The Day I Stopped Feeling Guilty About Going Back to Work

It’s hard being a mom. Also, in case you haven’t heard, the earth is round, water is wet, and Duchess Catherine (née Kate Middleton) is pretty much the embodiment of human perfection in a swan-necked, flowing-maned, perfectly posh package. 

 I don’t care if you’re a working mom, a stay-at-home mom, a single mom, a married mom—the truth is, it just doesn’t matter. Each situation comes with its own unique set of challenges and its own burden of guilt. 

Dun-dun-dun. That’s right. The dreaded mommy guilt. We all feel it. You know, the aftermath of incidents like:

  • When you scold your kid for being whiny and she ends up puking all over everything five short minutes later
  • When you silently fume because you just wanted to be able to spend 30 seconds uninterrupted taking care of personal bathroom business 
  • When you get irritated because you really could have used that glass of wine but you’re too worried about whether it’ll be out of your system before you have to pump

As the great poet/philosopher Lisa Loeb said, “Everybody feels this way sometimes,” and for us moms, the guilt can pile on for the tiniest of reasons as well as for the big ones. 

In my personal guilt repertoire, the little items abounded, but the biggest ones all had to do with one thing: work. I went back to work when my daughter was 13 weeks old, and it wasn’t something I was completely happy about. I love what I do, but I just felt wrong. To be completely honest, I felt like a failure for leaving this tiny person at home. Instead of feeling proud I was earning a living and taking care of my family, I felt like a loser who just didn’t care enough about her kid to stay home with her. Instead of feeling a sense of accomplishment every time I strapped on that most-hated of implements, the breast pump (10 long months of literally suctioning away lunch breaks and any other potential free time at the office), I heard these negative voices in my mind, telling me a really good mom wouldn’t be furiously writing emails and turning into some strange combination of dairy cow and high-powered juicer between a full slate of meetings. No, a real mom—a good mom—would be at home, doing some high-touch baby-wearing and nursing on demand. A good mom would be spending her time coming up with creative natural baby food options at home instead of pitching creative marketing campaigns at the office. 

I felt it—that ever-present guilt—every time I walked out of the house in the morning, every time I left the office a few minutes after 5:00 P.M., every time a well-meaning colleague asked how I could stand to be away from my child all day. I felt it when a friend asked me to after-work drinks, or a volunteer event arose, or I really needed to get new work shoes. To my sleep-deprived, guilt-riddled brain, those extra minutes away, for any reason, were another betrayal of my daughter, another sign that I didn’t love her enough, another sign that I was clearly failing at this whole motherhood thing. 

You can imagine just how much fun I was having and just how fulfilling my life was because I was taking the guilt of being mean, doesn’t-love-my-baby, office-going mom and adding that to the stress of being too-busy-to-go-to-the-gym wife and too-tired-to-keep-a-tidy-house, all-around slob. It was a recipe for overwhelmed disaster. 

However, there was one tiny incident that gave me a different perspective on life and alleviated/put into perspective a portion of the heavy burden I was forcing myself to carry.

My 18-month-old was doing her usual curious baby thing: digging in my purse, going through my stuff, and generally wreaking havoc on items I formerly would have called personal possessions. Instead of grabbing them and stopping her, I watched, curious to see what she would do. And, as kids are wont to do, she surprised me. 

“Noelle going to work,” she informed me, hoisting my purse onto her tiny shoulder. She sashayed toward the door with a huge smile, and for once, instead of feeling guilty about work, I saw it in a different light. 

This is my daughter. 

I want her to be whoever she wants to be. 

Whatever she wants to do, I never want to stop her. Instead I will tell her, “Go. Reach for the stars. Do it. We love you. We are proud of you.”

I want her to be a strong woman; I want her to be confident. I want her to live with no regrets (or as few as possible). 

When she grows up and leaves my home, I want her to know she can be anything… Anything. From a scientist to a chef to a stay-at-home mom to a marketer-turned-would-be-IT-nerd, she can do any of it, all of it, or none of it, and she can do it without guilt, shame or fear. 

By getting mired down in guilt, I lost sight of the fact that maintaining my career gives me an opportunity to be a role model for her, to show her that there are many ways to be a strong woman and a good mom. By going to work, I’m not making a cavalier decision to leave her behind. I’ve weighed the pros and cons with her father and made the choice that was right. By being proud of that choice, I can show her how to live wholeheartedly, even in the face of difficult or ambiguous decisions, and to know there are many ways to put your family first. 

I wish I could say the office air suddenly smelled fresher, that little birds serenaded me as I walked from the parking garage into my building, or that the breast pump suddenly felt like the hands of a well-built Swedish masseuse, but the truth is, a mother’s relationship with work will always be a complicated one. Instead of feeling guilty about that complexity, I’ve tried to embrace it and to see its many positive facets. Whether my daughter grows up to spend her days in business suits and boardrooms or in PTA meetings and parent-teacher conferences (or maybe a little of both), she will know that I did my best to give her a good life and to show her the importance of being the best she can be for herself and her family, even when the way isn’t easy or clear. 

And when she’s too old to play with my purse and wants to develop her own fabulous personal style,  I will shed a tear made up of equal parts nostalgia and pride, and magnanimously point her toward another role model—obviously, HRH Duchess Kate.

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