Saturday, August 15, 2015

A Word to Working Moms: On Guilt

Guilt. It's a four letter word. Well, not really. But it's definitely a four-letter-word of the five-letter-word world. What? Sorry. Stay with me. I think "guilt" is a bad word that we should try to limit using, except when it is appropriate to bring us back to God or otherwise to a better self. Moving on …

Over the years – the years before I had a child of my own, I got the impression that all moms have guilt (and I still think we do – often for ridiculous things). Maybe even that all moms should feel guilt. To be clear: I know the should part seems ridiculous when put out there in print like this. However, there are so many articles out there about how stay-at-home moms feel guilty that they don't provide more for their families and how working moms feel guilty that they aren't there for theirs. So I just figured there was no way out of having guilt around that topic. But at some point, before I had my son, I realized that not every mom feels guilty. At least not about the to-work-or-not-to-work decision. Nor should they.

I was talking with a stay-at-home-mom friend of mine, presumably about something I assumed she would have guilt over. And she stated very clearly that, actually, she didn't feel guilty at all. Somehow this was mind-blowing. I'm sure I just said something like, "Oh. Well, good." But I think, in the back of my mind, I thought: "Wow. Well, that was bold ... (How dare you?)"

Fast forward (I don't know how long – a year or two) to when I had my own newborn. At my postpartum appointment, my doctor – of all people – gave me what would become the best piece of advice I received about going back to work. (And actually, I don't know why I say "of all people" because my doctor is a woman who has kids. So she's a smart working mom! In fact, a probably crazy-busy, smart working mom. But anyway, I was not expecting to receive my best piece of returning-to-work-advice from my doctor that day. So, it felt like an unlikely source for the most empowering piece of wisdom I received on this matter.) She told me two things: 1) She said, "You shouldn't feel guilty about going back to work." Ok. Cool. Heard that one before. Easier said than done. And then she said, 2) "And you shouldn't feel guilty about not feeling guilty." What?!!? Not feel guilty about not feeling guilty? Those words had a dissonant effect within me – they seemed jarring and confusing. But while they were unsettling, they also felt very real. I held on to them.

Two more weeks of maternity leave and, while I loved being home with my little guy, I started gearing up for my return to work in two more. By that point, my awesome sleeper (which was helped by the fact that he was 11 lbs 3 oz at birth!) was eating every two hours during the day to get in the nutrition he needed to make it without waking overnight. So, while I appreciated the extended sleep at night, I was exhausted by the constant nursing and the inability to now get anything done while home during the day. My days were a cycle of: nursing, diaper changes, playing, sleeping. Every two hours! And the sleeping part only lasted about 30 minutes – which never seemed like enough time to finish things around the house before he was up and nursing again. I was wiped. But I no longer felt like I was getting anything accomplished. At least when he was going 3-4 hours between feeds, I could finish a household task in one setting during his naps. Plus, because I am so results-oriented and felt very responsible for his development, I know I went into baby stimulation overdrive during his play times. We would read books, shake rattles, lift our heads during tummy time. All the normal things. And it actually sounds so leisurely as I've described it. But in my head, it was a bit frenetic. I played with him like IT WAS MY JOB. And I realized, I needed to return to work. I needed other people to play with him (or just let him be for a change - ha!) like it was their job. And I needed other adults to interact with and to accomplish something other than the very (slow) incremental changes that a baby experiences.

As the final two weeks of maternity leave ticked away, I cherished every day. We had an awesome last-day-with-mommy-home day. And then, as I planned to return to work on Monday, the weather (which had been decidedly cold but hardly ever snowy during my maternity leave) decided to act like winter and threaten a snowstorm. And all I could think was: Nooooo! I need out of this house! I need to go to work! Plus, I needed for my last day at home to be my last day. I couldn't handle the emotions of another "final" day. I couldn't handle all the buildup and then a huge letdown. Even my husband – who loves snow and who was actually super stoked we were going to finally get a decent amount that first week of February – realized quickly he had to squelch his own desires for mine and my sanity. And thankfully, the snow was not as predicted (although it did proceed to snow more that winter after I returned to work than when I was home - boo), and I was able to return to work as planned.

And as much as I missed my baby boy and had to adjust to being away from him, being back at work felt right. Even with the exhaustion of pumping and working, it was right. Even though I felt like we barely saw him on weekdays, life started to fall into place. And I realized: I didn't feel guilty. I just felt better. But I did have a slight urge to feel like I should feel guilty. But the words I'd tucked away were there, waiting and readily available, as if I'd always known I would pull them out. And while they felt a little wrong at first, they were exactly right - a perfect fit - for me.

I have since reflected on why. I realized that it doesn't make me a bad mom that I enjoy doing something else with my life than stay at home with my awesome son. It actually makes me a better mom. Not because working moms are better. (If there's one thing I learned while being home, it's that being home all day is extremely taxing – even though there's often nothing to show for at the end of the day [other than having a well-loved and cared for child – which, I get it, is the thing!].) But I'm a better mom as a working mom because I'm teaching my son who I really am. If I all of a sudden stayed home because it was part of an earlier vision for my life or because I think it's good for moms to stay home, my son wouldn't get to know the real me. The me who had been working for 14 years before he arrived. The me who enjoys balancing life and producing good work and being around people who challenge and grow me and make me more of who I want and need to be. And the me who yearns for every minute I get to spend with my son because I now feel less bogged down by the routines of a nursing mom. The me who feels blessed by my ability to devote my weekdays to work and my weeknights to him and his dad (and to getting stuff ready for the next day), and really appreciates my weekends now. I’ve learned: that's the real me – at least in this phase of life. That's the me I'm glad my son will grow up knowing. Instead of a bitter, hostile and resentful me, which is who I think I would become unfortunately, if I were home all day every day. Instead, he will know the me who puts his dad and him first. But because I work, they are not my first and only things. Because they can't be. Because if they were, I might crack. So it would be wrong, dishonest, for me to try to make my favorite guys in the whole wide world my everything and deny a big part of who I am. And because of that, I do not and cannot feel guilty (at least not about going to work).

And I'm convinced that my son will be all the better for it.

But to be clear, I am not writing this to justify my need to be a working mom. I reconcile that every time we pay bills. For us, it makes sense for me to work. But I write this for other moms, who either feel guilty about working or feel guilty about not feeling guilty. I want you to stop. Stop. Feeling. Guilty. There will be plenty of times ahead where you will fail your child or your spouse or your parents or your friends or your boss or God – really fail them – because you didn’t try hard enough or you were too harsh or you refused to forgive (or for Christians, because you didn’t rely on God’s strength instead of your own). For those things, please, by all means, feel guilt. But use it for good: seek forgiveness, change that behavior and move on. (Easier said than done, I know.) But if you are truly being the best mama that you can be, and that involves the need to work – for whatever reason – there is no need to also feel guilty. Just be you – which means being the best working mom that you can be – and the rest will work itself out. Your child will know you. Your child will feel loved by you.

And your child will be all the better for it.

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