My first born turned a decade old the other day. Surely hitting double digits was a huge milestone for her. For me it was a time of reflection on how fast the time has gone by and how much of her childhood I missed in the last 10 years. I want to close my eyes and turn on the reel of memories I have stored away of the day she rolled over for the first time, her first steps, losing her first tooth….. The list goes on and on.
Truth is, I was gone for most of those other milestones in her young life. It wasn’t just the firsts either. There are countless pediatrician visits, parent teacher conferences, sporting/dance events, etc. that I just could not make. Though I know better than to feel guilty anymore about the extra stuff that I might have taken on as a mom like being a coach or a troop leader or a school volunteer, what I wouldn’t give to have been able to console her when she got her shots or to be the one she ran to when she had a nightmare (I am sure she figured “Why bother, Mommy’s side of the bed is empty most nights.”)
While for much of the time I was, as this now wise young lady believes, “taking care of people,” there were plenty of times when I was simply busy doing the other part of my work where people’s lives were not in my hands (e.g. research, education, volunteer efforts for professional societies). While the trickle down effect of each of these efforts will certainly someday improve the care people receive, the guilt of being away from my child–the most amazing thing I have ever accomplished (albeit with some help from my remarkable life partner)–has been heartbreaking at times. Healing the heartbreak has been daunting. I am talking about healing me let alone the lingering effects my absence may have on her. (Luckily she has a great dad and amazing grand parents to counteract my absences.)
I have done more and more, in particular after finally getting my first grown up job in her 7th year of life, to assuage that guilt–to be there as much as I can. When she was in preschool, everyone assumed that my husband was a single parent. I was that out of the picture. Entering into the picture has meant asking my parents to sacrifice daily contact with their grandkids so that I can have a more favorable commute that theoretically frees up times for the kids (alas most activities, events, and meetings still tend to occur between 6am and 6pm and I remain the forever absent mom). It has meant asking my husband to do every more to sustain our household so that I can get in some mommy time (i.e. he will do the dishes, bang out a few loads of laundry so I can maybe, just maybe be awake enough to read a chapter or two to my child). It has meant allowing myself to fall behind on the things where a life is not on the line or where someone else is not holding me to an expectation (I can’t ignore my billing or my employer gets on me, I can’t not proofread a paper that I told someone I would review for them, I can’t put off a grant that has a prescribed federal deadline but I sure can put off my own internal deadlines). In the end, an extra night or weekend of work will sort everything out. I am hardwired to get the job done, so I will. But every long day, every night, and every weekend of getting it done will come at a cost, another empty reel in the memory bank of my daughter’s childhood and, unless I pay re-calibrate the push and pull between work and family, I will find myself at her 20th birthday still ridden with guilt.
I attended a faculty seminar on work-life balance a couple of years ago. Everyone entered that room with a ton of baggage related to their inability to balance work and life with work seemingly winning every time. The upshot of the seminar was essentially: lose the guilt (if you are at work don’t feel guilty about not being at home and if you are at home don’t feel guilty about not being at work). While I have tried especially hard since then (not that I needed to be told but it was a good reminder at a time when I was really, really buried in my work life) to sneak in quality time with my daughter (and her baby brother but I will get all sappy about him when his birthday rolls around) the problem is that it has felt just like that–sneaking around. When spending time with your child feels like sneaking around, the Mommy Guilt has gotten out of hand.
The decade of Mommy Guilt I have built up won’t dissipate easily and surely my profession can move the dial a bit (both surgery and academics) so both men and women don’t have to “sneak around” so much when they choose life over work. But in the end, rather than letting the Mommy Guilt mount in the years to come, I am resolving to feel Mommy Pride for each of the moments that do make it onto the memory reel in my daughter’s teens. Guilt won’t make the reel amazingly devoid of gaps so why bother. I am better off feeling pride in the moments of parenting I am super savvy enough fit in given the nearly (but not completely) all-consuming career I have chosen (and do deeply enjoy).
So yeah, I am pretty proud that I proactively requested a day off over a year in advance so that I could be at my daughter’s birthday party, and that I might have put off writing a manuscript late one night to brainstorm venues and a guest list with her. I ended up delegating the evites, the cupcakes, booking the actual venue to my husband (I could blog pages and pages about how amazing this guy is about getting it done at home while I work and work some more) but I wasn’t entirely absent and that is an accomplishment worthy of pride rather than guilt.
- Mommy Guilt, “Drunk” shopping, and giant giraffes (heelskicksscalpel.wordpress.com)
- An Open Letter to Guilt-ridden Mamas (mamagoesdiy.com)
- The guilt of not being good enough (life-in-focus.org)
- Advice on avoiding “mommy guilt” (fox43.com)
- The Never Ending Battle of Mommy Guilt (thekiwichroniclesblog.wordpress.com)