August is ‘Women’s Month’, a time when we acknowledge the contribution of women in our organisational, business, professional and private lives. It is a time when many events may take on the veneer of service or appreciation. Yet, the ethos in which these events are held can also be undertaken in the spirit of sincere appreciation.
The annual PCB (Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business) lunch in celebration of women is an event attended annually by over 300 women. Speakers this year included the inspirational Gaynor Young, actress who fell the equivalent of 5 stories and suffered severe brain damage. Her story of perseverance and recovery is miraculous. Bernice Samuels, FNB Chief Marketing Officer, the main sponsor shared a message of women like Cheryl Sandberg who have achieved success through being both ‘human beings’ and ‘human doings’.
As an Executive Coach, I work with men and women whose perceived demands of the workplace are in conflict with their personal lives. ‘Getting it right’ overshadow their ability to find work/life balance. So, often they spend more and more time working and these impacts even further on their relationships in all spheres of their lives. Both men and women often have a heavy sense of guilt and as an Executive Coach, my job is to help them make fundamental shifts that will help them to ‘be’ rather than ‘do’. Using integral methodologies we have outstanding results in helping people to make these shifts. And this includes becoming more aware of the commitments originating from our authentic selves versus desires originating through others’ expectations.
So, this ‘letter’ read by Melanie Veness, CEO at the PCB Women’s Day lunch really ‘struck a chord’ with me. (Thanks for sharing, Mel.) I found the message relevant for all working men and women – not only those with young children. Great ‘take home value’ for me personally was to be curious about all the ‘shoulds’ in my life. What would happen if I changed many of them to ‘could’? Most of us need to be kinder to ourselves!
An intrepid Australian and the imperfect mom of four imperfect children, Margie Warrell.
Letter To Working Mothers: Stop Feeling So Guilty
Dear Working Mother,
You are doing a great job. And your kids will turn out just fine despite the hours you spend away from them. Truly.
Of course you probably don’t always feel that way yourself. If you are like most working moms I know, you may feel like you’re forever coming up short when it comes to doing enough, giving enough and being enough for your kids. Not to mention your boss, your partner, your aging parents and extended family, and yes, of course, your community. (I haven’t even mentioned doing, being, and giving enough for yourself)
I was warned about mothers’ guilt while expecting my first child. However, having grown up with a hearty dose of ‘Catholic guilt,’ I figured it couldn’t be that bad. And then I became a mother, and over the course of five years I had four healthy children (yes, very blessed, slightly crazy) in between stop-starting graduate studies toward a new career. Needless to say, it was during that time I became much more acquainted with mothers’ guilt. It became a constant companion until one day I realized that I didn’t have children in order to spend my life feeling forever inadequate. I wanted children to enrich my life, not enslave my conscience.
It’s time to reclaim our right to enjoy our kids, lest child rearing become a long exercise in never measuring up. But how do working mothers stop wrestling with constant guilt? First, we must uncover the destructive forces that are driving it.
Below are five key ways to embrace your short-falls as a mother (we all have them), and refocus your preciously finite energy on what truly matters: ensuring that your kids know they’re wanted, loved, and loveable, no matter what – and that they benefit from having you as a role model on how to live a rewarding life.
#1: Accept trade-offs as inevitable
When you choose to combine motherhood and career in any way, shape or form, there will always be trade-offs, sacrifices and compromises. What is crucial to your happiness – as well as your ability to stave off guilt – is reconciling those trade-offs by being crystal clear about why you are making them in the first place.
Create a list of the reasons you work – money, satisfaction, sanity – to provide a helpful reminder of your personal convictions when your work keeps you from attending a concert or compels you to outsource the organization of your child’s birthday party. While I’m often not able to be as involved with my kids’ activities as might seem ideal, I am very clear that my kids, my family and myself are ultimately all better off because I have a rewarding career outside the home.
#2: Don’t “should” on yourself
Mothers’ guilt was not always a mother’s lot. Mothers in Victorian England banished children to nursemaids before farming them off to boarding school at age five so they could continue to their high-tea social lives. Acclaimed photographer Dorothea Lange paid foster families to look after her children so she could venture off on months-long photography expeditions. Likewise, I cannot recall my own parents ever coming to a softball game or reading me bedtime stories. Truth be told, I never gave it a second thought – until I found myself feeling guilt-ridden when unable to attend one of my children’s games or too tired to read a bedtime story. Why? Because I had unwittingly taken on board a mother-load of ‘good-parent’ shoulds that my own mother never did.
Our shoulds are a melting pot of social expectations, family pressures, and often unspoken ‘rules’ we often buy into without even realizing it. Our shoulds are shaped by our environment, which has seen them skyrocket in recent decades with the rise of so-called “parenting police” – experts that bombard us with advice on what a “good” parent should, and should not, do.
I enjoy being involved in my children’s activities and in their lives. But I also know that they don’t need me cheering at every game, creating scrapbooks for every milestone, or welcoming them home from school with fresh baked muffins in order to feel loved and to grow into secure and well-rounded adults. While they are central in my life, my world does not revolve around them. Nor, do I believe, would it serve them any better if it did. So when I find myself using the word should, I replace it with could – and add an alternative option. Doing so takes the judgment out, and allows me give myself permission to do what actually works best for me and my family – minus the should-inflicted guilt.
#3: Lower your bar to ‘good enough’
The bar on what it means to be a ‘great parent’ has been gradually moving up, and now it’s so ridiculously high that we’ve set ourselves up to forever fall short in scaling it. Accepting that for the most part, good enough is good enough, takes enormous pressure off of us to be the idealized photo-shopped image of the ‘perfect’ parent – the mom that the magazines imply that we ‘should’ be (there’s that word again!) Giving up some elusive quest to be a super-mother who does everything ‘just right’ is the only way we can ever have a chance to enjoy the journey of child rearing, without being anxious, guilt-ridden and exhausted. After all, it’s who we are for our children – happy, good-humored, and a role model for the values we believe in – that ultimately impacts them more than how closely we, our homes, or our meals resemble the front cover of women’s magazines. The reality is that you do not have to be a perfect parent to be a great parent.
#4: Refuse to buy into guilt mongers
While some women thrive on critiquing other women’s parenting proficiency, the best mothers I’ve met have no need to throw stones at how others parent their children. They’re simply more interested in doing the best they can for their own. So while you can’t always avoid the righteous parenting police, you can choose to see their self-inflating opinions – on everything from disposable diapers to disciplinary tactics – for what they are: an easy way to justify their own choices and conceal doubt about their own parenting skills.
The fact is, there is no one ‘right way’ when it comes to raising children. Just as we all differ in our personalities, preferences and circumstances, the choices that make us feel whole, healthy and happy differ as well. To those who love to critique and judge, and to all those who’ve felt the sting of a judgmental remarks or scornful glance, I say “to each their own.” The vast majority of working mothers I encounter work incredibly hard to be the best parent they can, and that deserves encouragement, not criticism.
Likewise, be careful you don’t allow your very clever children to blackmail you with guilt. They know they have an amazing ability to pull on your heart strings, which is why they can be masters of guilt manipulation if you let them. Refuse to play the game! Tell them you love them and that you are doing your best to support them (which often includes not doing for them what they can do for themselves), but that you have other commitments, interests and responsibilities besides them. And when you drop the odd ball (as you will), tell them you’re just giving them an opportunity to grow more resourceful and resilient. Because, after all, you are.
#5: Don’t dilute your presence with distraction
We can be with our kids 24/7 and yet never be fully present to them. While ‘turning off’ from work and other distractions is easier said than done, it’s important to be intentional about being fully present to your children whenever you are with them by minimizing the multi-tasking as much as humanly possible. I often take my kids out for hot chocolate at a local café as a ‘special treat’ – for me as well as them – which removes me from the magnetic pull of my home office. Some may believe this is going to great (or perhaps even unnecessary) lengths just to avoid distraction, but as I’ve mentioned, it’s not about what other people think, it’s about what works for me – and by default, my family.
What other mothers are doing is none of your business. Doing what works for you, for your children and your family to stay happy, good humored and connected is ultimately all that matters. Which is why it’s time to lower the bar to a scalable height, get off your own back, and reclaim your right to enjoy raising your kids. Doing so won’t hurt your children – will free up precious energy to navigate the journey of nurturing your babies into resourceful, well-rounded, and gloriously imperfect adults!
So, whether you have children or not, and regardless of their age – and whether you are female or male, Margie Warrell’s five points form a vivid metaphor for our lives, too. We can continue aiming at the highest, remaining successful in our chosen business lives, but by being kinder to ourselves and getting professional help in shifting to a new narrative, we can become ‘beings’ leading lives that are far more fulfilling.