What’s Up With All the Mommy Guilt?

Let’s get one thing straight right away: If you choose to have a family, the notion that this is an “all or nothing” career decision is ludicrous at best – sinister at worst.  That said, it does require sacrifices. There will be times when you have to leave work to deal with your kids and times when you have to leave kids to deal with your work. There is guilt in both, but you will save yourself a lot of heartache if you decide – up front – that “having it all” doesn’t mean being it all. If your every day is running full-steam from dawn until dusk, it’s time to look in the mirror and admit that you’re not serving you, your kids, or your career.

Therefore, pick an evening, find a sitter, and meet with your partner for an honest assessment of non-negotiables. (Note: This applies whether you’re married, a single parent meeting with an ex, or even if it’s just you.) The time has come to decide which areas of your life – individual and collective – will always be priority and what is getting cut immediately – for now.  You must figure out where the boundaries are, knowing that these boundaries will shift as your kids grow. For example, maybe you want to be more physically present for your kids while they’re in preschool. So plan for these periods without feeling guilty. Grab the school calendar and – in one sitting – add the Christmas play, Valentine’s party, pumpkin festival – whatever – in your calendar, then treat those events like unbreakable client meetings.  You don’t have to announce why you’re leaving the office every time (“I’m off to Kaylie’s school now!”) but you don’t have to keep it state secret either.

 As many parents have learned the hard way, if you wait for the school newsletter to update your schedule, you’re just asking for trouble. (“OMG! There’s a Mother’s Day luncheon on Thursday?!?”)  If you’ve ever done this – errrr, guilty – you know what happens next. That’s right. You’re running around Target at the last minute on a desperate hunt for Tupperware and cookies – secretly hoping you can put the cookies IN the Tupperware and and pass them off as homemade. We’ve all been there at one point or another, but if you’re constantly having “OMG!” moments of panic, it’s time to get proactive about your schedule.

But more than just getting clear on what you plan to DO, proactive scheduling also means getting clear on what you’re NOT going to do. So maybe you’re giving all you can to your job and kids while they’re in diapers, but that means you have to say no to excessive travel, joining the industry association, grad school, or fundraising for the library gala. So be it. These are the type of (hard) lines you have to draw with eyes wide open because you will be tested. Maybe it’s a close friend who promises that if you juuuuust join the marketing committee she’s chairing – all you’ll have to do is attend a lunch board meeting once a month. She smiles, throws down the I-really-need-you card, and next thing you know you’re stuffing envelopes in the middle of the night and writing a donation check with money you don’t have.

Believe me, I understand the perils of taking on too much. When my boys were just two and four, I started a new job, I was in a leadership program that had me traveling out of town two nights per month for a year, I was co-chair of my city’s young professional network, and I was writing my first book, Effective Immediately, “on the side.” My breaking point was the night I received an email from my boss at the time asking me and a few other managers to pack for a two-day strategic planning session. I could feel myself welling up and – then – the ugly cry.

I’m not Superwoman and neither are you.

At the time, though, I took on so much because was terrified that if I put any of those amazing opportunities on the back burner I’d lose them forever. So I sucked it up. I ran fast, I ran hard and, yes, there were a number of evenings where I’d come home only to stare at my sleeping boys, having missed a whole day of their young lives. For me, those moments stung the most because I felt completely victimized by the demands on my time. I wasn’t clear about what was negotiable and what wasn’t, so everyone else’s need felt like my call. But the need is NOT the call. If you have kids, they are…. though it doesn’t have to be at the expense of your career. So in your non-negotiable meeting, think about what you’ll do the next time someone:

Asks you to join a committee you’re not passionate about? 

Invites you to lunch when you really don’t want to go? 

Wants to ‘pick your brain’ over coffee? 

A very successful friend of mine uses the following litmus test to decide whether to attend anything that isn’t required of her: “If it’s not ‘HELL YEAH’ – it’s ‘no.’


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