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Erin J. Shea Headshot

Guilty Party

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I'm pretty sure I get it now.

Since becoming a mother, never once have I presumed or judged or questioned other moms when they wrote or talked about guilt and motherhood. Only two years into the mission, I knew I hadn't really experienced it for myself, so who was I to judge?

Now that my daughter is a toddler, and now that my job has become more demanding, let the guilt begin.

My daughter, Abigail, got sick. Again. She's been sick every month, like clockwork, since last summer. And she's fine, really. In the pantheon of childhood illnesses, regular colds are small. But for the entirety of my adult life, I've grappled with residual memories from my childhood, and how in-the-way I felt whenever I was sick, and I've vowed that my child would never feel that way.

And so it's hard when, at 5 p.m., on the night of the week you arrange to work in the office as late as anyone needs you to, you learn your kid isn't responding to the usual Motrin/Tylenol methods and has started shaking. When you're not there and there are two more meetings you've scheduled that have yet to take place and it's the nanny taking care of her, not you. Juggling how you or your husband is going to take the one car you share to get to the doctor in the Southwest suburbs from downtown Chicago to figure out what the heck is NOW causing your kid heartache.

I know just how lucky I have it, in terms of managing things. This isn't about that.

The guilt I feel leaves me gobsmacked on days like this one. The guilt I feel about not caring for my child in the way I want. The guilt about not being there at my job the way I'd like. I am the cliché -- no one gets enough of my focus anywhere, so I feel like everyone loses, including me.
No one can be everything for everyone all of the time. That's just common sense. But common sense is a moot point flying in the face of conversations about leaning in or being left out or just leaving altogether and letting someone else bother with the business of ceiling breaking, because seriously? I've got a 2-year-old who is miserable and keeps pleading for "Mama cuddles, ok?"

And it's not like this all the time, of course, but I think that's mainly because on most days, you can balance the needs better. Or, that is to say, that the detritus around work and family reach a daily détente, one that implicitly states that only one party will demand so much from the motherland. Some days, negotiations break bad.

I like to believe I always make The Right Call, and that means putting my kid first. But I know I'm still wrapped up in the business of work for at least another hour after I walk in the door. Lately, I'm clocking 50-60 hours of work a week. Still, I try to be where she needs me to be.

For me, it was different when she was a baby, still a bit of a blob, and I was still a bit of a mess. Now, she's so clearly her own little person, and there is so much about her I find fascinating and interesting and being professionally successful doesn't seem to compare on the days where this fascinating human being needs her mom.

There's no answer, of course. And this isn't the exclusive province of the parent who works outside the home. Most days, I forgive myself for the ridiculous shit I do (or don't do) and make a vow to do better, by everyone. Most days, I make conscious decisions to not say yes to things.

But then there are those days, days where I cancel meetings, hurriedly collapse my laptop and gather my papers and throw on my coat so I can sprint toward a sick kid who needs me to just hold her for two and a half hours in the dark and quiet so she can get some sleep, and I don't know how I will ever get any of it right.