Updated: Dec 17, 2019
I'm going to say something which goes against mainstream mom advice: don't ignore mom guilt. The general advice about mom guilt is a variation of "Just don't feel guilty. You really shouldn't feel guilty." And then you feel bad for feeling guilty. There's nothing worse than, "I feel guilty and I shouldn't feel guilty so now I feel guilty about feeling guilty." If you're in that place, just take a breath, and feel the guilt.
Here's the thing about emotions: they don't leave when you tell them to leave. It's very hard to feel guilty and then stop feeling guilty. To remove the guilt, you first have to dive in. Dare to listen. Be fully aware of the guilt instead of pushing it down. The first step is to learn how to differentiate between different levels of guilt.
Sometimes it's a nagging feeling that's manageable. Sometimes it comes in an overwhelming wave. To me, one of the most important things I have learned to do is shift my schedule to avoid the wave. So if I have to leave the baby a lot on the weekend, which is our traditional family time, I make sure I have some extra time at home during the week to compensate for my absence.
Learn how to anticipate the level of guilt when you accept work or invitations. When I leave my child to see my girlfriends on a weekend, I don't feel as guilty as when I leave to go to the office on a weekend. That's because I've already spent all week at the office. And because seeing my girlfriends will make me happier and therefore a better mom. And I almost never see my girlfriends so I feel like there is more of an entitlement to leave. This last type of self-care guilt is more tolerable than the first, work-related guilt. But the work-related guilt has different gradations too. When I have to leave for a deposition with a difficult lawyer, the guilt intensifies because I would rather be home with my baby than arguing with someone I do not like. But when I was asked to work on an equal pay case on behalf of a powerful female news anchor, you can be sure I was ready to throw my child to the first homeless man on the corner so I could get to work. So I try to preempt the guilt by scheduling only those events that will fill my cup, by requesting work that I know will inspire me, and by delegating tasks that I find less interesting. Hire a cleaner so you don't have to spend the little time you have together scrubbing the bathroom floor. Order takeout so you don't have to stand in the kitchen for hours. If you're a working mom and you want your quality time with your babies to be protected, you need shortcuts. There is just no other way. You're only one person.
Mom guilt is still a complicated beast. Often, it's more about us than the babies. I've felt so guilty at times because Matteo screamed when I left the house. It haunted me the whole day. Then when I got home I'm told he got over it in ten seconds and spent all day having fun without me. And then the next day I was in flow at work and didn't think about him at all, and then his preschool teacher tells me he was crying for mama the whole day.
To me, mom guilt means I feel disconnected from my baby. That's a different issue than feeling bad for being a working mom.
I don't feel bad for being a working mom. On most days I love being a working mom. On the days I don't love it, I try to keep the objectivity to realize I need money to buy food and keep a roof over our heads. This is just our reality. I simply can't stop working. We would have no place to live. That's not good for the baby either. You can't feel bad for things that are not in your control. But how connected you are with your baby IS within your control. To me, feeling disconnected from my baby is one of the most heart-wrenching feelings in the world. It's almost unbearable. I've looked at pictures of him while waiting for a hearing in court with tears in my eyes. I've cried when I was stuck in traffic on my way home, yelling "Please let me through, I need my baby! Please!!!"
The remedy is always to connect, just the two of us. When I feel disconnected, I almost always go somewhere alone with him, out of the house. It's not the same to just do our regular routine at home, because we're not connecting as deeply when we just go through the motions. We go on a little adventure. A walk. Even the store. And I usually put him to bed without my husband's help, holding him in the rocking chair for a little longer, kissing him all over his little face, telling him, "Sorry mama had to leave you a lot this week. I have really missed you. I know this is difficult. Soon we will have more time together." His usual response, "Ice cream?" Then I laugh, and I realize, the baby is fine. In fact, he's doing better than I am.
Guilt is an expression of our love for our babies. How beautiful that we have a love so strong that it makes us physically ache. Be grateful for this love. We may not be always with our babies, but we get to experience a deep and profound love in this lifetime. What a gift.
Here's the thing: the guilt may never leave. But you can learn to work with it. Shift. Adjust. Anticipate. Find a way to deeply connect with your baby, and I promise you that you will feel better tomorrow.