Guilt is something that used to preoccupy me greatly when I worked full-time – how long they were commuting and in crèche each week (55 hours, burned on my brain), how little time we had together each evening, and how rushed our mornings were. And most of my guilt surrounded things that hadn’t happened yet – how would I cope when they started school? Who would do homework with them? How would we do playdates? And who would pay for the hours and hours of therapy they’d need because I was doing everything wrong?
My husband often tells me not to worry about things that haven’t happened yet, and indeed he was right; I work part-time now, and I know exactly who’ll do their homework with them – it’s me. Oh the joys of homework. And oh the irony of yearning to do homework with them. But anyway – much as I’d love to tell you the guilt is gone now that I pick them up from school every day and spend afternoons with them, it’s not. I’ve discovered the guilt is a cunning shape-shifter; it’s still here, it just finds different sources. New corners of self-doubt on which it thrives like a parasite.
I feel guilty when I’m trying to work while they’re here with me. I feel guilty when I attempt to multi-task but end up snapping at everyone. I feel guilty when the afternoon yet again descends into a chaotic jumble of school-books and lunch-boxes and unmade dinner. I wonder if I wasn’t trying to get so much writing work done every morning and every night, would I be more present and less stressed – and I feel guilty about that then too.
So what’s that about? Is it just me? Or are mothers hard-wired to overthink from time to time and discover new and interesting ways to feel guilty?
I hadn’t had a good old overthink about it in a while, but I was asked to contribute to a radio show on the topic of working mother guilt – asking why mothers feel guilty – and it got me wondering again. So in advance of the radio piece, I put some notes together on my current working theory – no doubt I’ll change my mind again.
I think the reason so many women feel guilty is that working is seen as a choice. Around 51% of mothers with school-going kids work outside the home, and 49% don’t. So any given working mother knows at least a few people who are at home. And I found for me, when I was working full-time, that made me look around and wonder if I was getting it wrong. If other women were at home, were their children better off? As soon as something is seen as a choice, it can lead to self-doubt.
Of course, reasons for working are wide and varied and can change over time. Some people work because they love what they do and can’t imagine stepping back from their careers. Some work because they need to pay the mortgage. Some work for sanity. And guilt levels can vary too depending on the reasons for working and the level of fulfilment in the job.
But regardless of reasons for working, the bottom line is it’s not an every-woman thing, so there’s always room for doubt. Men on the other hand are used to their traditional breadwinner role (for better or for worse – I think that brings its own pressures) and are surrounded by working fathers, so I imagine there isn’t the same level of self-doubt.
Nobody asks a man if he’s going back to work after paternity leave or if he’s thinking of going back full-time or looking for a four-day-week. But if you’re a woman and surrounded by women who are at home or working part-time, it can make you question yourself. At least that’s how it was for me when my kids were in crèche five days a week and I was worrying about future school-runs and therapy.
But anyway now I know the truth – for me at least, guilt doesn’t go away just because I don’t work full-time anymore. It has however lessened through switching to working from home, and though I haven’t quite found balance yet, I think it’s better than it was. That’s just my story – it doesn’t mean it’s what works for everyone. I don’t think there’s one silver bullet solution – it varies from family to family. But over the course of publishing sixty interviews with working mothers and chatting about it with real life and online friends for the last number of years, it seems to me that the happiest, least guilt-feeling women are the ones who truly enjoy their work, and the ones who have flexibility at work.
As it happens, on the day of the radio slot, I put on the TV on for my youngest and explained that I had a work call and no matter what, he shouldn’t come in to the kitchen. Inevitably, five minutes later, he burst in to the kitchen to tell me the remote wasn’t working – well, to tell me and everyone listening to the radio show. I apologised to the presenter who very kindly said the news was coming on anyway.
I hung up, thinking back to my old office – with the door that closed and the landline that always worked and the meetings I could have without fear of interrupting kids. Then I wondered if I shouldn’t have said yes to the radio piece, if I couldn’t give it 100%. And maybe it wasn’t fair on my son, expecting him to stay quiet. There’s that guilt again. Then I quietly marvelled at the irony.
Mixing work and home and everything in between; here are some of the features on working motherhood I’ve most enjoyed writing:
Three women who left the nine-to-five behind to set up businesses they could work around their children: Making Work Work for Mothers & Babies with the Independent.
Why working mums should ditch the guilt – interviews with four happy working mothers for the Examiner.
What about the dads – why don’t dads take parental leave?
Is it easier to work or stay at home? Lots of people answered that question for this feature in the Examiner.
For this feature, career coach Dearbhalla Baviera shares tips on going back to work, and stylist Laura Nolan Horgan has clothes shopping advice: How to cope with life after maternity leave
What’s it like when everyone thinks you’re a stay-at-home mum but you’re working all the hours?
How to ask for flexible work for HerFamily.ie
9 things I’ve learned as working mother Independent.ie