Why I Stopped Apologizing For Being A Working Mother

Not only is it time to not feel bad about working, it's time to quit saying we feel bad.

I’m a writer at the University of Chicago, so when I learned that the vice president of communications would be sharing some life lessons at a brown bag lunch for the school’s Working Mothers group earlier this summer, I signed up.

As I tried to spit cherry pits quietly into an empty Tupperware container, Julie Peterson spoke to a packed conference room about her career as a writer and mother of three. She detailed the childcare decisions she had to make, the choices she made for her own sanity (good to know: boys will apparently accept frozen pretzels as a dinner entree), and some of the mistakes she made as well. Even as she admitted to an after-soccer pickup snafu, though, I marveled at her confidence. Not once during her presentation did she utter the words “guilt” or “sacrifice.” She seemed quite secure—confident, even—in the path she took as a mother and worker.

I’m still new to the game, myself; Peterson’s three sons are all adults, whereas my son is only two. However, like her, I also am privileged to say that I feel good about my work-life balance. Unlike Peterson, though, I’m working on owning that.

Not long after hearing Peterson’s talk, a friend pointed out that I said “I feel bad” about putting my son in his wonderful daycare while I go to my good job and my husband works for a successful company he started. “It doesn’t sound like you feel so bad,” she said, and she was right. “I don’t even know why I said that,” I admitted. It was just something that came out of my mouth, like an automatic “excuse me” or “bless you.” Maybe I was worried that saying that I felt fine about leaving my son with somebody else for 10 hours a day made me look uncaring. Maybe it just seemed somehow rude to say that I felt satisfied with my work-life balance, when so many women do not. Saying that I felt like I was doing wrong somehow seemed right, even though it wasn’t the truth.

Curious about whether Peterson purposefully left out any talk of guilt or shame as a working mother, I reached out to her to learn more about whether she ever has a case of the obligatory “feel bads.”

The answer is no. “I’m generally a person who doesn’t feel a lot of guilt anyway,” she told me, saying that while she sets high standards for herself, she also tends to meet those standards. Instead of overly concerning herself with pleasing others, she says, “I know what’s right and wrong for me.” That includes knowing she wanted to be a working mother from the get-go. “Job and career were always important to me. I was interested in the intellectual stimulation and I needed the adult conversation during the day,” she says. After a few weeks of maternity leave, “I was ready to get out out of the house.”

Peterson grew up with a good model: her own mother went to college and then worked full-time as a nurse in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, which was significantly rarer then than it is now. Her parents took turns taking care of their children, utilizing babysitters, summer camps, and school. “She didn’t seem to feel guilty about it,” Peterson said, noting that her mother was bolstered by a supportive husband. “There were never any mixed messages in our household,” she says. “I think I had terrific parents.”

So Peterson had a role model that disproved what she calls “an antiquated attitude that the only good mom is one who is home. There are many ways to be a great mom.” Even for those of us who know that, we still apologize because, as Peterson speculates, women are taught to please, to “satisfy other people’s standards and then apologize for when we don’t live up to whatever we think they want from us, even if we don’t really know what that is.”

This type of people-pleasing comes up in the research of Rosalind Barnett, a senior scientist at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, who has spent nearly three decades studying gender roles amongst parents. She points to an entirely unqualified media that perpetuates baseless ideals of what good a mother should look like (if in doubt, just Google “best and worst moms” and imagine how you’d stack up under that type of scrutiny).

“You’re violating a norm,” she says, to admit a lack of guilt when it comes not taking the route she describes as “intensive parenting.” This ideal, she says, is not based on research, but merely the “media culture we live in,” one that says “you can’t be a good mother if you’re working.” She mentions several tenets that are accepted as fact by popular culture—ones that have been doubted or even disproved in scientific research: that long-term breastfeeding is significantly superior; that daycare is not a good option; that children of stay-at-home mothers have an advantage over children of working mothers.

“The ideal is this attentive mother,” Barnett says, one that miraculously manages to spend time at home without having to address housework or other duties. “But what are we comparing ourselves to? My grandmother had 13 children and she didn’t have time for any of those children.” The cultural ideals, she says, aren’t based on data. They're based, instead, on a “Hallmark Greeting card.” The point is, there is no model we need to strive to emulate, or even pretend like we’re trying to emulate.

But still, bucking the people-pleasing tendency is easier said than done. So how do we avoid feeling like we have to pretend like we’re trying to live up to the greeting card?

One tip Peterson volunteered is to stop to tally up the skills you’ve learned at work that make you a great parent and vice versa. “If you can say, ‘I have learned to be courteous and patient even when people are not,’” Peterson says, “and you take that into parenting, you can be a better parent.” In the meantime, Peterson feels that she’s served as a model for her own adult sons, who she feels have gravitated towards strong women for their own partners.

Barnett feels similarly: instead of guilt, whether sincere or obligatory, a working mother “who feels satisfied, who is also contributing to the household income and making her life better for her child should feel good about that.”

This has all given me food for thought and made me realize how silly my own apologizing is. Sure, sometimes on Mondays, after a great weekend, I feel bummed about going back to work, but that’s not indicative that I am doing wrong by my son. I know our current situation is what’s best for my family: I could probably stay at home if I really wanted to, but I really don’t. Everybody seems to be doing just fine.

I think of the working mother’s apology as an offshoot of the female apology. As Peterson notes, it’s quite possible that we’re not living up to someone else’s standard, but being a mom means being able to juggle a tremendous amount of work (whether it’s in an office or at home) and so you’d think we’d be tougher than to care about what somebody else might think of our style. I’m grateful that I feel good about my work-life balance, and that’s not something to apologize for.

[Image: Flickr user Woodleywonderworks]

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28 Comments

  • Having one's own standards to measure oneself against is key. Society's standards, or your parents' standards, or the media's, are generally unobtainable and leave you feeling guilty and ashamed. Sadly too many women are programmed to be pleasers so that they work hard to make others comfortable and happy. This is helpful at times, of course, but when it becomes the default, it shatters your confidence.

    David Kaiser, PhD

    Executive Coach

    www.ConfidenceForWomenProfessionals.com

  • lerholmes

    Thank you for this - I needed it today.

    I did find a typo and thought I'd pass it along...."a" should come before "good" in the sentence below:

    She points to an entirely unqualified media that perpetuates baseless ideals of what good a mother should look like (if in doubt, just Google “best and worst moms” and imagine how you’d stack up under that type of scrutiny).

  • Clearly, the demographics of today's workforce are changing. There are more two parent working families, more women are in the workforce, we are all pretty much going to work until we die, and there is a definite microtrend of men staying at home to be caregivers.

    These changes affect how we relate to each other at work, in our relationships, and even in the media. All interesting topics to explore, and the angst among women who feel guilty for working and for the men who feel guilty for not working is all part of the evolutionary process.

    I look forward to the day when we can stop worrying about these stereotypes and focus on doing what's right for each of us personally and getting some s*&# done at work!

  • Rocsana Radulescu

    The idea of apology, let alone guilt, a working mother is expected to make or feel respectively sounds absurd to me . As if woman's emancipation were just a theory nobody expects to be put into practice. I think independent women who decided to have children , must set their own standards and never wait the others to be lenient about the tremendous effort to do both work and raise children. The fact that so many women succeed in both and guilt does not cross their mind is the living proof a spectacular leap they should be proud of.

  • Great article. I find myself feeling guilty when other people ask me when I went back to work, why I work full time and not part time, or what my daughter does while I'm at work? I was ready to go back to work so I went back. I like working and my daughter loves nursery and is very happy there. She eats a range of food I would never cook , gets to do messy play in a safe environment where it doesn't matter what she ruins, has quality attention and help with development from qualified, patient carers and I have people with experience to talk to about any worries I might have. We are all happy so I really believe I'm doing the right thing for her and for me.

  • Ileola Mobola Feyisetan

    Nice article. I agree working women shouldn't apologise. My only wonder is why the apology is usually for the decisions they make on leaving their child during work hours and not one to be with their child during expected work hours. Every woman tends to prioritise on interest and passion. Maybe that is why one can tell when a woman is found a new love/hobby. I love my child. I currently work a task based role I love and want a successful career in but I would ask myself over and again why I have to work set hours. Why employers wouldn't accommodate a mum with a role like myself pick how, when and where I work as long as I get my tasks done as expected or even beyond expectations. The guilt is not in leaving my child for hours while I am at work but why I have to stay at work fulfilling set hours when one could work differently. I believe every role is different and most people who are not physically engaged at work everyday would have a degree of guilty

  • Ileola Mobola Feyisetan

    Nice article. I agree working women shouldn't apologise. My only wonder is why the apology is usually for the decisions they make on leaving their child during work hours and not one to be with their child during expected work hours. Every woman tends to prioritise on interest and passion. Maybe that is why one can tell when a woman is found a new love/hobby. I love my child. I currently work a task based role I love and want a successful career in but I would ask myself over and again why I have to work set hours. Why employers wouldn't accommodate a mum with a role like myself pick how, when and where I work as long as I get my tasks done as expected or even beyond expectations. The guilt is not in leaving my child for hours while I am at work but why I have to stay at work fulfilling set hours when one could work differently. I believe every role is different and most people who are not physically engaged at work everyday would have a degree of guilty

  • mmmm nice article ...you wait until you are the working professional single mother of a teenage daughter who is currently having some mental health issues(not good) and see the scrutiny you get!!

    The guilt is well and truly massive!!! I could not have made a more correct choice for myself but whether or not her mental health issues are because of the career choices ...who knows. But the issue here is the judgment of the health care professionals and strangely my mother.....although she was a physiotherapist and worked full time as well....im not sure if they are saying that its because I'm single or because I'm a professional full time working woman???

  • Very good article. Agree that working women should stop apologizing--especially to themselves--and own the fact that they (hopefully) enjoy the many benefits of working and take pride in contributing to the long-term financial security of their families. Read my blog post: "Peace Talks for the Mommy Wars": http://linkd.in/1oVRK0e

  • stevemarks0004

    It's interesting to me that even in a piece decrying judgment and the imposition of guilt regarding personal parental choices, those sentiments are implicitly present. Stay at home parents aren't people who want intellectual stimulation or adult contact?

  • Lara Wilkinson

    Can you please pinpoint exactly where in the article anyone stated that stay at home parents aren't people who want intellectual stimulation or adult contact?

  • My opinion, which I realize it is just that, is children , especially babies need to be raised full time by at least one of their parents. Day cares are not the way to go. If you decide to have kids, take care of them and raise them. Don't pay others to do your job for you. This article does nothing but try to make all full time two parent employed parents feel better about themselves for doing so. Everyone wants to have everything right now, instant gratification, which then often makes it necessary for both parents to work to afford this. Tell yourselves what you want about how working makes you feel better about yourselves. But your children are the ones suffering. Babies and children are only little for a short time. Raise them and enjoy them and then start or continue your careers when they at least become school aged. Again this is only my opinion or comment and that's what this spot is supposed to be used for.

  • Absolutely brilliant article. Thank you for sharing. In my book www.HappyWomanHappyWorld.com I describe how setting a main focus (priority) during one's phases can be a game changer. I call this ego-RHYTHM and it goes like this. We figure out with rhythm we are in, we set a main focus on that rhythm and base all decisions on it. Until the next ego-RHYTHM comes and than that is our priority. That way we don't get caught forever but we keep room to change and adjust as our needs change and adjust.

  • Its much to easy to get embroiled in the nitty gritty minutiae here. So long as you see the big picture. If one feels guilt, then one must feel they are doing something wrong ?

    Having a culture or society say your mind is wrong, is clearly in contradiction with how you feel. Therefore, your gut feeling is usually best in situations such as this. So the decision is with the individual.

    I suggest a little Seneca : http://www.forumromanum.org/literature/seneca_younger/brev_e.html

  • So what I am saying is, it's not a man v. women issue, its a family issue how you plan for children. Children are precious, they want to be with their Mom or Dad, and they kinda need to be with their Mom or Dad. As good as daycare maybe, nothing beats having your Mom/Dad being around when you are little. So if you make the commitment to nurture kids, you should honor that commitment in their formative years.

  • Jill Curtis

    Great article. As a working mom, I get tired of the "mommy guilt" articles. My kids have been in day care and after school camps, and they are happy, well-adjusted kids. I like myself better when I work (in addition to having to), but that's the way it is and it's going to be okay. I don't hear many dads apologizing for leaving their kids when they go to work.

  • mrsmjulian

    I agree that this shouldn't be a male or female issue, particularly when there are many husbands taking full advantage of the fact that so many women can and will earn a breadwinning paycheck. Men themselves often pressure their wives to "get a job" as if care of our children were not as important a job as one that pays a salary.

    Daycare/verses homecare is matter that should be discussed before marriage, and both parents should be baring the consequences or rewards. We all have our morals or ideals in place long before we say, "I do."

    If a couple is taking the kids to daycare the father bares the same responsibility for doing so.