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Sharing the Pangs of Working Mother Guilt

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When I first started working full-time, my son Michael was 11. I had spent the previous seven years in college, earning my B.A. and then pursing a Ph.D., while single-handedly raising my son. Shifting from full-time student to a full-time job was a big change. I was accustomed to spending lots of time at home studying and writing, with only about 25 percent of my time in classes. And Michael was accustomed to coming home from school to his mom and a snack.

Now suddenly, I was gone all day every day, and Michael became a latch-key kid. It was hard on both of us.

One day I complained to my boss Karen: "I feel torn. When I'm doing a great job at work, my kid gets lonely and starts acting out. Then I start spending more time with him and I feel like my work suffers. No matter which way I move, it seems I'm not doing justice to one or the other -- my family or my work."

"Join the club," Karen replied. "Welcome to the world of working mothers. I can guarantee you -- all working moms feel the same push/pull that you're experiencing. And I'll bet some fathers do, too."

"What do you do about it?" I asked her, hoping for a magic bullet to solve my problem.

"Deal with it," she replied. "There is no easy answer. Just learn to live in the tension between work and family ... do the best you can."

I shared that story with Lisa Hammond recently, as we were comparing notes on being working mothers. Lisa had founded her own catalog company almost 20 years ago while she still had young kids at home. She understood exactly what I was talking about -- feeling torn between career and family. Attempting to console me, she shared her own story:

"I always wanted to be the best mom in the world, but I've rarely been able to live up to that standard," Lisa said. "I stayed at home when my kids were little and didn't start my business until they were both in school. When my daughter Harlie was in the fifth grade and my son Bridger in kindergarten, I gave birth to my new business. I had so much going on -- kids, husband, home, and now, a start-up. What I didn't have was sleep!

"I recall it was late October and I was scrambling to get ready for my first serious holiday season at work. Bridger's teacher had scheduled a Halloween party for his class. Since I'm not Martha Stewart, rather than sew Bridger's Halloween costume, I ordered it from a catalog. On the day of the party I got Bridger all dressed up in his green tights, green shoes, bright orange round pumpkin and matching stem hat. He looked adorable. We raced out the door and I dropped him off at school on my way to the office.

"I had only been at work for about five minutes when I received a phone call -- it was the school. Bridger was on the phone in tears. 'Mom, you had the wrong day!' he sobbed. 'The Halloween party is tomorrow!' He was the only child at school in a costume. He had been hiding in the bathroom when his teacher found him. Now I was in tears, too.

"I made the 'drive of shame' home to get Bridger's school uniform and then back to the school so he could change. I'll never forget this angry little boy with a tear-stained face -- dressed like a pumpkin -- waiting for me. The look on his face still haunts me and I cringe when I think about it -- a 'bad mother' day, for sure!"

Lisa and I shared a good laugh. And the wise words of British author C.S. Lewis came to mind: "Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, 'What! You, too? I thought I was the only one.'"

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BJ Gallagher and Lisa Hammond are co-authors of "Oh, Thank Goodness, It's Not Just Me!" (Simple Truths; 2010)

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