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Breathe. Just breathe, darling. You’ve got this.
If 70 percent of women in this country manage to care for a family and go to work five days a week, you can too. You can do this.
So why do I constantly feel like a failure?
Being a working mother is certainly not anything new. Choose almost any period in our world’s history and we can see images of women working alongside their loved ones in the fields planting crops, reaping wheat, picking cotton, or combining corn. There’s also the five million women who entered the blue-collar workforce during World War II while their family members fought for freedom overseas. And, since the 1960s, the number of women working outside the home to help support themselves and their families has exploded.
Like well-oiled machines, these women all appeared to balance family and work without having nervous breakdowns or daily panic attacks, which leaves me to wonder:
Did they possess some sort of superhero secret or was I absent the day my professor covered the lecture on “The Successful Working Mother”?
I am now 38 years old, a mother, and a professional educator.
For eight of those years, I was also a student while I earned my bilingual certifications and teaching licenses to be successful in the classroom. However, no course prepared me for the number of hours I would donate to creating those engaging, imaginative lessons for students or the personal time I would have to spend reflecting on my own teaching abilities, student accountability, and writing reports that proved I was worthy as a teacher.
At first, the extra time was not a big deal. It was just part of being a teacher. My husband did not object too loudly when I spent bonus hours at school or at home to support my students. We were both new professionals in our fields and passionate about soaking up every last ounce of knowledge and experience we could. He sat at his computer designing code for fancy new medical devices, and I sat across the room brainstorming ways to help my students sit still on the carpet during my read alouds.
Then, my husband and I adopted our daughter.
After riding the roller coaster of infertility for eight years, our daughter became our entire world. Suddenly I was caught between dedicating 14 to 16 hours a day to prepare my in-depth, engaging, hands-on science experiments for the life cycle of the butterfly and my one-year-old daughter’s infectious giggle.
My students were counting on me to make fractions not sound like a foreign language, and my daughter was patiently waiting for mommy to build block towers with her, so she could knock them down with a smile that showed sheer accomplishment. I, on the other hand, was waiting all day to snuggle on the sofa with my little peanut and read her favorite touch-and-feel board book, Baby Animals.
I was torn, and the guilt started to seep into every crack. Dropping my daughter off in the morning at her in-home daycare crushed me. Even though her daycare teacher was a nurturing, hyper-observant, playful Mexican-American mother, she was spending more time with my daughter than I was. It hurt.
I quickly realized that mom guilt did in fact exist—and she soon set up a comfortable camp in my head. It took me more than a week before the tears no longer wet my cheeks, as I turned my back and shut the daycare door behind me. The 10-minute drive to school felt like two hours trying to quiet her voice: “How could you leave your sweet little baby?”
Of course, as soon as I got to school, flipped on the lights, answered an email or two, and welcomed in the students who were desperately waiting to tell me how their night went, the gnawing sense of guilt disappeared. I focused on teaching. I focused on my students. They depended on me to not only get them to gym class and lunch on time, but also to make each one of them feel like a somebody—and my heart beat with purpose. The guilt was gone, at least until 6 p.m.
With lessons and materials for the next day safely stacked in my tote bag, I rushed to pick up my daughter. As her teacher opened the door, my little girl’s face lit up with a smile that stretched from the kitchen to the living room. She almost toppled me over with a bear hug so huge, you would swear she had not seen me all week.
And just like that, the mom guilt returned, finding the open cracks in my heart and injecting them with thick strains of regret. She was happy to remind me that I had always planned on being the dedicated mother who would never miss a moment of her daughter’s childhood—the moments she could never get back. And here I was, letting my little girl down.
2. Tammy Duckworth’s baby on the Senate floor https://t.co/YCMDZDqtU6 pic.twitter.com/hzX7wPhIOG
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) December 24, 2018
If you are a working mother, I am sure you are well acquainted with mom guilt, just as I am. She left you a tearful voicemail when you heard your son took his first steps at daycare. She returned again when you heard your daughter mistakenly call her daycare teacher Mama. She jabbed you with pangs of regret for only being able to spend 30 minutes with your little one before bed because of a meeting that ran late at work.
Oh yes, the mom guilt is real and her visits always leave me a crumpled mess on the floor.
Let’s face it: no matter which option we choose, whether it is family-first or career-first, we feel like we are failing on the opposite front. That is the nature of the mom guilt. If we put our career first and dedicate 8 to 12 hours a day to our professional or our personal goals, we are being selfish. Mom guilt swims laps in our mind echoing, “But what about your daughter who has spent more time with her daycare teacher than you today?”
And if we choose to be a stay-at-home mom, our mind starts to question our sanity. I have learned in the last three years that I cannot play “baby” or “Barbies” for more than two hours a day. I also cannot read Pout-Pout Fish more than 23 times a day. I have tried. I just cannot do it. My mind starts to taunt me with, “Do you know how long you went to school to be sitting on the couch watching ‘Baby Shark’ seven times in a row? Do you remember when you used to change out of your pajamas and put on real pants…and I am not even going to mention the ponytail you have been wearing in your hair for the past eight months.”
So, what are we supposed to do as working parents? How do we mitigate the guilt of missing out on our children’s milestones and day-to-day life experiences, while still fulfilling the personal and professional goals we set for ourselves?
The truth is…I don’t know, and if I did, I would be much richer than I am now. But, I believe the answer lies in our being present.
And yes, our children will notice. They are like magnets to electronic devices, and they note every time we pull out our cell phone to check our text messages, Facebook notifications, emails, and Instagram account. They feel the jab each time we grab our phones and unconsciously put them second in importance behind our social or work self.
Secondly, we should try to allot at least 30 minutes a few times per week to eat a meal together, giving ourselves the blessed opportunity to see our children grow into the individuals they will become. Ask them what they played in gym that day. Find out if they made any new friends at daycare or if they read a new book. Listen uninhibited to their stories. Let them be the center of attention. Show them how much they matter.
We are working mothers. Each week we live a schedule layered with errands to run, birthday parties to shop for, meals to prepare, laundry to wash, and 50-plus hours of professional responsibilities sprinkled in between. Thus, we are left with maybe one hectic hour in the morning before we rush out the door to school or work along with two or three hours when we arrive back home before our children’s heads hit the pillow.
Four hours. If we’re lucky, we only have about four hours each day to make our babies feel valued and loved, to feel like a somebody. Four hours to teach them to be respectful, courteous, well-rounded human beings.
Four hours is not much. We do not have a choice—we have to be present.
As working mothers, we will never be able to wave our magic wands to multiply the hours in our day, nor will we be able to completely hush the infamous mom guilt whispers reminding us that we cannot be everything to everyone. But, we can always take a needed breath and encourage ourselves:
“You are doing just fine. You are a good mother. Enjoy every minute you have with your little ones. For each moment you make about them, they will never forget. And neither will you. You got this!”
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