Podcast: On mom guilt

Best of Both World podcast with Laura Vanderkam

If you read much literature on women, work and life — and I confess that I do — the topic of guilt comes up a lot. Too much, really. We definitely get listener questions for Best of Both Worlds about guilt, and so this week we decided to address this topic.

Sarah and I based the episode on a question we got from a listener who works 3 days a week, and feels profound guilt about this. When we probed this topic more, we learned that it’s partly because her husband works long, irregular hours, and her social circle is mostly women who are at home with their kids. In her telling, they post on social media about how “blessed” they are and ask why on earth she works when her husband earns a good salary. She noted that one of her kids has some behavioral issues (although it sounds mostly like he’s just a spirited, high-energy kid) and so after reading a book called Being There, she’s been beating herself up that this must be her fault.

(To which I ask…why isn’t it her husband’s fault? He’s the one who’s gone a lot! She’s possibly gone 27 hours a week, max.)

Anyway, she was looking for practical solutions, so amid our lamentations that this is even an issue, we threw out a few suggestions.

Read different books and get new friends. Call me naive, but if I’m going to cry about a book, I’d like it to be an epic novel exploring the human condition. And if I’m going to have friends, they shouldn’t make me feel bad about myself. Time to expand the social circle! Maybe a book club? New people from the kids’ school? .

Track your time. One upside of my time logs is that I can see how much time I spend with my kids. I highly recommend time tracking for any working parent who feels guilt. You might be spending more time interacting with your kids than you think.

Choose the right comparison. I mention being on a BBC program with a father who was asked about guilt. He didn’t really feel much because he was comparing himself with his own father. How brilliant is that? Not only is he more professionally successful, he’s spending more time with his family as well. Maybe instead of comparing herself to other people’s social media feeds, our listener should compare herself to, say, a 1950s father who never changed diapers. I mean, why not?

Ignore social media. The dirty little secret is that some of the most over-the-top posts are inspired by insecurity.

Realize guilt comes in many forms. Case in point: we had a listener question this week from a woman — who was mostly home with her kids — who felt guilty about doing more activities with her 5-year-old than her 2-year-old on weekends. The truth is, people can talk themselves into feeling guilty about anything. It’s possible many of our listener’s friends who don’t work outside the home feel guilty about not contributing financially to their families, not using professional certifications or licenses they earned, not showing their daughters that women can be professionally successful in jobs outside the home, etc.

Think about how good your kids have it. Guilt is an emotion that evolved because it helps us repair relationships. If you hurt someone, you feel bad about it until you make amends. This allowed tribes to stay together. But key to the usefulness of guilt is that someone must have been hurt. My kids — and most likely your kids if you are reading this, and our listener’s kids — are among the luckiest kids on the planet. They are financially well-off, they have so many opportunities, and they have stable families.

Use the word ‘wistful’ rather than guilt. This is from Sarah. It’s just a better word, because it doesn’t carry the emotional baggage of doing something wrong.

Focus on the good you’re doing for the world. Curiously, our listener never said what kind of work she does. Many forms of work do much good beyond the income earned by the worker. For instance, I’m very glad that my kids’ teachers and physicians chose to continue to share their gifts with the world beyond their families after having children.

I’d love to hear from podcast listeners how you feel about the topic of guilt, and any advice you’d have for our listener.



45 thoughts on “Podcast: On mom guilt

  1. I’ve listened to almost every podcast episode so far, and I have to admit I was disappointed with the lack of empathy in the discussion for this particular episode. It seemed that the reader’s feelings of guilt were brushed off and attributed mostly to her point of comparison, but sometimes it’s worth taking a deeper look at what’s behind this guilt and what a mom can do to make the best decision for her family. Guilt can be excessive at times, and sometimes it’s a part of the adjustment to motherhood. But sometimes it’s also a sign that we should check and see what’s best for our family and individual children. The guilt is not always necessarily about the total # of hours spent away from our children, because depending on their individual characteristics they may be more or less affected by that time away. The needs of kiddos vary based on age, temperament, and particular scenarios (e.g., special needs), and I was disappointed to not hear in this discussion a consideration of what the needs of the reader’s child might be. It could very well be that her older child’s behavior is just a part of his demeanor, but it could also be that it’s his way of trying to communicate something he needs more/less of. Sarah’s brief mention of her husband’s previous guilt when he was working more hours is a nice example of how a parent can use their emotions about a situation to realize what their family needs at that time, what their priorities are, and what changes can be made so that life is in better alignment with those priorities and the needs of each family member.

    I went back to work when my son was 4 months old and have been working 3 days/week since then (very similar to the reader’s situation), but my feelings around my work schedule and child’s needs have helped me see what actions I needed to take to ensure I was doing what was best for my child while also meeting my personal and professional needs. My child is extremely attached, so when we transitioned to daycare at around age 1 (after our nanny moved out of the area) it took him about 2 months to adjust. This time period was very hard for me, and seeing how completely spent he was at the end of the day as well as knowing how much he cried throughout the day broke my heart and made me question my workload. However, a year later I’m now in a much better and less guilt-ridden place due to both natural and intentional changes. My son is older now and has adjusted beautifully to childcare, so I now know he’s loving his time there and am seeing the benefits of it. It definitely gets better as they adjust and get older. However, I’ve also made some changes in my work based on what I believe is best for my family at this time (went into private practice; minimized my commuting; gained more control over the intensity of my workdays so I would have enough energy left at the end of the day for my family). I guess what I’m trying to say is that, yes, to automatically assume that being a working mom is better/worse for children overall is silly and plain out wrong, but every woman needs to examine her own situation and make the decisions that are best for her family at that time.

    1. @Dr. L – thanks for sharing your story, and I’m glad you’ve found a situation that works for you.
      I agree that every woman (and man!) should examine his/her own situation and see what would be the best decision. However, in the context of the larger cultural narrative, which is always pushing women to believe that work is the problem, I think there are many things to be pushed back upon, which is what we were doing in this episode. As you noted, most children adjust beautifully to various caregiving arrangements – it’s often a matter of being patient and not making rash decisions (for instance, giving up a career that took years to prepare for) because of temporary difficulties.

    2. I felt the same way; I imagined feeling a bit hurt if I were the person writing the post that was discussed in this segment. I also felt a little surprised that the positives of mom having a job were mostly framed around the income and the output (like seeing patients as a doctor, or teaching students as a teacher or something). Certainly those are positives, but I have another significant reason I work: self-actualization. I love the work I do and am much happier doing it. That in itself is a huge benefit. Then there’s the additional side-benefit that me being happier and more self-actualized makes me more present for my family. Perhaps this perspective would also be helpful to the writer of the post that was discussed.

      Finally: I have a personal perspective on the idea of spending individual time with children. I am a twin and my twin and I were numbers three and four of four children. I have no memories, not a single one, of spending one-on-one time with my mom. I think that was (and still is) a problem for my ability to feel loved as an individual. I just wanted to throw that out as another data point on spending one-on-one time with each child.

      1. @Felicia – I definitely subscribe to the self-actualization part. I love the work I do and am happier for doing it as well. That said, I’m always a little wary of talking too much about this aspect, because for most people money is a big factor, and it’s a lot to expect of a job to have it be a non-stop font of bliss (because when it isn’t, people might think, well, forget it.) Also, some people hear self-actualization and think “selfish” and there is already enough out there about working mothers being selfish. Indeed, the subtitle of that Being There book calls for “prioritizing motherhood” — as if working isn’t about prioritizing your kids. I haven’t met many women with kids who aren’t prioritizing motherhood. It’s just some mothers also provide income, and others don’t.

  2. I feel no guilt about my choice to work full time – my 2.5 and 6 year old are well taken care of by awesome teachers and care givers at the day care, school, and camps we have carefully selected for them, and by their Dad in their the two days a week he’s usually home from work, and by both of us nights and weekends. I’m not temperamentally suited to stay-at-home parenthood (if anything, my husband is moreso, which is why he has the part time schedule), and having two active careers makes me feel a lot more comfortable about the financial security of our family in the face of life’s viscissitudes.

    That being said, I do sometimes feel guilty when I let work impinge on family time, mostly by staying too late to get one more thing done instead of coming home to help my husband wrangle the kids through dinner and bedtime. I don’t really feel guilty about the kids – they’re OK – it’s more about my poor tired husband who deserves some back up and teamwork after he has also had a long day.

    1. @Emily- thanks for your comment. Interesting point on your husband – if he has expressed unhappiness about having to fend for himself after a long day, then this might be a more useful “guilt” related conversation. For instance, maybe you can offer to give him some me-time on weekends in exchange for his doing more of the week day routine. Or you take some of the morning routine so he can go workout or whatever. That is, if he expressed unhappiness – it’s also possible he may also be happy enough that your job enables him to work part-time that he’s OK with it.

  3. There is so much to say about this! Balancing being a parent and working can be so tough, women are raised to question whether they want to work (versus men not thinking about it), and social media gives us so many signals that it can be very confusing!
    I have 3 kids between 1 and 5.5. I was full time with my first (now 5.5) for a year, then went part time for a few years, and I’m about to transition back to full time. When I decided to go part time it was partly because all of the women I knew stayed home with their babies and I was jealous and guilty. Now, almost all of those moms are working, at least part time. Some of them totally surprised me! So you have to do what is right for you, and don’t compare to other people.
    Two other reasons that partly affected my decision to go part time was that I wasn’t totally satisfied / challenged where I was and I wasn’t in love with my childcare. I’ve found work that is more satisfying, and I want to be there more. Sometimes I wish I had made a career change rather than scaling back. I’ve also changed my childcare and I’m not only more confident with it, but I am inspired by the other parents and their kids. They provide examples of healthy two working parent families. I think if your friends are all at home, you’re missing out on a whole other group that can be inspiring (which is probably why you read Laura and/or Sarah’s blogs and listen to BOBW!).
    Hopefully this is all relevant or helpful perspective to someone else that might be wondering if working is right for them due to mom guilt and/or influence of others.

    1. @Meghan – I think you raise a great point about how the cultural narrative may point toward work itself being the problem, when in fact it’s the particular job that’s problematic. A better job (however you define that: better paying, more autonomy, more interesting, better hours, whatever) might change the perceived choices entirely.

      Or there’s this: sometimes when men have a rough time of it at work, the story is that so what, deal with it. When women do, the story is that “oh, see you shouldn’t be working and should be home with your family.”

  4. Oh, Laura – as always, right on! I especially love your comment about reading a good novel rather than non-fiction that makes you feel guilty. I’ve stayed home with my kids, although I do work a few hours from home as an independent consultant. I think no matter our place in life, there will always be ways we can beat ourselves up and feel guilty. It’s also easy to judge others by their successes and ourselves by our failures. In the end, you can see guilt as constructive criticism and seek to make changes where possible, but once that has been done, move along! Always easier said than done, though.

    1. @Tana – thanks! And working a few hours per week — even if you’re primarily staying home with kids — is just smart. You never know what life will deal you, so always good to keep a hand in.

  5. I’m a die hard podcast fan! Thank you for bringing us such thoughtful discussion each and every week.

    I personally enjoyed the tough stance taken reminding us that there is no logical reason that women should feel guilty about working. It’s quite refreshing, really. I agree with all the points made in the podcast.
    I think the trouble is that sometimes my emotional mind doesn’t immediately obey the laws of reason, and I have twinges of working mommy guilt. For example, I cried much of the way to work after leaving my 10mo old twins when they were sick. I don’t feel great when I leave for work in the morning and my boys are crying at the top of the stairs while the nanny gets breakfast made. But these moments of mommy guilt are thankfully infrequent and short-lived. I also need to work for financial reasons. On days where I have more guilt than usual, my husband reminds me that I am actually caring for our children by financially providing for them. This perspective always helps!

    I 100% support women who are able to/choose not to work and instead be home with their kids. For me, there are several factors that make working the right choice for me and my family. However, I can easily appreciate if circumstances were different, I would find working challenging or even impossible.

    For me, what makes working possible is that:
    1. I have EXCELLENT reliable child care (we hired my mom as our nanny). This means I don’t feel like my children are suffering by my absence. In fact, I think it’s probably adaptive that they learn to attach to primary caregivers other than myself.
    2. I can work part time (which I even did prior to kids because of the intensity of my work). This makes life sustainable for me.
    3. My work is generally meaningful, and I feel like I’m helping others (I’m a specialist physician in an under serviced area).

    1. @Jenny- sounds like you have a great set up. And of course your mother is doing well with your twins if she did well with you!

  6. Listening to this podcast made me want to share this study about a mother’s work situation and her well being. It showed that if the work situation aligns with what the mom finds fulfilling she will be happy. This was a light bulb moment for me when I read it last year because of course different people will find different fulfillment! It matters what is fulfilling TO YOU. And that can be different than your mom or your best friends. It can even be different than you a few years ago. This is what I was wanting to share with the listener as I listened.

    I think this also applies not just to working/not working but to job situation. A child changes so much; maybe it’s time to re-evaluate the listeners job situation? I have found that during the times I love my job the most I feel less guilt (but I also don’t tend to feel much because “you should only feel guilty if you have done something wrong” as my wise mother says); it feels worth it to be away from my kids because of the contribution I am making/fulfillment I am getting. Recently I changed my work situation, quitting my full time job to pursue my own writing and podcasting and I worked through some feelings of guilt of not being a full time working mom any more after having that be my identity for five years.

    I also wanted to say that before I read any books on parenting/working mom I look at the author and try to see if they have any agendas they might be trying to push. To me the author sounds very socially conservative and anti-feminist: reader beware! And I definitely think the listener can dismiss what they read, guilt-free! 😉

  7. The comment about getting new friends really rang true for me – after some big life changes and time overseas I returned to what I had thought was a supportive community of friends… Over the next few months I found most were not really there for me, and even those who made time for me often left me feeling bad about myself – sometimes for specific reasons, sometimes just a vague feeling of guilt and shame and annoyance. It took a while but I finally clicked and have started looking for new people to connect with. I didn’t cut my old friends out of my life, just limited my time with them and kept it to occasions that suit me (ie a quick coffee after we both attend the same gym class) I also try to reflect after I meet with someone on how they affected my energy levels and how I feel about myself. There are not enough hours in the week to dedicate many of them to people who leave you feeling drained and guilty

    1. @Lily – life is definitely too short to have “friends” who make you feel drained and guilty. That somewhat defeats the point of friendship. The hard truth is that sometimes people change. Sometimes it’s other people, sometimes it’s you – and not all relationships survive those changes. That can be mourned, and then you can move on and find people who can help you become the best version of yourself.

  8. I am from Germany originally where women can take up to 3 years of maternity leave per child. This is based on the belief that it’s best for the child’s development to spend the first three years of their lives with one reliable caregiver. Historically, there was the expectation that mothers would stay at home and not put the child’s future at risk. So I can certainly emphasize with the listener. It’s changing rapidly, and is currently at a no-win situation where it’s neither socially acceptable to be a stay-at-home or a working mom.

    I left the workforce a few months after returning to my part-time job after my second maternity leave. Having been a stay-at-home mom for just under a year now, I know that I do not spend more quality time with my kids than before; instead I tend to focus on menial task that my former working self would have found unnecessary, such as konmari-ing the broom closet and shining the kitchen sink in a hopeless attempt to find a sense of achievement. My reasons were highly personal (I went through cancer treatment while on mat leave and don’t think I had fully recovered when returning to work, and surely not mentally processed it, we had three epic nanny failures, no family around for back up, and I had a three hour commute every day) and I would caution anyone to back down on social pressure when it comes to such a major decision as giving up paid work.

    There is plenty of evidence that having a working mom is beneficial for children’s development, esp. girls, – I think there is some in Laura’s book “I know how she does it” – but there’s always a study that will prove the point your making. I couldn’t agree more with your point on choosing your social circle and reading material. Quitting facebook has been my number one thing in fighting feelings of inadequacy as a parent.

    As a topic for future podcasts: I am trying to keep my toes in the water with skills-based voluntary work and keep my knowledge up to date but I would appreciate if you found a few interview partners who maybe spend some time at home with the kids and went back to the workplace. It’s probably not rocket science but I am sure I am not the only one interested in their lessons learned.

    1. I’m from the Netherlands, which doesn’t have the same maternity leave as Germany, though the beliefs about parenting seem quite similar. Here there is also a no-win situation that I’m in the middle of right now, going from a stay-at-home-mom for a few years (which is frowned upon because it is considered to be old-fashioned) to returning fulltime to my field (which is frowned upon because of the ‘many’ work hours. Whereby many is really subjective, because in my field working fulltime means working 36 hours a week and I’m allowed to work 4 days of 9 hours, so I always have a fixed day off.) And I REALLY second the amount of quality time I’ve spend as a stay-at-home-mother with my children compared to now. Now, I’m much more aware of how I spend my time with them, making it really worthwhile. And those menial tasks get sidelined, mostly forgotten.

      1. Hi Kim, your comments really hits it home for me! I moved with my Dutch husband and 2 kids to the Netherlands after 6 years in the UK. I work full time because I found an amazing role in a great company, and the role was full time (40 hrs, so actually more than full time in Dutch standards). Sometime I get incredulous comments about how I could possibly work this many hours while I have 2 kids at home. It really felt like going back to the 50’s after spending 6 years in banking in London. I thought your 4×9 hrs would make you immune from these comments, but I guess people always have an opinion about your life whatever you do.

    2. @Diana – I agree that getting back into the work force is a great topic. We will likely do an episode on that in the future.

  9. I loved this episode and thought the tough love was warranted. Comparing your insides to someone else’s outside is so so dangerous.

    I went back to work earlier than is typical in the UK and sometimes felt like maybe I should feel guilty, but nope… my kid was looked after by his granddad for 6 months (and that relationship now has such a strong foundation despite the 7k miles that separates them) and is now getting ready to start a really amazing nursery. I think it is easier with a baby though, they can’t really guilt you while older kids can push your buttons a bit.

    One thing I wondered was whether the book/friends were the only source of guilt? The letter writer mentioned her spouse had a stay at home mom and that his colleagues’ wives all stayed at home. Maybe there is some pressure from inside the house as well?

  10. Laura and SHU thank you for addressing this issue. Just a few thoughts. One is the question writer mentioned her own mother worked–does the writer think she turned out poorly for her mother having worked? Did it affect her relationship with her own mother.

    Also, I think the issue of financial security could have been emphasized more. I know Laura is familiar with the book “Kick Ass Single Mom.” You just never know what will happen in the future. It is MUCH easier to scale up than to start from scratch looking for a job.

    I also think exploring how supportive her spouse is. Is he participating at home or is she getting the message that he expects her to carry all the weight of household responsibilities too?

    1. @Gillian – we didn’t learn much about her spouse’s opinion of the whole thing, and she didn’t frame the question (and we went back and forth with emails) in terms of her husband or mother telling her it would be best to stay home. Of course, people can put that pressure on women without really meaning to. When she has a bad day at the office the answer is “oh, you know you don’t have to work – I’d be OK if you stayed home” as opposed to brainstorming strategies to deal with difficult people.
      And yes, Emma (she of Kick Ass Single Mom fame) is a great example of why it is critical to keep your hand in the paid labor force. You just really never know.

  11. Being a former guilt ridden mother, i would say this podcast is quite an antidote to (misplaced) mother guilt.
    Thank to you, i hired a sitter once a week. She picks up the kid, cooks and put them to beb while i go running with my husband.
    yesterday, my son “hug reservoir” was totally empty. Thanks to this sitter who was cooking and taking care of the others, i just sat for 25 minutes with him ( 7 years old!) on my lap in the middle of cocktail hours when somedy usually loose it! I felt much more competent and significant to my son that in my former SAT mother day, and without my salary, a sitter was out of the question.

  12. I work full time and don’t feel a lot of guilt about it. At different times I have been able to change my schedule so I can be more a part of my children’s lives. For example, when they were preschool age I was able to work nights so in the morning while they were at school I could do pick up/drop off and go on field trips. I appreciate Sarah’s “wistful” term and will try to do that more. However, my husband is the stay at home parent and in the summer there attempts by my children (8 & 6) to make me feel guilty – for example, “mommy we went to the pool this afternoon, why do you have to work all the time.” I can usually reply by pointing out something we all did together recently but it can be wearing and I don’t necessarily feel guilty. However, I know I’d feel differently if it was a babysitter going to the pool vs. my husband. I appreciated the episode with LagLiv on being the primary breadwinner as it presents different challenges. In terms of your advice to find new friends – our community is very stay at home mom – and I am currently working on creating a networking group of working moms so we can support each other. Thanks for another thought provoking episode.

  13. I wholeheartedly agree that this mother should not feel guilty about working part time (or at all!). I agree that children of mothers who work, and children of stay at home mothers will turn out roughly the same ‘success’ rates. That being said, I am incredibly grateful that I’m in Canada and have the option of staying home for the first year after birth (or sharingthat year with my partner). I do think there are a ton of benefits to mom and baby when you have that option (I say this as someone who went back after 4 months – the leave was there if I needed it). I get that this episode was on a slightly different issue (the guilt), but I do worry that saying that moms can and should be able to handle work and family in the first year hinders the argument for paid family leave. I may be opening a can of worms with this comment, but I do strongly feel there are many many benefits to the whole family when mothers can have the security of a lengthy (which in my books is a year) paid family leave.

  14. Sometimes the person “wronged” when there is a sense of guilt is actually ourselves, and the identities and opinions we’ve built of ourselves that get threatened by changing our circumstances. Sometimes that’s externally influenced by culture and sometimes it comes from deep seated issues, such as our relationships with our own mothers, the dreams and fantasies we had about motherhood, the models of mothers that we admire (who are not us). So part of fixing that is examining those things, deconstructing them, and reconstructing what it means for us to be good mothers. I incidentally read this piece today and it might be helpful to those readers dealing with this kind of guilt:

    “The second she realized I was leaving her she began to scream in terrified wails. They had to hold her to keep her from chasing me out the door. I will never forget her face that day. In that moment, I regretted my decision to go back to work. I regretted all my selfishness that would force her to stay the next days, weeks and months with total strangers.

    And then I drove to my new office. And I began to get myself back. Eight years later, I know that going back to work has been the best decision I could have made – both for me, and my daughter. I saved myself out of love for her, so I could give her the best mom possible.”


  15. My heart goes out to the woman with the mom guilt! We all deserve to be happy and a fulfilling career can be a big part of that. Thanks Laura and Sarah for highlighting such an important issue for Mom’s today. Another aspect to consider is where we get our self-worth and identity. Mom’s are people too (anyone remember that show “Kids are people too”?)! I came late to motherhood and had a strong identity as a scientist. So what do I feel guilty about? Not being able to spend as much time at work as before kids… Grass is always greener.

    Love the podcast – keep it coming!

  16. Hi there, I never miss an episode. Thanks ladies for the great podcast! I realize that Laura is the more direct one, and Sarah has a softer approach. I truly like the balance. My reaction to this episode was in fact like the first commenter, Dr. L. Laura laughed (literally) at the woman’s justification of the mom guilt, as if it were absolutely ridiculous and unfounded. The listener couldn’t help the way she felt, I reasoned internally. I thought this was way too harsh—all the way until I got to this post and read more comments. Tough love was applauded, and, well, ultimately necessary. Reading the comments is what changed my perspective. The “mom guilt” of the listener is, according to her explanation, based solely on comparing herself to others. The time spent on Facebook reading these posts by ‘friends’ is time that could be spent with her children (as Laura writes)! Furthermore, I’ve learned from Sarah that she maps out what her ‘ideal’ routines would look like. This listener could do the same, and that would be the best point of comparison at the end of the day. Does her day/life look like SHE wants it to? The solutions do seem so obvious from the outside looking in, so pointing that out as you did may be exactly what was needed.

    All that to say—spot on, ladies. Thanks again.

  17. My mother’s parents lived in a very rural community – her father didn’t allow her mother to drive, so working outside the home was a non-starter. That same mother had a mother who worked during the Great Depression and subsequent WWII to keep a roof over the family’s heads because her father was an alcoholic and often didn’t work.

    My father grew up in a mill town, with a father who left (along with the oldest, high school aged son) in the middle of the night to take a job halfway across the country. He didn’t bother to tell his wife he was leaving, but did give his own mother a heads up. His mother had a 3rd grade education and did the best she could in that mill town to keep the lights on, the rent paid, and food on the table.

    My own parents are both well-educated, with professional level jobs – but they had a couple of epic fights that shook me deeply as a teenager. I remember wondering why she stayed with him after the things he said and did.

    By the time I left for college, there was never any doubt in my mind that I would have my own career and always be able to provide for myself and any children I might have. Not working after my children were born never crossed my mind as an option to consider. I count myself lucky to have a husband who is so different than my blood relatives. I can tell it hurts his feelings when I mention my relatives and my need to be self sufficient. He’s right – he’s not like them – but those stories shaped me so deeply as a young person that it’s now part of who I am.

    When I hear women talk about their decision to walk away from the power that comes from the ability to generate their own income, I silently worry for them. What if? What if your spouse becomes disabled? Or dies without enough life insurance? Or you split up? How will you keep the lights on, the rent paid and food on the table? My grandmother may have had only a 3rd grade education, but she was already working and at least knew there was a paycheck coming on Friday.

  18. I think you guys did a great job addressing this question. The listener’s letter really broke my heart for her. Mom Guilt is real, I get it sometimes, even though I love my job. But, I got a PhD in pharmacology, not raising kids … so that’s why my kids go to amazing day cares and schools. One could argue that if a mom WANTS to work, but chooses to stay home with her kids because of mom guilt, that she could be doing them a greater disservice. I’m a much better mom to my kids when I’m fulfilled and happy and contributing to society, and can give them my full attention when I am home with them.

  19. I work full time (at a very flexible job – 35 hours a week) and I have never felt guilty about it at all. My thinking is that Canada’s parental leave system makes it much easier on that front. I went back to work (well, school, in my case) when my daughter was 13 months old. A decent paid parental leave makes it so that the vast majority of women keep working (I actually know zero stay-at-home mothers, and I’m 30 so all my friends are having babies). I can understand it being harder to leave a child you’re still breastfeeding, or who’s otherwise very helpless, but let me tell you after a year off I was MORE than ready to get back to adult preoccupations!

  20. I just want to point out that the author of the book, “Being There” (which I have not read) has been in private practice for 25 years, and has three teenagers. So…she was a working mom the entire time her kids were in that crucial 0-3 stage. I’m getting my Masters in Psychology with a focus on early childhood and can appreciate that our parenting during the first three years is absolutely critical to healthy development – but being a working mom (or a working dad for that matter!) does not in any way preclude that healthy development. In my personal experience, my young kids are actually better adjusted and more sociable because they are consistently exposed to other adults who provide loving care.

    Another thing about the social media posts that we subconsciously compare ourselves to is that often these come from women who sell an MLM product and have to use their network to build their team. So they post about how lucky they are to be with their kids all day, set their own hours and work whenever or however much they want. I’ve seen countless posts like these, and I mean no offense to anyone who sells a product they believe in, but I think it is often used as a lure to try to get people interested in that career path. I also agree with Laura that these over-the-top posts often come from a place of insecurity. We only see the highlight reel on social media anyway!

    1. @Noelle – the MLM product thing is no joke. And yes, in some cases, the social media stuff is more about brand building than actual lifestyle!

    2. I had the unfortunate experience of reading ‘Being There,’ and the author addressed how she went back to work after having her babies. Essentially, she worked VERY part time during the 0-3 years. Something like 6-12 hours a week.

      1. @Brenda – did she have her babies more than 3 years apart? Otherwise, the older kid is probably not prioritized, thanks to the addition of the infant.

  21. I was a little behind in listening to this episode, but I think “get new friends” is key. One of the reasons I don’t have mom guilt is that most of my mom-friends also work and also do things like put their kids in daycare if they have a day off so you can actually get things done. Plus I’m pretty sure my son learned more in daycare than I ever would have thought to teach him.

    true friends don’t make you feel guilty for your decision. Work fulltime, parttime or not at all; love your kids and they’ll turn out fine.

  22. Strongly agree that life is too short to read books that make you feel bad about yourself or hang out with people that do.

    I do think there’s some examining that the letter-writer needs to do about what’s making her unhappy and what could fix it, though. Is it really all about “other people”?
    Is she frustrated by something at work so the “other choice” is seeming more attractive? (I’m quite familiar with this.)
    Is her husband subtly encouraging these feelings somehow (maybe he’s feeling the peer pressure at work with all those dudes with SAH wives)?
    Does her commute suck? Is she bored at work? Does she wish she had more like-minded friends?

    Also, I just want to say that 3 is a horrible age for a lot of kids 🙂 Mine are completely opposite in temperament and 3 sucked for both.

    I’ve taken a couple of extended breaks from working and both times, I’ve realized I *need* to work. I’ll admit that part of it is fear of the “what if” situations – I don’t want to be in a situation where we have NO income. I also need it to feel like a full contributor to our family – not just “home stuff” but financial stuff is my responsibility too. Though, on the flip side, we aim for an equally shared parenting model so hubby takes on a LOT of the home and kid stuff. If he didn’t, that would be rough.

    My job doesn’t really help society much (except for the fact that I pay taxes on my income!) but I like it. My kids are in school during the day, so it’s much easier for me for see that I “should” work – when they were babies/toddlers, it was much harder because I truly enjoyed being home with them.

    But I also don’t like being busy, or rushing from one activity to another. So we arranged our lives to accommodate this. We moved to a lower COL area. We let our kids do ONE activity at a time. We send one kid to school walking distance and the other is a 5 min drive. We prioritize having at least one parent work from home (for us, this is key). I work part-time and am much less stressed out. This whole thing came from years of trial and error, and from me finally sitting down to work out what was making me unhappy. I’m sure it’ll change again as the kids get older. Maybe I’ll go back to a full time job. Maybe my husband will quit and I’ll be the breadwinner.

    Who knows how our kids will “turn out”, whatever that means? Maybe they’ll be mad we didn’t let them do every activity their hearts desired. Or that we moved away from the Big City. Or that our lives are so slow and boring 🙂 I think the best we can do is make good decisions for us and our families for right now, with an eye to what could happen in the future.

  23. I’m behind on the podcast and still need to listen to this episode, but just wanted to chime in with a couple of thoughts.

    While I do agree that it can be really important for girls to grow up seeing their mothers work (full or part-time), I think it’s just as important for boys to see it as well. It’s been mentioned on this blog that often the breadwinner feels pressure to work extra hard and sometimes stay in a position or at a company they don’t enjoy, and I think that can get ingrained in the minds of boys and be just as harmful as girls growing up thinking they should stay home with the kids.

    I do think that the situation we grow up with plays a very large and subtle role in what we expect and think of as a good situation. My friends who have mothers who stayed at home with them seem to be much more wistful (I love that word to replace guilt!) about not staying home with their kids than the ones whose mothers worked. My mom mostly worked full time and it’s not exactly her dream career, but she’s always worked hard and been proud of the work she does, and that is also a gift to her children.

  24. Totally agree that the woman needs new friends and shouldn’t have read that book. I liked that y’all were tough on her. I don’t think her situation is the best example of mom guilt. I agree with other commenters and how y’all also talked about mom guilt between kids. I have mom guilt about other things besides working vs staying home—going to dinner when I could be home doing bedtime, taking one kid somewhere and not another, putting kids in gym childcare while I exercise, sending kids to camp instead of doing activities with them during the day. It is working for our family, and everyone is happy, including me.

  25. I have felt immense guilt this summer as my kids have not had the summer experiences they normally have. I have been sick and just have not been able to do the things I normally do. I thought I had beat the guilt monster years ago, but I guess not. I have had to remind myself that just because we had a boring summer doesn’t mean we will have a boring Fall and in the bigger picture they had a better summer than I ever had growing up.
    The comment about social media being fueled by insecurity is true. I have a friend (SAHM) who posts 20 pictures a day of all the exciting things she and her kids are doing. Once after maybe half a glass of wine too much, I was feeling pretty brazen and called her out on it. She told me she felt like she had to prove she was a good mother and do all of the things she was doing because she was afraid people thought because she stayed home she was lazy. She said it was the same reason her house was so clean and she made elaborate meals as well. Guilt!
    Isn’t it ridiculous what we do to ourselves!

  26. Wow! So much to say! I’m the person who wrote into the show for this topic. And the episode actually aired on my birthday – that was a fun surprise!

    I wish I had known sooner that there was this discussion, but I’m glad I found it now.

    I appreciate you taking the time to address my emails and do the episode, Laura and Sarah! It was great to listen to. I didn’t realize that I didn’t give any info on my job. I am a Human Resources Manager. It’s nothing that changes the world or required 10 years of medical school, but I have worked hard over the years to go to a good college and find a career path and climb the corporate ladder, and it is a field where if you leave for a few years it’s very hard to get back in (I know a few people who had kids and got out of the field hoping to go back in but were never able to get hired in HR again due to the laws changing all the time and it being a field that typically requires current experience). My ideal situation would have been to take a few years off and go back when my kids are in school, but knowing the people I know who failed at that it made me scared to step completely away from my field. I don’t love or hate my job, but some days I lean more one way and some days the other way.

    The women I am around are not my friends, they are the friend of my husband’s friends (who are also his coworkers so they live similar lives in terms of money, etc). I’m the only wife who works and I wish I could find some other wives who also work, but so far those women just haven’t come into my life. A lot of my own friends have moved away out of state or do not live close enough for me to see regularly, but my husband’s friends mostly all live in our city. I have tried finding new mom friends over the years who might be more similar to me, but I have not been successful yet.

    My mom worked full time my whole life and I think I turned out great, but there have been tough times. I was a latchkey kid at age 10/11 and it was very lonely. I was sad sometimes that my mom worked when my friends moms didn’t and they got more attention that I did. I don’t want that for my own kids, which is a future stress I already think about, but I’m trying to take things one day at a time and not worry about the future.

    I do think my mom was a good role model for me (how could she have expected me to get good grades and go to a good college if she was a stay at home mom?) and I think about all the women who make my life better by working – my female obgyns, my female pediatrician, etc. I want my daughter to grow up feeling like she can follow her dreams, whatever they may be.

    I recently started listening to a mothering podcast from a female pediatrician who thinks women should work, but should not work more than 3 days a week and should spend more time with their kids than away from them. Right now I think I am getting to a place where I am finding peace with working 3 days a week, but I’m not sure what I will do or how I will feel when my boss decides I need to return full time (we agreed on this flexible arrangement for as long as it was mutually beneficial). I wish I hadn’t started listening to that podcast but by the time I realized her views I had already heard too much.

    I wish there were more resources out there to support working moms. Perhaps I need to stop reading/listening to so much about motherhood and just try to enjoy it? 🙂

    Thank you all so much for writing these comments, I appreciate all the advice!

    1. @Marie – thank you for weighing in! Yes, lots of great discussion here and many ideas.
      I’m not sure which female pediatrician had this advice, but unless she cited a series of studies finding that 3 days is associated with some actual improved outcome, you can dismiss it. Also, it’s just sexist. Is she assuming Dad works 5 days per week? So really, it’s 8 days per couple – why not 4 for each? Why is Dad off the hook for not cutting back his schedule? I have no idea why professional women feel the need to try to make things harder for other professional women.
      Good luck with the project of making friends! It can feel long and lonely, but is so worth it.

  27. Re: the Q&A… I agree with the advice to hang out with small children before having your own, but I respectfully disagree that you should only hang out with carefully selected families that seem like they have it worked out.
    I chose a former career using that method. I talked to lots of people who were happy with it and successful in it. But after a 4 year post-graduate degree and several years trying to make a go at it, it turned out that the career wasn’t for me. In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t just talked to people who were making it big or had great thriving careers; I wish I had talked to a wider variety of people on the satisfaction scale. Talking to only happy people did not alert me to the pitfalls that were ultimately the downfall of my own career.
    With families, I think how well it goes boils down to 3 variables: the parents, the kids, and the circumstances. Parents for sure have different personalities and different coping abilities. Not everyone is an upholder! Some people just have a harder time than others. Kids vary a lot too. Your kids could be easy…or they could be spirited, have special needs, or medical issues (or somewhere in the middle). The special challenges with kids take time and add stress. These are realities for plenty of families. And then there are life circumstances, whether they are pre-existing or life throws something at you. Sometimes people’s lives are just harder.
    So I wouldn’t recommend carefully selecting just the families to observe. You might open yourself up for a rude surprise.

  28. I’ve read all your books and have found them to be helpful. I don’t listen to podcasts much, but thought I’d give this one a try. I’m a little disappointed in your attitude toward stay-at-home moms. Personally, I went to school, got a masters, taught adjunct at a university, then took 15 years off to have kids and homeschool them. I had no trouble getting another adjunct teaching job, and now work part time while still homeschooling 2 children. I know several other people who took significant breaks from their career to stay with their children and had no trouble returning to the workforce when either they wanted to, or their spouse’s situation required it. For you to make a blanket statement that not keeping your toes in your career was a bad thing was disappointing.
    I listened to this podcast hoping for some help, because the adjustment back to work while still juggling 3 kids’ activities, 2 kids’ schooling, and heavy church involvement has been a struggle, and I often feel guilt over what I’m missing or not doing as well as I did before work. I didn’t really get any help for that.

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