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Dealing With Guilt As A Working Mom

Kristin van Ogtrop

One working mother learns that guilt eventually wanes.

Guilt curve: The process by which your feelings of shame and inadequacy about being a working mom grow and then diminish. In my experience, the guilt curve is a bell curve, peaking when your first child reaches kindergarten, with a long tail that lasts until the day of your funeral. My husband and I waited until we were married for four years before having our first child. During that time I worked, naturally; what else was I supposed to do? I had a fine education and lots of energy and a strong work ethic instilled in me by two hardworking parents who had spent decades telling me that I could accomplish anything I set out to do. Not to mention the fact that I was living in New York City and had a lot of rent to pay.

After our first son was born I continued to work because that niggling rent situation just wouldn't go away. I also happened to love my job, but that did not erase the fact that I was leaving my son every day with a woman I hardly knew. I was not sewing adorable curtains for the nursery or spending long hours breast-feeding on the sofa or even hanging out at the playground—all the things I imagined a good mother did. Thus the guilt. Career And Family: Can We Really Have Both?

There is nothing more effective in mitigating guilt than knowing that half your friends are making the same "mistake." Most of the other mothers I knew then also worked, which helped. The fact that I had no role model did not help; my mother hadn't worked until my youngest sister was in high school, and just about every female boss I had ever had was not someone I wanted to grow up to be. But my job continued to get more interesting and my rent turned into an even bigger mortgage payment. Most important, my children actually seemed fine. Astonishing. And so my children and I grew, with guilt shadowing us. Sometimes guilt looks like the fantasy you once had about your future and sometimes it looks like the ghost of the family that you are not. Sometimes it's a dull hum in the background; sometimes it's a giant rock that falls on your head. But it continues to change as you change and, unless you are irredeemably neurotic, it gets smaller as you get wiser. How To Be A Mother, A Wife—And Yourself

But there are also moments along the curve—these come later—when you realize that everything is pretty much OK, that you have managed to produce both a decent career and fairly well-adjusted children who miraculously don't hate you. Once I was driving in the car with my two sons, then aged ten and seven, and my younger guy was asking for the eightieth time that week why he was not permitted to do something that his older brother could do. "Because," I said, exasperated, "he's in fifth grade, and you're in third grade!" "Mom!" he said. "I’m in second grade!" This time when everybody laughed, I laughed too. Because I was far enough along on my curve that guilt had changed from the sharp thorn to a worn little nub that I could still feel but that no longer really hurt. I was finally evolved enough to know that just because I temporarily forgot what grade my son was in did not mean that I forgot his birth weight, the fact that he likes his pasta with meatballs and cheese but no sauce, or that Yes Man is his favorite movie. Or how much I love him.

This is an excerpt from Real Simple editor Kristin van Ogtrop's Just Let Me Lie Down: Necessary Terms for the Half-Insane Working Mom. For more entries crucial to the everyday working mom, you can pick up the book here.

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