Self care” may be the cliché of the day, but it is an essential part of moving beyond Mom-Guilt. If we feed our interests, our intellect, our adult relationships, then we a) grow and maintain our confidence and b) establish ourselves as important individuals not tethered to, or an extension of, our children.

5. Embrace the fact that there are a lot of different ways to be a great mom – just as there are a lot of different ways to be a great kid. And none of them should produce guilt.

So, the next time you’re doing your equivalent of ‘changing in the car’ to preempt Mom Guilt, or the next time you question a friend for choosing the Maroon 5 concert over the middle school band concert to provoke Mom Guilt, stop and consider this: The irony of Mom Guilt is that we, alone, feel it, give it, create it, and perpetuate it.

And we, alone, can stop it.


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