Mom guilt is a popular term which although lacks a scientific definition, can be identified as the feelings of guilt experienced by any mother who has ever felt not good enough when it comes to balancing being a mom (whether sharing duties with a partner or not), with a career, while raising healthy children.
Let me confess.
Picking up an extra part-time job, overspending on my daughter, overspending on myself, not doing the laundry, purposefully ignoring the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO), and buying ice cream after I swore we were on a sugar cleanse, are just a few reasons why I feel guilty this week.
I went to school for what felt like 100 years to get all of my college degrees.
I love being a mom, but I also love my work. I get so much pleasure and satisfaction out of being a successful professional.
But let’s face it, mom guilt and motherhood loneliness are real.
Whether you are married, single, a stay-at-home mom, or are slaying it daily at the office, most of us can confess to feeling guilty for how we raise our children at one point or another in our lives and our inability to talk about it can make our loneliness worse.
And for all the single career moms out there, mom guilt may come with extra baggage that can be hard to shed.
Christine, a single mother with a booming profession as a writer and consultor shared with me, “My work sometimes pulls me from my own kids, and that makes me feel the mom guilt.”
Heather, a single mother of four, told me, “When I leave my youngest at her father’s she cries and my heart breaks.”
As career women, we are constantly juggling between nurturing our careers and womanhood — while raising healthy and strong children — without feeling guilty all the time.
After talking with Christine and Heather plus many other mothers of all types and backgrounds, I decided to synthesize my research to gain some perspective, clarity, and sanity.
What Is Mom Guilt And How Can You Learn To Deal With It?
I recently started my dream job.
One of the reasons I was hired is because I can multitask and am extremely organized.
I can work on multiple projects simultaneously on two computers while also doing the laundry and listening in on my daughter’s room while she finishes her homework.
So last week when my daughter came home telling me she had to sit out of picture day because I didn’t send the payment in on time, I was mortified.
Quite frankly, I just completely forgot to do it.
I tortured myself for a few minutes while I imagined my sweet daughter sitting in a dark cold gym while all of the other kids whose mothers are on top of it, got their pictures taken.
I quickly snapped back to reality when my daughter interrupted my twisted daydream to tell me, “Don’t worry mom, they have a make-up day next week.” I immediately felt a rush of relief, put the date on my calendar and decided I’d let this one go.
In reality, missing picture day is only one of many moments I’ve missed.
I missed her first steps, the first time she rode a bike without training wheels, and even her first trip to Disneyland. All of this happened while I was working. All of it.
While I feel so fortunate to have people in my life who have helped me raise my daughter while I work, I have paid a hefty price that is charged to me in the form of mom guilt.
But that guilt is something that we moms don’t talk about openly, which can make us feel lonely — particularly because we think we’re the only ones who are “dropping the ball” as parents or missing key moments in our children’s lives.
Newsflash: it happens to every parent at some point. Every. Single. One.
Stay At Home Mom Guilt Vs. Working Mom Guilt
I am a single career mom, but through the research I did for this article and from my conversations with the women I interviewed, I learned that mom guilt and loneliness is universal. We all feel it.
From single career moms, to married stay-at-home moms (and every combination in between), we all feel guilty.
I learned that all parents and caretakers feel guilty at some point while raising children.
We all wish we could fix things, change things, do this, say that, be more, do more. The context is different, but the sentiment remains the same.
Beth, a stay-at-home married mother of four children under the age of four shared with me, “It’s hard to balance out everything. I need to go to the gym and do other things for myself like getting my nails done, but I often feel guilty for taking that time and money away from my children.”
Beth’s feelings are consistent with recent findings that suggest she is not alone.
Studies are now showing that self-care practices are being added to the list of reasons to feel guilty for all moms, regardless of their relationship and working status.
Caring for four small children while her husband works means that Beth is always prioritizing, often finding herself last on her list. “Most days I have to be creative to find the time to shower and get dressed; putting on make-up has now become a luxury.”
Beth is likely not alone in her experience. Yet, households are constantly changing, thus impacting the role and perceptions of caretakers.
While most children today are still growing up in co-parented households, according to Child Trends Data Bank (2015):
In 1960, the proportion of children living in mother-only families was eight percent, but by 1996 that proportion had tripled, to 24 percent. Since then, it has fluctuated between 22 and 24 percent and was at 23 percent in 2015. Between 1990 and 2015, the share of children living in father-only families has fluctuated between three and five percent and was at four percent in 2015.
This information is paramount in understanding the lens through which mom guilt or “parent guilt” is explored and speaks to the evolution of the work-family dynamic and how that might contribute to feelings of guilt, inadequacy, loneliness in mothers, and even loneliness in the workplace.
When speaking with Hayley, a working married mother of three, she shared with me that she feels quite similar:
“There is a part of me that loves being a working mom. For 8 hours a day, I don’t have to be a wife or mom, I can just be me. It is so freeing.
But with that freedom also comes sacrifice. I have missed field trips, lunches, programs, performances and so much more.
I have had to send my kids to school when they aren’t feeling great because I have to work and can’t miss.”
Single moms might be able to identify with the experiences shared by Beth, a married stay-at-home mom, and Hayley, a married career mom.
Yet, considering the general differences in their lifestyles, single mother’s guilt may have unique layers that differentiate it from other mothers’ guilt.
Charlene Walters, the author of “Own your Other” explains:
“Single moms suffer from an enormous amount of guilt because they must be and do everything. They are working to support their family while trying to support their children’s activities, hopes, dreams, and emotional needs.”
This disconnect may contribute to feelings of guilt if women are taking on full-time employment due to financial needs, although they wish they could stay at home more.
Yet, with over 80% of the 13.7 million single-parent households led by single mothers, there are plenty of single moms working full-time and owning it.
One mom I interviewed who preferred to remain anonymous — we’ll call her “Dawn” — is a medical doctor and single mother to a son.
Dawn says: “When I am at home in the evenings I make sure to talk with him (her son) about his day, watch his favorite TV shows with him, and I even go over his homework even though his babysitter has already done that.”
By doing this, Dawn is able to share and almost replay key moments in her son’s life that may have happened that day while she was at work.
“When I am only given a couple of hours a day with my kids, and even less when you add in activities and sports, I may have to let the housework suffer just to get a few moments to hang with my kids or help them with homework or hear about their day. Sometimes, I don’t get to do any of those things.”
I can personally relate to the universal feelings of mom guilt between both single and married career moms.
While I am currently a single career mom, during my marriage I was constantly plagued with feelings of inadequacy in my attempt to run my household as if I was a Stay-At-Home mom even though I have always had a career.
Honestly, my current experiences with mom guilt as a single career mom are not much different than those that I had as a married career mom.
I’ve always wanted to do it all; assume all of the responsibility ingrained in my gender, thus consistently setting myself up for failure.
It’s OK To Not Be Supermom — Why You Should Let That Idea Go
As moms, we often wake up in the morning and mistakenly grab our Superwoman cape, trying to be more than what we think is enough to make up for any lack we perceive our children might feel as a result of either our single mom status or work-family conflict needs.
Trying to be everything to everyone is an exhausting and often lonely experience because we don’t lean on others as much as we should, and we also don’t allow ourselves the grace to accept that we’re not the Superwomen we think we should be.
Single mother Natalie keeps a list of items she plans to accomplish before work each day including exercising, making everyone’s lunch, paying utilities, and writing thank-you notes.
Natalie says: “Some days I wake up and am ready to tackle the day and get everything done. Other days I rip up my list and outsource it all.”
Because it is not humanly possible to be all things to all people, we fail. We set ourselves up for failure each and every day. We give our all in the office and then we come home and magically try to find more to give to our children.
Dr. Christie Hartman, a psychologist who sits on our Medical Review Team, shares that, “Moms want to provide the best for their kids, but also feel they have to do x and y for their kids according to societal expectations.”
We sacrifice our own time and needs to be the upholder we are striving to be.
And let’s be honest, it is a roller coaster ride.
Just like single mom Natalie, some days we’ve got it. Some days we get everyone out of the house clean and on time, provide a killer presentation at work, make it to soccer practice, and even squeeze out a few extra minutes to make dinner.
We pat ourselves on the back while pulling out the wine to celebrate. We did it!
But most days, we fail to be all things to all people and that is completely normal and okay.
Instead of giving in to the feelings of guilt for missing another school event due to a meeting at work or having to go through the drive-thru for dinner, we need to stop and breathe.
Charlene Walters points out:
“It’s all that much more important to push away your guilt, embrace your life, and not let your multiple demands overwhelm you. You are doing a lot, and likely doing it well, all by yourself.”
I propose we follow Charlene’s advice so we can keep doing what we are doing and still feel good about ourselves.
Since the picture day mistake, I have created a master calendar in which I have all of the dates from my daughter’s school, birthday parties, and field trips in the same place where I keep my work deadlines.
Beth, a married stay-at-home mother of four, outsources help at every opportunity.
Between grandparent support, grocery deliveries, and an extremely helpful network of friends, Beth has learned to delegate what she can so she can have more energy to be the best mom she can be.
Hayley, a married career mom, also isn’t afraid to ask for support when needed and doesn’t feel guilty for leaving the dishes one night so she can spend more time at her daughter’s sporting event.
Although I originally thought I could segment my life from work to home, I’ve realized that the secret to my success may be in finding wholeness in my duality and accepting that I am a mom while at work and an employee while at home.
And perhaps more importantly, enjoy the few hours each evening and take advantage of the weekends in ways that benefit both my daughter and myself.
Dads Struggle With Loneliness And Guilt Too
Moms may not be alone in their struggles with guilt, as there is increasing evidence that men experience dad guilt too.
Although the research on dad guilt is more limited to the shortened amount of time typical dads get to spend with their children due to their own busy schedule, it turns out that they still can feel just as crappy as us.
Many dads still wish they were there when they are here, want to give, but need to provide. Sound familiar?
Psychologist Christie Hartman says that dad guilt can be “less related to time spent on his career and more about feeling guilty for the family breakup after a divorce.”
Furthermore, Christie told me, “The idea that men are providers is too deeply ingrained for them to ever feel guilty for a busy career.”
Yet, even so, many men still wish they could do more and be more for their children, just like many working moms feel.
Thus, while “dad guilt” may exist, perhaps the triggers and reasons are different than typical “mom guilt.”
Furthermore, for both single and co-parent households, gender role differences suggest that moms are more likely to feel personal guilt over work-family conflict than their male partners.
Having an open and honest discussion about parent guilt may be just the thing you need to help you release some of your own tension and resistance in order to pour more energy into your child.
Maybe Your Feelings Of Mom Guilt And Loneliness Are Your Mom’s Fault
The changing role of women in society and the increasing amount of women in the workplace may contribute to the perceived increase of mom guilt in society for moms who choose a career.
Despite the fact that it is now socially acceptable to raise a child all on one’s own while maintaining a successful career, working mothers, in general, must still fight against all the naysayers who may be quick to judge and point out our failures.
Every working mom has at least one person in her life who constantly tells her she is working too much, will regret the time lost, and maybe just needs to better budget her bills.
My biggest rival? My own mother.
Although she supports her divorced daughter in many ways, there is no contest when it comes to winning the best mom award. My mom wins.
Even though this contest is really only in my head, it is a game I torture myself with constantly.
I finally learned to give in.
I learned to recognize that mom is still my Superwoman. Although my mother always had a part-time job, she managed to raise my sister and me as if that was all she did.
She is just as badass with a spatula as she is with a calculator.
She never missed a soccer game or a dentist appointment. She made friends with other moms who she secretly hated. She made a yellow cake with chocolate frosting and brought it to school every year on my birthday.
My mom’s mom never worked outside of the home, always kept the house clean, and put dinner on the table.
Whereas generations ago, having a baby usually meant staying at home, today many women (like me) are choosing to have a career instead.
For the last 15 years, I’ve been trying to compete with the idea that I thought motherhood was.
Before the divorce; after the divorce.
And guess what?
I still don’t make pancakes for breakfast on school mornings and I often ask someone to take my daughter to the dentist so I can meet my next work deadline.
While it may be preordained that we retain at least some traits of our mothers, one major difference between my mom and me that cannot be denied is that she had the emotional and financial support of my father.
It is because of this that sometimes she can’t understand my context of single motherhood, the loneliness of being a single mother, and why I am still trying to compete with a reality that is nothing similar to my own.
Lilly, a mom in her 50s with two grown children, also repeatedly found herself comparing her mothering skills to that of her mother’s.
She says: “My mom may have meant well, but she always made me feel inadequate and didn’t always support my decisions as a career mom.”
Lilly ended up moving across the country to gain a healthy balance in her own life in order to be the career mom that she was meant to be.
I asked my mom if she ever compared her mothering skills to her mother while raising my sister and me.
Her response somewhat surprised me.
Her voice was firm as she said, “No, I wanted to be a different kind of mother than my mother was. I wanted to be involved in ways that my mom was not. I never felt guilty for the way I raised my girls.”
She paused a bit after this quick answer and added, “Actually, looking back, I feel a bit of guilt now. Perhaps there was more I could have done, but honestly, I was too busy to feel guilty while raising children back then.”
My mom’s candid response left me wanting to ditch my own feelings of inferiority I have been carrying around for quite some time.
After all, if my mom was able to be her own kind of mother minus the guilt, then perhaps there is still hope that I can be that too.
Our moms may mean well, but perhaps they are the culprit at increasing our own mom guilt.
Since motherhood is so different today than in generations past, we must understand the context that highlights our differences.
Perhaps we would suffer less if we could let our own moms remain the moms they were to us and own the type of motherhood we have chosen for ourselves.
How To Be A Working Mom Without The Guilt Or Loneliness
Once my daughter’s father left I found myself trying to be more maternal than I ever had been before.
But, honestly, that’s just not me.
I love my daughter dearly. I am responsible for her on every level and love and nurture her in ways that I have found work for me — including helping her to find ways to ease her teenage loneliness.
Being a career woman has helped me to be a better mom. And being a mom has helped me to be a better career woman.
Dr. Christie Hartman reminds me that, “sacrificing your own career or needs doesn’t make you a better mom.”
I just took a new position that may lead me to international travel and long days and nights at the office.
I was born for the position and when it came up, I went for it, and I got it.
Because of this decision, I am a happier woman. Because I am a happier woman, I am a better and more tuned-in mother.
My worst fear is for my daughter to grow up thinking that having her ever held me back from any of my goals.
I will be able to look her square in the eye and tell her I achieved all of my professional goals while I raised her to be independent and hard-working.
My biggest challenge was not in accepting the amazing job opportunity, but in letting go of the guilt and the tiny voice in my head (that always seems to sound like my own mother) telling me that this is wrong.
I had to say out loud to myself that I am making the best choice for me even though it may come with a price.
Owning my own decisions and giving worth and value to my own style of motherhood is what empowers me.
Lilly, the mom who moved across the country to free herself from her own mom comparisons, also had to accept the type of mother she prefers to be. She shares, “I raised my daughters the way I thought was best. And I do not regret that decision.”
Christine Carter, known as the voice of the millennial moms, has a successful professional career in which she empowers moms around the world.
She tells me, “I’ve learned to realize it takes a village to raise a mompreneur’s child. It is critical to have a good support system.”
Dr. Christie Hartman shares that all working moms can, “focus on the quality time they do have with their kids and realize that kids are not necessarily better off with a mom who’s at home all the time or not achieving what she wants in life.”
In her book, “42 Rules for Working Moms”, Laura Lowell provides several suggestions for managing working mom guilt.
Some of the highlights include:
- Daycare is not a sin: Lowell shares, “part of me feels guilty that I am not the one to experience certain things with my daughter. Yet, I know I am a better mom because of daycare, and she is a better child.“
- Outsource everything you can: Lowell encourages all moms to buy online, have someone else clean the house, and even start carpooling.
- Be present: To be present, moms must value the quality of time spent with their children, know that it is a journey and practice, and own their own beliefs on motherhood.
- Lose the guilt: Lowell states, “I know that the guilt doesn’t get me anywhere. It doesn’t make me a better mother, change the past, help me, teach me, inspire me, or motivate me. It only destroys my satisfaction as a mother. To be a successful working mom, you must do your best at work, and your best at home. By all means, lose the guilt, or it will destroy you.”
Charlene Walters, the career mom expert from before, reminds us, “sometimes you have to just own it and not worry about what other people think.”
Charlene, Christine, and all of the other single career moms I interviewed for this article agreed that although challenging, once we let the guilt go, we will reap an abundance of rewards from both our children and our professions.
Is it possible to have the best of both worlds?
According to the women I spoke with, it most certainly is as long as you carefully design, define, and own your own life and stop giving in to the other voices from society, your mom, or your child.
You’ve got this, mom. I believe in you!
Tips For Ditching The Mom Guilt And Easing Your Loneliness
Career moms, don’t let the mom guilt get the best of you. Keep working hard!
I’ll leave you with a few important things to remember as you continue on your career mom journey:
- You are not alone: Most working moms suffer from mom guilt at some point during motherhood. We are in this together! Check out this Instagram group created especially for working moms against mom guilt!
- Gain perspective: We should all strive to be the best version of ourselves, for ourselves, for our children, and for our careers. Be the best you can be in all aspects of your life and avoid comparing yourself to others. As Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Stop stealing your own joy! Here’s an Instagram page full of very funny mom-life humor and truth!
- You can’t (and shouldn’t) do it all: Put your own needs first and the rest will fall into place. Think of it like airplane oxygen mask instructions! You must give yourself oxygen first to be able to help your children. Give yourself some oxygen, momma! Find some extra encouragement on this Instagram group from moms who understand.
- You may have picked up mom guilt from your own mother: Maybe your mom didn’t do anything to make you feel guilty. Maybe this is just another example of you comparing yourself. Either way, forgive her, forgive yourself, and move on. You and your mother are different people, raising different children in different times!
- It’s OK to choose your career over staying at home: Not every woman wants to stay home and raise their kids full time. It might sting a bit to even admit that, but in reality, there is nothing at all wrong with wanting to be both an awesome mom and career woman. Be proud! Check out Dr. Jaime Seeman, OBGYN and Women’s Health Interactive Medical Review Board member, who is a rockstar working mom of three.
- Being a career woman can make you a better mom, and being a mom can make you a better career woman: Having passion for something only makes us want to be better at it, whether that is motherhood, a career, or both. As we enrich ourselves in one area of life, we are enriching ourselves for all areas of life. This working career mom is another great example!
- You have the power to ditch mom guilt once and for all: It really is all in your control!
Motherhood is a beautiful journey.
My schooling prepared me for my career, but nothing has truly prepared me for motherhood as much as trial and error. This is life. This is reality.
As career mothers, we give everything we have to everyone we encounter all day long, and then we come home and continue to find more to give to our children, who are usually happy to receive us, but even more so when we are happy and fulfilled women.
Guilt might just be the one thing standing in the way of you and a more fulfilled life and a closer relationship with your children. Let it go. Give it up. Move on.
Keep the career, lose the guilt, and be the best mother that only you were meant to be!