Mother’s Guilt: When Mom Works Full-Time

I’m so tired of people feeling sorry for me that I work full-time. How can I explain that it works for me?

MOLLY: This came from a reader based in Los Angeles, California. She also asked how she can talk about her choice to work full-time and not get defensive about it.

Dr. Susan Rutherford (Molly’s Mom): This is an age-old problem between working moms and moms who stay at home. I think that both sets of women feel defensive about their role. The reason is that, as much as we may want to, women just can’t do everything and be everything to everybody, and so choices have to be made along the way.

Some moms chose to stay home full time with the kids, some work part-time, and some work full time. There’s really nothing intrinsically wrong with any of those choices. So, she’s right that she needs to stop getting defensive about it and just smile and say: “Well, you know I really love my work. I love my children, too, of course, so I’m just doing the best I can.”

MOLLY: When I was working full-time in a corporate job I used to feel this way, too. I think that, as a working mom, sometimes when you say that you work full-time outside the home you want to also explain that you still try to be available for special events at the school, or maybe for after-school activities…

DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes, I think there’s a great need to say, “I work but I’m still a Good Mom.“ That’s part of the defensiveness and it seems to be built into our modern culture. And that defensiveness goes on both sides.

MOLLY: Both if you don’t work and stay at home and if you do work full-time while raising your kids.

DR. RUTHERFORD: For women who don’t work, they may feel guilty or not smart, or not as smart as women who do continue to work and have a career. They may feel inadequate. For those who do work full-time, there are always the concerns about what’s happening at home while you’re not there. It’s a situation where there’s guilt galore. There’s no end to the guilt on both sides of the fence.

MOLLY: Is there anything this working mom can say when people ask her about it? Perhaps a canned response that might convey her feelings without sounding defensive?

DR. RUTHERFORD: I think that she’s right: the most important thing is to try not to get defensive about it. This is easier said than done as it is the most natural reaction that all women have no matter which side they’re coming from.  She’s absolutely right about that. The idea is to put a positive slant on it. The positive slant would be something along the lines of: “You know I really love my work. It can be hard to make everything balance, but I’m a better mom for it.”

MOLLY: Or, maybe to talk more about the work itself?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Maybe talk about the work itself and how fulfilling it is for her. And she could say something like, “I have terrific help at home and I’m always available if I’m needed…”

MOLLY: But then that sounds defensive again.

DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes, it could. Probably she’ll have to come to accept some of that; it’s built into the process.

MOLLY: Those are the tradeoffs?

DR. RUTHERFORD: The whole thing is a big tradeoff. For some women they need and want to work full-time and they’re happier people and happier moms by doing it.

MOLLY: Of course, some women don’t have a choice in the matter: they must work full-time to help support the family.

DR. RUTHERFORD: Generally speaking, I think that women do the very best that they can for their families and still often feel like they come up short.

MOLLY: What are the long-term consequences for mom’s who work full-time?

DR. RUTHERFORD: The long term consequences for women that work full-time is that they often miss out on significant events in the child’s life, especially at school because they are often during a weekday. Like school performances, or ballet recitals, or baseball games… Just general activities that children have that, depending on your work environment, may be very hard to attend when you work full-time. I think that kids –whether they mean to or not– store those memories in their brains and when they’re adults and in therapy they’ll frequently talk about these childhood losses.

MOLLY: They’ll talk about how their parents weren’t around?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Right. I’ll hear things in my office like “My parents never came to one of my little league games.” That’s the kind of parenting which leaves a kid with some long term effects. Maybe not the Mom, but the kids might have some.

MOLLY: What would those long-term effects be?

MOM: Well, it can have a very determining effect on how they raise their own kids. They might go overboard in the other direction to always be there for their kids because they felt some loss of that with both of their parents working full-time and not around. So they might go to another extreme when they become parents themselves.

MOLLY: What about the long-term consequences for the mom that stays home?

DR. RUTHERFORD: For the Mom that stays home, the long term consequences are that she might never be able to make up that time in her career. Typically, she’ll set herself back in terms of promotions and career. Hopefully that is changing, but I don’t know.

MOLLY: This I can attest to: it’s hard to get back in the workforce when you do want to come back after having babies.

DR. RUTHERFORD: Right, depending on what kind of work you do, some areas might be impossible and some areas might be easier to return to, but these returning women usually take a big dip on the career ladder. It’s hard to win from either side.

MOLLY: What about the moms that don’t go back to work?

DR. RUTHERFORD: The ones who stay at home after their children are in school?

MOLLY: Yes.

DR. RUTHERFORD: A lot of them find fulfilling things to do at home or in the community. Others become bored and then that boredom can cause trouble and restlessness, which can lead to depression or other issues.

 

ding 6 comments on “Mother’s Guilt: When Mom Works Full-Time

  1. This is a great post and yes, age old issue. I agree that there are tradeoffs and choices women must make whether they stay at home or return to the workforce. I am fortunate that I work for a company that supports balance even at the most senior levels, and also values women as leaders and contributors. I think it’s important for companies to find ways to support women in the workplace as they have an incredible amount of intelligence and wisdom to contribute to businesses. I’m very happy with my choice to return to the workplace and believe every woman needs to make the best choice for their children and personal circumstances, and be confident in that choice regardless of what others think.

    • Annie – I’m so glad to hear that you work for such a progressive company that recognizes the value of women – even when they have children at home! Countries like Finland are so good at this. I think we’re behind in this regard in America, but I’m hoping for companies to offer a better opportunity for balance for women. Thanks so much for your input – I agree that each woman has to figure out what’s best for her and her family. It would be nice for women not to feel so much guilt!

  2. I loved your advice up until the long-term consequences of full-time working moms part. Ouch! That may be the case if you miss many special events, but to be fair, most working moms I know avoid that to whatever end. Even if it means missing out on key meetings and career opportunities. I would hope that if I miss an event here or there that I won’t be signing my children up for a lifetime of therapy.

    • Jessica – keep in mind that those are only possible consequences, not necessarily 100%. I agree that a lot of full time working moms go to great lengths to attend some of their children’s events – some are way better than none. It seems to me that staying at home full-time or working full-time bring on conflicts for Moms. Freud once famously said “biology is destiny”; isn’t that the truth? One wonders how men would handle this dilemma – maybe the work culture would change!

  3. I actually have to say I was very disappointed by this article- especially when you spoke about the long term consequences. I think making time for your children and not missing important events is dependent upon the type of parent – whether they work full time or not.

    • You have a point. While every parent has to prioritize their life around their kids, whether they work or not, it’s important to keep in mind that parents that work have extra job pressures on them. Kids, feeling supported is the important thing.

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