Q What do you make of guilt? I realize I have to work, but I still feel that tug when the 4-year-old is begging me to stay somewhere with her or asking me to be there at school pickup time. Or sometimes I have to travel. How do others deal with the guilt of doing things because we have to (or, frankly, because we like to do them), without the kids? I know this is an age-old problem. And woe is us, right? I mean, our grandparents had to work in the Depression, and they weren’t sitting around feeling sorry for themselves because they had to go to work. I guess what I’m asking is: How do we deal with that pull to be with our kids but also needing to be at work?
A You have a couple of questions here and, believe me, if I knew a simple way to alleviate guilt in working parents, you would have already heard about it and I would be a very rich woman.
First off, this is tough because two-working-parent homes are pretty new in American culture. We have very little to model when it comes to working and not feeling guilty, and that tug between work time and family time.
And because it can take humans a long time to adapt to a change or invention, it is easy to spot our failings, shortcomings and struggles when it comes to work/life balance. When I say “our failings,” I am referring society as a whole. From inadequate paid-leave laws and missed signs of loneliness and depression in new parents to the new parents who burn the candle at both ends and don’t have the supports in place to catch them when they fall.
As we try to adapt to our working culture, parenting is difficult all on its own. When you add the stresses of career, day care, school schedules, typical childhood illnesses, complex schedules, marriage and the grind of everyday life? Well, how can you not feel guilty? Something must be sacrificed. It is an untenable system. Period. This is where the guilt comes in.
I like Merriam-Webster’s definition of guilt: “Responsibility for a crime or for doing something bad or wrong; a bad feeling caused by knowing or thinking that you have done something bad or wrong.”
This is a useful definition because it provides a very clear way to think about your own emotional life. Are you responsible for doing something wrong or bad? Are you breaking a law? Of course not. Yet, the “something” wrong or bad may be that you are going against a conviction, a principle that you hold dear.
Even though Americans are somewhat obsessed with living “guilt-free,” guilt is an amazingly clear and helpful emotion when you are living in opposition to your values.
So, I am asking you this: Do your life and how you are raising your family reflect your values?
I know that is a loaded question. Let’s face it: Balance is elusive, and it’s day-to-day.
But if you look at the bigger picture, does the trajectory feel good? Do you think, “Hmm, yes, this is okay. I like what I am seeing here.” Or do you feel defeated? Angry? Depressed? Pay attention to those feelings. I am not suggesting you blow up your career or make sweeping changes, but you should have some important conversations with people in your life and think about how you are living.
The second definition, “a bad feeling caused by knowing or thinking that you have done something bad or wrong,” is also interesting.
The operative word in this definition is “thinking.” You think you should feel bad. You think you may be doing something wrong. You think that you are not in line with your values, and so guilt pops up.
This guilt needs to be challenged differently. Although it does affect fathers, I see a strong case of the “shoulds” impacting mostly mothers. Why? There are a variety of reasons (and you should read Brigid Schulte’s “Overwhelmed” to learn more about this), but essentially, “women in the workplace” is a new development, historically speaking. Women are largely expected to do everything a stay-at-home mother was doing and bring home the bacon. All while smiling. Simply put: Mothers haven’t found our footing in the work/family life. We need our cultural and political systems to help us more, but we also need to be kinder to ourselves. Much kinder.
Of course we are pulled to be with our children. We are biologically wired to want to be close to our children, and they to us. This is how our species keeps going. And children are also biologically programmed to be able to withstand periods of emotional and physical distance, but this works only if the relationship is strong enough to bear the separation. What does this mean? The stronger the connection, plus the older the child, equals the child’s (and the parent’s) ability to be apart.
What do you do from here? First of all, stop piling on with the Great Depression stories. It takes no effort to find people who are suffering 10 times more than you are. All you are doing is finding a way to shame yourself for your feelings, so stop that. You are being unkind to you, and that is not okay.
Next, find a mothers group, a church group, a therapist, a coach (anyone compassionate and loving and challenging). This will help you talk out your feelings and look at your guilt, rather just be a reactive victim of it.
Finally, look at the connection with your 4-year-old. Even if you work (and love it) and even if you are busy, there is always time to connect with your child. Have an honest conversation with yourself about your connections, and then make a plan for more time. More time snuggling, more time playing, more time laughing, more time doing what 4-year-old children like to do. If you stay in the place of worry and despair and shame, your guilt will take over and lead you to believe you have no choice.
You are asking the right questions. Keep going.
Also at washingtonpost.com Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A with Leahy at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past columns. Her next chat is scheduled for Dec. 2.