We are so hard on each other. I hate when I’m standing in a group of moms and I want to ask the woman next to me about herself because I’m trying to be friendly and just strike up a normal conversation, but the phrasing of the question is like walking through a minefield with snipers’ rifles trained on the secret meaning behind every word. I cannot ask, as a man would, “So . . . what do you do for a living?” If she doesn’t work outside the home, but instead labors all day for the health and happiness of her family, her response is either an apologetic, “I’m a stay-at-home mom,” or she wants to smack me in the face because she mistakenly thinks I’m judging her with my question.
Almost inevitably, we all walk away feeling judged. Which is why I instead ask where she got her cute purse. Now that’s a deep and meaningful conversation.
As hard as we are on each other, we’re even harder on ourselves.
The painful truth is that I am too selfish to stay at home full-time. I can admit that, even though I feel very guilty about that fact. To that point, I usually warn moms who are going back to work after having their first baby that being a working parent means feeling guilty all the time. All the time. I’m dead serious.
I feel guilty when I’m not with my kids, and someone else is taking abuse about the desirability of the snack they’ve prepared or bathing in the sunshine of their sweet smiles (you’ve pretty much got a fifty-fifty shot of abuse or smiles on a good day).
And I also feel guilty when I’m the one in the trenches. I feel the weight of the work I’ve left unfinished at the office. The never-ending internal conflict is the ultimate Catch-22. I’m damned no matter what, cursing myself no matter what, feeling that I’ve let someone down no matter what!
I feel guilty ALL THE TIME.
I know I’m not alone. I’ve brought women to tears just uttering that lone sentence (right above) that rings so true to far too many.
I’ve started calling this the Working Mom’s Perma-Guilt, but another mom recently corrected me. “Oh, it’s not just working moms,” Karina said. We were sitting at another chorus recital at school, waiting (150 years) for the kids to take the stage. I was using the free second not to breathe but to check the work emails that were multiplying like rabbits on my iPhone (and I was feeling guilty about having left work early, obviously).
“I feel guilty all the time that I stopped working. What was all that college and training for? All that time and money and work? And then not using it!” She threw her hands up in the air. I was about to shout “Amen, sister!” and order another round of drinks, but then I remembered we were in a church pew at our kids’ Catholic school. Shoot.
“That’s some guilt,” she added.
And she works part-time! And raises her kids! Yet she found time to contribute a new category of Mom Guilt I hadn’t considered: Could-Be-Working-More-Hours-Mom-Guilt. (I gotta work on a better name for that one.)
Another mom chimed in, “What about the guilt from depending on your husband for money? All that pressure on him to pay the bills. I feel guilty about that.”
Ladies, my Lord. We have got to give ourselves a break. Please.
In fairness, I know my husband feels the Working Mom Guilt, or Parent Guilt. He hates missing a single moment of our kids’ lives. Hates it! And I’ve never seen a more diligent and devoted worker at the office. So he feels guilty wherever he is too.
The only answer I’ve found, a decade into my glorious and highly emotional tour of duty as a mom, is to try to be completely present in the moment I’m in, wherever that is, and to relish that second in time as precious and fleeting.
Excerpted from Lessons from the Prairie: The Surprising Secrets to Happiness, Success and (Sometimes Just) Survival I Learned on America’s Favorite Show by Melissa Francis. Copyright © 2017. Available from Weinstein Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.