Dissecting mommy guilt in search of work-life balance
By Christine Marchetti
For myself, and for the many other working mothers I know, work-life balance is feeling, in equal measure, guilty about two things: what I do and/or don’t do at work, and what I do and/or don’t do at home.
Throw into the equation the lethal combination of being Italian and Catholic, and it’s a wonder I can even stand myself.
I feel constantly pulled in two directions – I’ve got moves even a pretzel would envy – and I don’t know any other working mother who doesn’t feel this way.
If a woman who feels equally strong about her role as mother and professional does exist, she is more rare than the Snuffleupagus and the Polkaroo combined (Dear five-year-old me: he prefers to go by “Snuffy” now.)
It’s incredibly exhausting to constantly feel like I’m not measuring up as a mother and as a professional. It eats away at my feeling of self-worth. If only the days were a few hours longer, maybe I could get it all done, and get it all done well. The real problem is that my responsibilities and obligations, those at home and those at work, are always in competition. Every day I make choices that place home ahead of work or work ahead of home and these choices wear me down.
Growing up I was told over and over again that I could have both and I bought big stock in this dream. The reality is much more complicated.
And there are whole other subcategories of guilt the working mother endures beyond feeling guilty about her role in the workforce and her role as parent. I got an email recently from an acquaintance who is a stay-at-home mother. She talked about how busy she was, and it took all my self control to keep from writing back “You’re busy?! Try doing what you do with the responsibilities of another full-time job!” I didn’t send this, of course, and I immediately felt guilty about feeling this resentment for my friend who had simply made a different choice.
Like many working mothers, I often find myself justifying my own choice. I justify to myself, to my family, to friends. My mother-in-law asked me the other day if money was not a consideration, would I stay home full time? My answer was no.
Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t be working full time, but I would be doing something part time. And not volunteering, although I would hopefully be doing some of that too, but something that would make use of my education; something that had me thinking critically.
I so enjoyed my time home with my boys on both of my maternity leaves. When the end of each leave came around, I was, if I am honest with myself, heartbroken. But, a part of me looked forward to the return to work with a sense of excitement.
I live in an area where many women stay at home to raise children. On the street where I live I am in the minority; most women with children do not work. I met many of these women while I was home on my second leave. It is in fact one of these women that started me thinking: can the working mom and the stay-at-home mom really be friends?
Like remaining friends with an ex, I think there is often just too much emotion to make the friendship between the working mom and the stay-at-home mom work. I mean, look how quickly I was prepared to school my stay-at-home gal pal simply because she had dared tell me she was busy.
The problem is that often, the stay-at-home mom is also justifying her choice: to herself, her family, to her friends, and to the working mom. Instead of supporting one another, whatever our choice, I find we tear each other down and are critical of one another.
I had one play date with the stay-at-home mommy that got me thinking about this. I thought it went well. However, I did sense some tension when I began talking about my work and my return to the workforce and when she began talking about her former career and why she made the decision to stay at home. That play date was months ago. There hasn’t been a second.
I couldn’t help but notice she had other mommy friends on the street, and all were stay-at-home mommies. I remember asking her about the family that lived a mere two doors away from her when I noticed a stroller sitting on the front porch. She didn’t know much about the mother who lived there: she worked outside the home.
The stay-at-home mom tends to think she has made the ultimate sacrifice in her decision to stay at home. This is especially true if she had a career pre-baby. She thinks the working mother is doing her children a great disservice by leaving them in the care of third parties.
The working mother thinks she has made the ultimate sacrifice in her decision to go to work. She thinks the stay-at-home mother is entitled. She thinks childcare is important to a child’s development, that her child grows from being cared for by others and that she is doing her child a great service by working in that she has something that is hers outside of motherhood that makes her more patient and more present when she is with her child. Clearly the portrait of the working mother is the more flattering perspective because it is my perspective.
Women as a collective have such power, but we always seem so divided. I know my feelings for the stay-at-home mom are wrong. She has just decided to live her life in a way she feels best serves her family. I sharply feel her criticism, but aren’t I being just as critical of her? I know I am. I know I am because in the throes of my own guilt about not being the best mother I feel I can be and not being the best professional I feel I can be, I can judge her to make myself feel better.
Because of this, my close circle of mommy friends are working-mommy friends. I’ve noticed that the stay-at-home mommies also seem to group together. I think to a certain extent, both the working mom and the stay-at-home mom think the other to be condescending in their choice because they are constantly justifying the decision. So, in turn, it’s just easier to be friends with persons who have made similar choices so we don’t feel judged.
This makes me sad. Being a mother is hard enough. We are always questioning our parenting decisions, worrying about our children, doubting ourselves. We are also always delighting in our children’s learning and growing, finding new depths of love for them and striving to be better people for their sake. This is true of all mothers, no matter what their decision about working outside of the home may be; I can’t help but wonder if my guilt might be assuaged if I felt, regardless of choice, that we were all in it together.