Betty-Ann's Both Sides Blog

Getting Over Working Mother’s Guilt

When facing motherhood many women withdraw from their careers fearing they can’t do a good job of both. Meanwhile others continue to work and carry guilt that it is detrimental to their children. Recently, Harvard Business School researchers studied two international surveys of more than 100,000 people and found almost nothing to reinforce these concerns. Their findings, cited in the April edition of Journal Work, Employment and Society, stated that children with career mothers do “tend to lead different lives than those with stay-at-home moms. But not bad different”.

So on Mother’s Day working moms can take a collective sigh of relief and release their mother’s guilt. The research shows that daughters of working women are more likely to have careers and that they are likely to have better, higher paying jobs. The sons of working moms grow up doing more household chores and taking care of younger siblings. As men, they expect to partner at home with a working mom which led the researchers to conclude that they might have more stable marriages.

At the Betty-Ann Heggie Womentorship program at the University of Saskatchewan’s Edwards School of Business, one of the first items on the agenda of most protégés, is “How do you do both?” The women asking the question are always proficient and competent in most every aspect of their lives but are seeking reassurance that it is possible to be a good mother while having a career. During the day they might be a project manager on a large construction site, confidently issuing orders to the men below them. But the self-assurance of such women quickly disintegrates with the thought that their job may negatively affect the well-being of their children.

During one of these discussions a Womentor in our program, who sits on many publicly-traded boards and has had a stellar career as a lawyer, stood up and said, “I put in long hours and often felt guilty but my kids are grown, have good educations and successful careers. They didn’t end up in prison, so you can relax. The idea that you are hurting your kids by having a career is a myth”. As women we need to hear these messages so the Harvard report, which challenges previous notions, can put our minds at rest.

Still, we need tips on how to manage it all. Recently I came upon some great advice in the book, Darling, You Can’t Do Both: And Other Noise to Ignore on Your Way Up by Janet Kestin and Nancy Vonk. The authors make it clear that having a baby and a career will not be a breeze and is often messy. Yet, they provide lots of sage advice on how to combine both, starting with the fear that motherhood makes you a lessor employee in the eyes of the boss. It doesn’t reduce your negotiating power and they advise women to put these thoughts aside and simply ask for what they want. Interestingly, these working moms are often pleasantly surprised when they get it!

I have found this to be the case as well. A woman in our program whose company had never had someone work from home allowed her to do so two days a week. She simply had to make the request. It’s easy to assume the company won’t allow it but you have to state what you need. The book gives an example of a woman who changed the hours of her workday to allow herself a little alone time after the kids went to school, which made all the difference to her quality of life. “If you are valued, not only will you not be demoted, but in companies that are committed to finding and keeping the best talent, you will continue to have leverage”, the authors say.

Another topic that always comes up at our Womentorship program is , “How do I stay in touch with the office when I am on maternity leave so that I am not forgotten?” Kestin and Volk tell the story of a women who scheduled regular meetings with her boss while on maternity leave to review HIS goals. She asked specifically about the company’s business priorities over the next year and it gave her a chance to consider how she would fit in when she returned to the office. It is important to be strategic about your career, even while on maternity leave.

The authors also outline how motherhood adds value to a woman’s skill set. For example, the empathy gained from ‘feeling their baby’s pain’ makes women better able to understand others and ‘feel their feelings’. There is no better way to anticipate the reaction of the market, which can be a huge benefit to your company. Dealing with a cranky baby develops patience and coping skills while handling any two year old helps you learn to manage difficult relationships. To fit in all that is required to handle a career and kids, mothers have to learn time management and become adept at creating systems. All of this makes them better executives.

While there are benefits for working moms and there are benefits for their children it doesn’t mean that the kids of a woman who chooses to give up her career and become a stay-at-home mom are at a disadvantage. The Harvard report stresses that there isn’t one correct way to raise a child and that neither alternative is inherently negative. The important thing is that we have choice and moms who are wrestling with guilt because they continue to work can relax. It may not be perfect but combining career and motherhood can be managed. Regardless what our choices, let’s celebrate this Mother’s Day guilt free!