How working mom guilt holds you back in career, money and life

emma johnson podcast like a mother

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Have you ever heard a man say he feels guilty for going to work?

[har har har]

However, I guarantee you have felt guilty as woman for working. 

Whether or not you are a mom, caregiver, mom to a fur baby. Single or married, gay or straight.

The message is the same to all of us about who you should be as woman: Married to a rich guy, 2.2 kids, and a house. 

Even if your own upbringing was progressive, as mine was. Even if we almost had a woman in the White House. Even though women are the majority of undergraduate students, and 40 percent of families are headed by breadwinning women. 

These pressures to be June Cleaver affect all of us. And they hold you back.

Don’t believe me?

A few years ago, I attended a casual cocktail party in New York City, where I live. The guests were all professionally successful women in various fields: a global head of marketing for a luxury car brand, a tech startup founder, a pianist who came to the event right from a Carnegie Hall performance, the founder of an international women’s aid organization. Most of us were mothers, and as I flitted from the conversations percolating around the room, one voice stood out:

The woman, a married mom of a 5-year-old, who heads diversity efforts for a Fortune 500 company, described the social ostracization she feels as the only working mother in her affluent Manhattan co-op building, which happened to be populated by several dozen elementary-aged kids who often played together, and whose parents regularly socialized. She sensed snubs in the elevator, and she and her husband weren’t invited to play dates or dinner parties the rest of the families enjoyed.

In recounting this scenario, this woman became increasingly, visibly upset — and defensive. “My daughter is thriving in every sense!” she said to the half-dozen other, working moms who in no way called for an explanation about her life. “She is doing great at school! She is a leader! She has lots of friends!”

It broke my heart — not just a little, but a lot. This woman, who had put herself through Ivy league undergraduate and business schools, who was by far the breadwinner in her family (her husband is an academic who earns a fraction of her income, she said), who clearly is passionate about a career focused on gender and race equality, felt the need to defend why she, as a mother, holds a paying job outside her home.

This woman’s challenge is similar to that of a childhood friend of mine, who I visited recently. My friend spent her first 10 years of motherhood working part-time in retail, a field that doesn’t interest her, and focused instead on raising her two children while her husband was the primary breadwinner. Recently, as we sipped coffee in her kitchen while our kids played outside, I was in awe of how much she lit up with excitement as she told me about returning to school to earn a master’s degree in music education, with the plans to launch a new career in teaching. But then her tone turned hushed, and her excitement muted. “I know my kids should be enough, but they’re not,” she said with unabashed shame. “I need something for me, too.”

Why is it these women are so full of shame about pursuing paying work — and careers they’re passionate about?

In this episode of Like a Mother, I drill into where all this working mom guilt comes from, how it affects you, and specific steps you can take to shed the June Cleaver complex, and not only thrive and grow yourself, but support other women around you, too.


 

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