Ep #97: Managing Working Mom Guilt

Strong as a Working Mom with Carrie Holland | Managing Working Mom Guilt
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In the group I run for physician moms and in my coaching sessions, there’s one topic that comes up regularly: working mom guilt. I struggle with this guilt myself from time to time, so we’re diving deep into it in today’s episode and I’m addressing it directly by giving you concepts and strategies for dealing with working mom guilt.

This episode is designed to help you not only manage working mom guilt, but also to help you change the narrative you have around your guilt in the first place. Even if you aren’t a working mom, or a mom at all, there are still biases and expectations placed upon all of us and they present significant challenges that can be addressed by what I’m sharing today.

Tune in this week to discover some useful ideas, tips, and strategies to make working mom guilt less of an obstacle for you in your life. I discuss the deep societal conditioning women and girls receive around having both a career and a family, and you’ll learn what you can do to start easing the pain and discomfort of your working mom guilt.

Are you ready to eat, move, and think in a way that gets you strong both physically and mentally? You deserve to have both no matter how busy you are, and I can help. I’m opening up my one-on-one coaching program for new clients, and I would love to work with you. Click here to learn more about working with me.

What You Will Discover:

  • Why working mom guilt occurs and where it comes from.
  • What working mom guilt looks like and how to see your own working mom guilt.
  • How women have been conditioned, culturally and societally, around career and motherhood.
  • The unrealistic standards we’re held to as working moms that leaves us feeling exhausted and guilty.
  • How mom guilt might be manifesting in your life as perfectionism.
  • Why ignoring your working mom guilt won’t help you feel better.
  • How to truly process your working mom guilt when you feel it and meet yourself with real self-compassion instead of judgment.

Listen to the Full Episode:

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Full Episode Transcript:

You are listening to the Strong as a Working Mom podcast, Episode #97. If you’ve ever felt “working mom” guilt, let me help you with a different perspective.

Welcome to the Strong as a Working Mom podcast. If you’re balancing career, family, wellness, and some days sanity, you are in the right place. This is where high-achieving, busy, working moms get the tools they need to eat, move, and think. I’m your host, physician, personal trainer, and certified life coach, Carrie Holland. Let’s do this.

Hey, how are you? What’s new, what’s good? So, what’s good here, today we’re talking about working mom guilt. I’ve realized that over the course of this podcast it’s come up here and there, and I’ve touched on it but I haven’t really dug in. Then, more recently, it came up again in a group that I run for physician moms, and it’s also come up quite a bit lately in my coaching sessions. Even in my own life, I have and still struggle with that guilt myself. So, I decided we’re going to hit it face on today.

But before we do that, I want to share some cool things going on here with the podcast. There are some changes coming. They are most definitely in progress and I will announce it on the 100th episode, which is only a few weeks away.

Even just saying that, I’m having a hard time believing that we are 100 episodes in. So, I’ll just take that as an opportunity to thank you so much for listening. It’s been a lot of fun to bring this podcast to you every week. I’m super proud of this resource that I’ve built for you and for my clients. Beyond that, thank you for the messages, the positive feedback, the suggestions for episodes, and for sharing the ways that this podcast has helped you. It really means a lot to me, and it reinforces to me that this message matters. That message is that it is absolutely 100% worth it to take care of your mind and your body so that you not only feel good for yourself, but also so that you can be at your best for the people who matter to you.

I’ve said it numerous times before, and I really believe it, but I believe that no woman should have to choose between her career, her family, wellness, or herself or her soul. I don’t think it should be a unicorn fantasy that a woman can have all of those things without feeling like a hot mess. I recognize that it’s not easy and that there are demands and responsibilities that working women have. But I don’t think it should be an anomaly that a woman feels aligned and feels mostly at peace between her work life and her life outside of work. I don’t think it should be the exception that a woman feels mostly balanced.

I’m working bit by bit to help change that. That is my message, and that is true, whether you are a working mom or not. All this is to say, thank you for listening and for your support. I really appreciate it. I hope I can continue to bring you useful content, through this podcast, that helps you change your life and changes your perspective one small shift at a time.

So, let’s get into it. I’ve got some thoughts and concepts and ideas that I want to share with you about dealing with working mom guilt. I know I’m taking a risk here by speaking directly to working moms, because I realize there are people here who are not moms who may be listening. I would simply argue that these concepts will likely apply to you as well.

I have a number of clients who are not moms, and there are still biases and expectations placed upon them as well. I want to acknowledge that, even if it’s something I’ve not had as my own lived experience. I fully recognize that women who have careers and who don’t have children, whether by choice or not, they also have very real and significant challenges, and I acknowledge that.

With that said, here’s where we’re going today. I want to give you ideas to consider to help you not only manage working mom guilt, but also to help you start to change the narrative about it in the first place. To be clear, I am not aiming to solve the problem of working mom guilt in one 30-minute podcast. Instead, I want to give you some ideas to consider to help make working mom guilt less of an obstacle for you. Okay? So, let’s go.

Why does this problem even exist? Why is working mom guilt even a thing? This is the subject of many books, as well as many college and graduate courses, and we could likely go on about this for hours. But to keep it very simple, working mom guilt is a result of our cultural upbringing.

Women, for much of history, have been seen and treated as caregivers. Women are the identified nurturers. We are seen as, and expected to be, self-sacrificing, thanks to this message being propagated and smeared all over. Not just in real life, but on television, in the news, in storybooks, movies, cartoons, and of course on social media. It’s what we know.

Women are taught from the time they are old enough to understand it, they hold babies. They have their own baby dolls that they mother. They change diapers. They play with toy kitchens. They have pretend cleaning supplies. Girls learn from an early age what the expected role is that a woman plays in the home.

Of course, this isn’t to say that boys can’t or don’t do those things, but these roles are most definitely geared towards young girls and it starts from the time they are old enough to pick up a toy. Then, take those same girls who grow up, get an education, and work their tails off to obtain a career. And then, throw them into the working world, a world that women have not long been a part of, and you’ve got an identity crisis in the making.

It really is no wonder that women struggle. We are taught early on to be good girls, take care of our families, provide cooked meals from scratch, clean clothes, and keep the house running. And should you decide to do something a little different, like have a real legitimate career, that’s great. But those other expectations are still there. Meaning, for so many women, and for many of the women I work with, yes, they go and get the degree and the career, but there’s an expectation, whether spoken or not, that they still have dinner ready, and cupcakes meet for the PTA, and carpool schedules figured out. So, the message being sent in our culture is, “Sure, you can have the career, but if you do it while you have kids you’re taking on two full-time jobs.” In all honesty, some of my clients refer to it exactly that way. Just this week, during a coaching session one of my clients said it.

She said, after working all day at her job as an oncologist, she then came home to a second job where her kids and partner were waiting for her. She said it, straight up, that she feels guilty to even ask for any time to herself, because she’s already gone all day.

Essentially, women who choose to become moms and have a career are taking on two full time jobs. And, that all comes at a cost. Most often, that cost is that women are becoming totally depleted and are left mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted. Some are driven to the point of leaving their careers all together. This is a huge, huge problem.

I know that this is just the tip of the iceberg and there’s so much more to this, but I really just wanted to bring out the point that culturally and societally women are faced with serious challenges when they choose to pursue both a career and a family.

There are unrealistic expectations put upon women that Superwoman herself would not be able to uphold. It gets said all the time, but it’s worth repeating here: Working moms are expected to parent as if they don’t work, and work as if they don’t parent. It is most definitely a double standard, and it sets us up for a total lose/lose situation.

And, that’s when the guilt comes in. The guilt comes from the superhuman expectation that women can and should do it all if they choose to work and have a family. That is setting us up for failure, and the subsequent guilt that follows, from not being able to do it all and do it perfectly.

Okay, so now let’s talk about what to do about it. I think it’s fair to say that most women are acutely aware that having both a career and family is a challenge. I think most working moms realize that there are cultural, societal, political, and even familial norms and expectations to meet. It is an impossible standard.

Based on my own experience, and the experience I’ve gained coaching loads of clients, I’ve observed that working moms are held to unrealistic standards that results in us not only feeling fried, but it also results in many women feeling enormous guilt. That guilt comes from not being able to do it all perfectly.

That guilt has manifested in various ways for me and for so many of my clients. There’s the guilt of missing a school field trip because of an important meeting. There’s the guilt of leaving everyone at home for a week to go to a conference. There’s the guilt of not making homemade treats for the class party because there just isn’t enough time. Those are just a few, I have pages and pages of notes from sessions of the various ways my clients have felt that guilt.

And, it goes in both directions. There’s also the guilt of saying no to a big opportunity at work because it takes you away from your family even more. There’s the guilt of leaving coworkers shorthanded on maternity leave. There’s the guilt of calling in when your kids get sick. It goes both ways.

So, what do you do with that guilt? What do you do with working mom guilt? Here’s what I want to offer you today. This is the idea that I want you to consider. Rather than try to avoid or ignore the guilt that comes with being a working parent, I’m asking you to allow the guilt. Let it be there. As strange as that may sound, I’m suggesting that you practice tolerating guilt.

Because here’s the thing, whether you allow it or not, that guilt is going to be there. That guilt you feel as a working parent is not going anywhere anytime soon. That guilt is a reflection of the culture and society that we live in.

As long as we live in a world where a woman is taught to believe that everyone else’s needs are more important than our own, there will be guilt. As long as women are taught to be self-sacrificing to the point of empty. As long as our parents or in-laws look down on us for not making meals from scratch. As long as our female coworkers tear us down for speaking up, there will be guilt.

My hope is that this will change sometime in my lifetime. But until that time happens, we owe it to ourselves to feel the guilt, because it’s most definitely going to be there, and keep moving forward regardless. Let it be there. Let the guilt be there with you. Don’t try to avoid it. Don’t try to get rid of it. Instead, learn to tolerate it.

Because here’s the key takeaway: The guilt you feel does not mean that anything is wrong. Okay? Let me say that again: The guilt you feel does not mean that anything is wrong. Instead, the guilt you experience means you’re feeling what surfaces when you do something that runs directly counter to the norm that we have been brought up in.

I would argue that’s actually a good thing, because if the way that women are viewed in society, at home, and in the workplace, is going to change, we’re going to have to learn to tolerate the guilt of not being everything to everyone and keep going.

I should clarify here, when I’m suggesting that you allow or tolerate the guilt, I’m not asking you to ignore it, okay? I want to make that super clear. There’s a big difference between allowing and ignoring. You’re not running away from the guilt, you’re not shoving it in a pocket, you’re not turning away from it, in fact, it’s exactly the opposite. You’re walking through it; it’s a concept I’ve described before.

‘Walking through it’ is one of my most favorite tools for dealing with negative emotion. While it sounds super simple in concept, it has gotten me through some of the hardest moments of my adult life. And, I was only able to do it when I got coached. It was through coaching that I realized that I could take care of myself, and be nice to myself, even when I felt negative emotions. It’s that whole self-compassion thing; more on that in a few minutes.

‘Walking through it’ is exactly as it sounds. It simply means that when you encounter a difficult emotion, like guilt, you don’t walk away from it, you don’t react to it, you don’t buffer it, you don’t resist it. Instead, you walk through it. You walk right into it face on and allow it to sit with you. You let it be with you, and you feel what guilt feels like in your body; whatever that is.

For me, guilt feels heavy and slow. It feels like walking through mud. Everything is moving in slow motion, and I have a boulder on my back. It feels like a spotlight glaring on me to bring into light every inadequacy that I’ve got. It feels super heavy and bright and painful.

Whatever guilt feels like for you in your body, when you practice allowing it you let it be with you. You carry it around while you’re at work and your kids are on their field trip. You carry it with you while you’re in your office writing and the rest of your family is outside playing.

You don’t over identify with it and wear it like a scarlet letter, but you also don’t under identify with it and brush it off. You give that guilt space to sit with you for as long as it takes to lighten, so you don’t feel like you’re so heavy anymore. Okay?

Here’s the other key piece I want to mention, and this is essential. While you allow the guilt to be with you, you also practice self-compassion. Because allowing that guilt does you absolutely no good if you beat yourself up over it. That is not the idea here. I’m not asking you to feel the guilt as you berate yourself and cut yourself to shreds.

Instead, I’m asking you to allow the guilt, feel it all the way through, and show yourself compassion as you do it. As a reminder, let’s go back to what self-compassion means for just a second. To do this, we’re going back to the mother of self-compassion, Dr. Kristin Neff, who’s described self-compassion as having three components.

First, you treat yourself with kindness instead of criticism and self-judgment. Very simply, you’re nice to yourself, instead of talking down to yourself and ripping yourself apart with negative self-talk. When you do this, when you treat yourself with kindness instead of criticism, you create inner safety. This is so key, inner safety is so, so important.

When you know that you’ll be kind to yourself and you’ll take care of yourself, and you’ll have your own back no matter what negative emotion you experience, like guilt, then you’ll be more willing to feel the full range of human emotion. It opens you up to the full human experience. Okay?

The second component of self-compassion is recognizing that the suffering that comes with negative emotion, like guilt, is part of the shared human experience. It’s part of our common humanity. It’s recognizing that all humans experienced the pain of guilt, no one is immune.

This is in contrast to isolating yourself and treating yourself as if you are alone in your suffering. That you are the only person on earth to be dealing with the emotion of guilt. Often, when we struggle we have a tendency to isolate, whether that’s physically, mentally or emotionally. It’s easy to think that you are alone in your pain.

But when you practice self-compassion you recognize that suffering is universal. It’s a shared experience. It means that you’re human, and that connects us rather than isolates us. The third component of self-compassion involves mindfulness. All that means is that you neither under identify or over identify with your suffering. You approach that negative emotion in a balanced way, so that you’re not ignoring it. But you’re also not exaggerating it.

You practice accepting the negative emotion with a balanced approach; you’re not wearing it on your shirt and announcing your pain to the world. But you’re also not shoving your pain in a pocket to ignore it. You’re not brushing off your emotion, but you’re also not consumed by it.

Each of these three components of self-compassion are essential when you’re learning to allow guilt. I know I am making a big stink out of this, but it’s because I work with too many women who have not learned how to give themselves compassion.

I will admit, this is not my strong suit either, my own coach is helping me with this. But I will say that it’s worth the effort of embracing self-compassion. And, if you don’t like that word… which to be fully transparent, I don’t. I just don’t like that word… fine. I often replace it with “being nice to yourself”; you can borrow that if you prefer.

But practicing being kind to yourself is not woo, it is not mushy-squishy. Instead, self-compassion is critical if you want to expand your life, grow and evolve. Because it means you are taking care of yourself. Self-compassion is an essential way of taking care of your emotional needs by creating safety for yourself within your own mind.

And that safety is crucial if you’re going to stretch yourself, take risks, buck norms, and go up against the social construct that women have to be everything to everybody at the expense of taking care of themselves. Okay?

This is where being a working mom, tolerating guilt, and self-compassion collide. Do you see that? This is a key take home here. By choosing to take on the challenge of managing a career and family, you are going to be faced with all kinds of expectations. Many, if not most of them, are entirely unrealistic and impossible.

By nature of having two full time jobs, one at home and one at work, your time is likely going to feel in short supply and you will likely feel a constant pull in either direction, to excel and push harder at work, and be available and present for your family and run your home. At least this was my experience, and has most definitely been the experience of so many of my clients.

So, in order to navigate this… in order to be a working mom and feel better… because that’s really at the heart of what I’m aiming for… in order to feel better and feel more at peace with this balancing of roles, of career woman and parent, the take home here is to allow and tolerate the guilt that will inevitably come up for you.

Beyond that, to not only tolerate the guilt but also practice self-compassion while allowing the guilt. When you practice those together, and I mean, really, honestly, legitimately practice feeling guilt while practicing self-kindness, that’s when things will start to shift for you. Okay? From there, you keep going. You keep showing up and doing your best at work. You do your best at home. You recognize that this elusive work/life balance that we’re all seeking is a nice idea in theory, but it generally feels more like a back-and-forth pendulum swing than a true balance.

Maybe the pendulum swings aren’t always super drastic, but all the same, there’s an ever-shifting priority that leads you to have to focus on either work or home. And, you keep going. You ride that wave. There are times when work needs you more; a big project, a major deadline, a reorganization, big conference. Whatever it is, there will be times when you need to devote a significant amount of time and energy to your work at the expense of being fully present and available to your family. That pendulum swings in one direction.

Similarly, there are times when your family needs you more; a big milestone, a performance, a hard time at school or with friends, illness. Whatever it is, there will be times when work just does not matter, and you focus on being present and available for your family. Then, the pendulum swings in the opposite direction. This keeps going back and forth; that’s what it is. And, you keep going.

But here’s the important thing to remember, nowhere in here is a rule that you have to do any of it perfectly. In fact, I would encourage you to let it be imperfect. Practice being okay with imperfection, because the more you try to hold yourself to the impossible standard of perfection, which frankly does not exist, the more you are going to run yourself ragged and the harder it will be to be kind to yourself. I’m asking you to let it be imperfect.

I know this is a hard sell for my high-achieving friends listening. You are not used to accepting imperfect, but that’s part of why I’m saving this for the end. And why I stress the importance of allowing guilt, and practicing self-compassion first. There is most definitely a method to this.

In order to accept imperfection from yourself, you have to be able to tolerate guilt and practice self-compassion first. Because in the process of allowing, you’ll reframe your guilt. When you realize you can tolerate the guilt and offer yourself compassion, your life will change, seriously. This is a huge shift in how you see yourself, and more importantly, how you view yourself in your roles as both a parent and a woman with a career.

What will happen is that you’ll start to see that guilt as something that’s present, but it’s no longer an obstacle. It’s no longer a barrier. That guilt becomes white noise operating in the background. It’s there, you notice it, you acknowledge it, but it doesn’t stop you from going about your life. You realize that it’s okay to feel the guilt of being at work instead of at your kid’s soccer game because you’ll take care of yourself when that guilt arises.

You’ll take care of yourself when you say no to a big opportunity at work in order to have more time at home with your family. Either way, you’ll allow the guilt and you’ll treat yourself with compassion. You’ll see firsthand that nothing is going wrong when that guilt comes up for you. Then, when you’ve built up that self-trust and self-compassion, you’ll be okay with less than perfect.

You’ll be okay with doing your best even if it wasn’t perfect. Even if that summary report or chart note wasn’t an A+. Even if you had to buy Valentine’s for your kid’s school party instead of making them yourself. And all the other imperfections that you encounter as you do your best to navigate being a working parent.

When you tolerate guilt, treat yourself with compassion, and accept imperfection, it’s that trio that will open doors to massive growth for you; at home, at work, and within yourself. That is super powerful.

One other thing I want to add here about tolerating guilt. Part of the reason it can be a serious challenge trying to tolerate the guilt and be self-compassionate is the backlash we get from other people. When I say “other people” I don’t mean just men, but especially from the women in our lives. It can be super disheartening when your own family or people in your circle are either not supportive, or are passive aggressive towards your personal choices, because then they become part of the problem.

Again, much of this goes back to culture, society, and the way women have been raised for centuries. When you come from a family, or if you marry into a family, where women are seen as caregivers and nurturers, or as the ones who take care of the kids and the house, those beliefs may run deep and may be put upon you when you didn’t even ask for them. Then, if you go and shake up the way you approach your own life and family, and maybe you don’t have the same belief system, it can most definitely lead to opinions.

Generations before us have been handed beliefs about what a woman’s place is, and those messages surface in how women judge other women. Even if those women are part of your family. As an example, maybe your mom balks because you used Shipt and have your groceries delivered instead of going to the grocery store yourself.

Or God forbid, you pay someone to clean your house. When she, never in a million years, would have done that. Or maybe she winces at meals that you eat, because they’re not made from scratch the way she makes them. Or maybe your sister cannot believe how much you work, and how much time you spend away from home instead of volunteering at your kid’s school. She shares micro-aggressions when you get together, and while they’re subtle they still sting.

Or maybe you live in a neighborhood or a town where the majority of women stay at home with their kids, or are considered unpaid workers in the home, and these women cannot relate to the choices that you make. Then it gets a little sticky.

Sometimes it’s the people closest to you who don’t understand your choices, because of their own long-held beliefs about what a woman should and should not do. As a result, she may have negative opinions about your choices. And, that’s when it can get really challenging. It can be hard when their biases about a woman’s role are brought to light, whether you asked to know about them or not.

So, while you are working on managing your guilt, practicing self-compassion, and letting yourself be imperfect, both at home and at work, I’m going to add one other element to this: Find your people. They’re out there. Find the women who will talk with you, instead of talk about you. Redefine what it means to be a working mom by supporting other working moms, and all of their imperfections too.

This is not to say that you silo yourself from women who do unpaid work inside the home, or for women who do not have children. That is not it at all. But I do think it’s essential to find a community of women who value, understand, and can empathize with the challenges that you face as a working parent.

And the benefit of this is multifold. Not only are you building up a network of strong, supportive women who get it and understand what it’s like to be on a constantly swinging pendulum. But when you band together you can start to change the narrative for yourself, for your friends, for your children, and for future generations, about what it means to be a working mom in this world.

While I just went over the concepts that you can practice at an individual level, there is also the much bigger picture to consider. That means changing the long-held beliefs held not only by people in power, which are often men but also women, so that we’re not tearing each other down to really address this issue. It’s uprooting the deeply seated beliefs about the place of women in our society, and then creating real, political, cultural, and societal change that actually reflects those beliefs.

That is going to take time. A lot of time and persistence. This is an enormous paradigm shift and not everyone is ready or on board with that, not yet anyway. But little by little, we can change that conversation. We can change the outcome, and we can be part of a movement to create a society where working moms don’t wind up feeling like they are running ragged and failing on all fronts.

It is possible to change how working moms are viewed and treated, but it starts from within. It starts with women treating themselves as whole and worthy and good enough, independent of the titles and successes that they obtain at work, or whether they would win a Mother of the Year award.

It comes from you believing that you are, first and foremost, your own person. That your life and your decisions and your choices are your own. That’s really what this is about. I want you to walk away from this episode with the understanding you are not a machine. You are not meant to live on autopilot, shuffling between work and home, overwhelmed and overcommitted, ultimately, feeling empty. Your desire for both a family and a career should not and does not mean that you’re resigned to running on empty until you can retire and pick up the pieces. Hell no. Instead, please consider the concepts that

I’ve introduced to you today. Practice allowing guilt. Let it be with you, but don’t let it stop you. Let it serve as a reminder that you are changing the story about what it means to be a working parent.

Practice self-compassion. Imagine how you would talk to another working mom when she feels like she’s trying her best and failing. What would you say to her? Then, turn inward and say those things to yourself. Practice being nice to yourself. It feels a heck of a lot better than beating yourself up. And, give yourself permission to be imperfect. Do your best and let that be enough. Let it be imperfect.

Find your people, they’re out there. I promise, you are not alone in your mom guilt. My hope is that the more we find each other, the more we talk about our struggles, the more we support each other, and the more we amplify our voices, that the story will change. And, you will feel better. Alright?

If you want to help with this, let’s go. If you have taken care of everyone else’s needs, at home and at work, at the expense of your own, let’s change that. This is what we do in coaching. I will help you take care of yourself first, so that you can take care of the other important people in your life. Check out my website. Go to www.CarrieHollandMD.com/contact, send me a message, and let’s get to work. Thank you again for hanging out with me. I’ll catch you again next week.

If you like what you’ve been hearing, please review the show. I would love to get your feedback and ideas. Your suggestions have inspired episodes and will help me make the show better for you. Share this podcast with a friend, text a show link, share a screenshot, or post a link to the show on your social media.

Be sure to tag me @CarrieHollandMD on either Instagram or Facebook so I can follow along and engage with you. This is how we get the word out to other working moms who want to feel strong inside and out. If you know someone who wants to feel better or eat and move differently but she is too tired or too busy, it is time to change things up.

You know making that change starts with how you think, and that is what we do here on the Strong as a Working Mom podcast. I’ll see you next week.

Thanks for listening to Strong as a Working Mom. If you want more information on how to eat, move, and think, so you can live in the body you want with the mind to match, visit me at CarrieHollandMD.com.

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