Working Mom Guilt? Here's Invaluable Advice for Getting Through It

Working Mom Guilt? Here's Invaluable Advice for Getting Through It

For some of us, it’s sobbing for days when we first drop off our babies at daycare or leave them with caretakers. For others, it’s valiantly trying to get work done during naptimes and at night. For Mara Martin, it was bringing her nursing daughter onto the catwalk during a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model contest. Whatever your work life looks like these days, nothing is easy about returning to work after having a baby. But the panelists at SHE Media’s virtual #BlogHer20 Parenting summit on Friday had some very helpful advice on how to get through it.

“A lot of times as mothers, we set these expectations [for ourselves] that are so high and really rigid, because that’s who we are as women — we’re trying to fill all these different buckets and plates,” Dr. Jessica Shepherd summed up the typical postpartum attitude in the panel, called “Bye Bye Balance and Hello Work-Life Integration.” “And now there’s a new human that we’re trying to provide for, and be that happy mom. … Inside we’re not feeling that happy or beautiful.”

Even as an OB/GYN, Shepherd was surprised by how hard it was to return to “normal” after having a child. Now, she tells her patients to expect the emotional and hormonal rollercoaster of postpartum life to last anywhere from eight month to a year.

But because we live in the U.S., where there’s still no national paid maternity leave policy and most women return to work after 10 weeks, we’re not the only ones asking a lot of ourselves. Our employers are too.

“Sometimes you show up and you don’t look pregnant anymore, and it’s like everyone has moved on,” said Dana Kirwin, director of employer groups at Medela, a sponsor of the panel. “They forgot that you just had a baby and you’re dealing with this huge change.”

That’s one reason Martin’s moment on the catwalk struck such a chord, garnering millions of views. She was reminding the world what a woman looks like — and what a woman is expected to juggle — five months after having a baby.

“It was such a powerful moment, not just for normalizing breastfeeding, but also it was normalizing motherhood,” Martin said on the panel.

While we’re all for urging our lawmakers to improve family leave policies on the state and federal level, Kirwin, Shepherd, and Martin all had some words of advice for how moms can improve things for themselves.

1. Understand that your emotions are normal.

The guilt, sadness, and even resentment you might feel about handing off your baby to someone else and not being your best, pre-baby self at work is totally OK, and not at all rare.

“Reminding yourself this is normal, reminding yourself that this is temporary — it’s important to know when you’re in it,” Kirwin said. “It is not permanent, and remembering that you’re not alone [helps]. All moms feel this, and it’s OK to feel it, and it’s OK to talk about it.”

2. Reach out to others for help.

If you haven’t already joined a moms group in real life or online, you may want to now, particularly for help with tip #1. Some moms groups get a bad rap for being a hub for perfectionist supermommies, but you can also find your own niche full of moms who are just trying to survive day by day with their sanity semi-intact.

Kirwin also recommended finding a colleague or coworker who has been through this before you.

“She probably has 10 lessons off the top of her head that she says, ‘Boy, I wish I’d known this in my first 30 days back instead of figuring it out six months later,’ ” Kirwin said.

3. Ask for flexibility at work.

“It’s not that we can’t do the work; it’s just that we need some adjustment in order to accomplish the goals while still caring for this new human,” Shepherd said of new moms in the workplace.

Kirwin pointed to Medela’s New Moms Healthy Returns site, where there’s a letter you can print out to give to your HR manager to ask for time and space to pump. You can do the same for other things you might need, like flexible hours or different travel schedules. Don’t assume your workplace doesn’t want to help you do your best if you haven’t yet told them how to make that possible. (And yeah, there are still jerk employers out there, but it’s important to try!)

4. Don’t let guilt stop you!

We’d like to think that just by seeing Martin walk down that runway, we’d all instantly feel OK with pursuing our career goals as mothers. Not so much. It takes work to push away our guilt and the constant feelings of inadequacy. But maybe the panel members’ words can help, too.

“I certainly struggled with that guilt and feeling bad for being away a lot,” said Kirwin, who works from home but also travels for her job with Medela. “But I also remind myself that empowering my husband to be a primary caretaker some of the time is really important for him and his relationship with my son. I also try to remind myself that being a working woman is a model. … I want [my son] to grow up in a world where that’s normal: Moms and dads both work.”

Martin agreed. “Everything I’m doing is for [my daughter], whether I’m working or if I’m home … I’m doing it for her, to set an example,” she said.

Finally, Shepherd said that while our guilt is normal, it actually might be uncalled for, from our babies’ perspectives anyway.

“The physiology of the bond between a mother and a baby is innately there,” she explained. “Most times, babies are like, ‘I thought you were here all the time. I didn’t even notice that you were gone.’ But we’re here counting the minutes and [thinking], ‘I can’t believe I have to do this to get back to the baby.”

What’s most important, where both mom and baby are concerned, is being fully present during the time that we are with our kids, “maximizing those moments and making them really special,” Shepherd said. When you’re able to make your children feel like their bond with you is solid, you can also let them get used to you taking time out for yourself, beginning when they’re newborns.

Kirwin had the perfect way to sum it all up, and we kind of want to tattoo this on our arm — or at least make it a poster to hang in every workplace and home: “If your child looks at you and they love you and they know they’re loved, you’re doing the right thing.”

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