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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How working mom guilt holds you back in career, money and life. Working mom career advice. Single mom career tips.

One thought on “How working mom guilt holds you back in career, money and life

  1. hope this thread is still live!

    Unfortunately, its my observation that there just is no ‘rule’ or formula that will ever settle this debate.
    Families – intact or not – are so unique in their dynamic.

    In a perfect world, mom and dad come to the quiet realization that they’ve ‘grown apart’ and its better for everyone to make a clean break. In this perfect world, both parents are gainfully employed or able to suddenly become gainfully employed, or there is enough money for one parent to be present and focused mainly on the kids. I don’t know what the studies say, but in my middle class corner of the world, what I’ve observed is that it benefits the child(ren) to have a consistent mature responsible adult presence. I haven’t noticed that it HAS to be mom … only that the adult is consistent, mature, and present. Actually, I’ve observed this to be true in a range of socioeconomic groups we interact with with. Just my observations. No stats to back that up. Sorry.

    Back to the perfect world …
    Once the marriage has been amicably dissolved in a timely manner, both parents are equally invested in their children’s physical, emotional, and financial health. There is, of course, extended family close by who are healthy and have the time and the desire to pitch in because….everyone is living in Perfect World.

    I never found Perfect World.
    I’m an unexpected divorced mom of one now 18 year old daughter.

    This incredible human had undiagnosed heatlh issues throughout her childhood. She suffered from crippling anxiety due to her lack of diagnosis and subsequent misdiagnosis (not for lack of trying on my part!). I drove the charge for an answer because we agreed I would be the main caretaker. Dad financed the charge for an answer by having – luckily – a stable long term job with excellent health insurance. He never ever balked at paying out of pocket for specialists and mental health professionals who weren’t covered. We were always united and still are when it comes to our daughter’s health.

    Our child couldn’t attend school regularly and couldn’t be left home alone even though at the height of her illness before we knew what was wrong, she was in 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th grade.

    Had I even managed to find, interview for, and be hired as a full time employee somewhere, I would have been fired eventually. Literally.
    I’ve always been a hard worker and knew I had to start making my way.( I worked full time up until 4 days before I delivered our daughter, and was exclusively nursing her when I went back to work part time at 7 weeks. Our family was intact until she was 10.)

    As my marriage was dissolving, I got lucky and landed a part time flexible position working in public education. My office was .50 miles from my home. I could get home in 5 min or less if I had to.
    I wasn’t handed that job … I pretty much stalked the hiring director. It paid off. I’ve been there for 8 years.
    However, as a part time employee I didn’t and still don’t qualify for health insurance. Our daughter was always covered under her dad’s plan. But as for me? I was on my own and good luck to me! Dad was more than willing to pay for anything our child needed. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t even listening when I asked how I was supposed to work full time to qualify for health insurance when I couldn’t leave our daughter long enough. Dad talked a lot about being a great father and used every Facebook photo op to display his devotion to parenting. The reality was somewhat but not entirely different.

    Dad carried me on his health insurance a while longer by postponing the official divorce signing. Yes. You bet I was grateful!! Remember though, I wasn’t sitting home in my bathrobe eating bonbons sucking up complimentary COBRA. I was working hard holding on to my part time job in between crisis with my daughter(along with pitching in to care for my mom, a retired RN who developed Alzheimers in her late 50’s or early 60’s) . Eventually our divorce was finalized. At the time my only option was COBRA which cost almost 6k for 3 months. I paid for that out of my 401k settlement money(which I fought tooth and nail for. The amount was not life changing or life sustaining). Every nickel helps for sure! Say it with me this time – I was very very lucky.

    Thanks to another stroke of luck, along came the ACA. I didn’t ever expect to need something like that, but let me tell you – I was and still am grateful it was born. I’m not addressing the politics of it. I’m just telling you that it was the only way for me to have health care.

    The point I’m taking a long time to make is that there doesn’t seem to be a one size fits all rule for custody or support.

    We never tried the 50/50 arrangement for many reasons – my daughter’s health being one of them.

    My daughter does have a few friends who are from divorced families who lived with a 50/50 arrangement.

    Again – one size doesn’t fit all. However, each 50/50 agreement I’ve been able to observe began to lose its luster when the child became a young teen. Not long after it lost its luster, each teen I’m familiar with became resentful at having to pack up and change locations every so many days and the arrangement evolved into the child wishing to spend more time wherever they felt most comfortable. In one case it was clearly dad’s house. In all of the other cases, it was mom’s house.

    FYI – most therapists and some family law practitioners will tell you that around the age of 13 or 14, you can’t really MAKE the child go to mom or dad’s house if they decide they don’t want to.
    I mean – you CAN, but not forever and not with any measure of harmonious success.

    Although studies ‘prove’ that 50/50 is best – is it REALLY? Would we like moving our little over-night bag around every 4 days? Even in a best-case scenario where the children can pretty much have duplicate wardrobes, etc., is it REALLY ideal for the child to bounce back and forth like that?

    In everything I have personally spied with my little eyes (just a figure of speech. I didn’t spy on the divorced people I know) 50/50 seems to sometimes suit the parents most by letting them parent 50% of the time, and be free 50% of the time. No guilt there for anyone! No over whelming burden of mostly single parenting for anyone! Its all divided evenly!
    What a perfect world we have created.

    I don’t have the answers! I believe the large majority of us all do the very best we can with the cards we are dealt.

    I haven’t even touched on the families where, for example, Dad is self employed, shows little income, and walked out on mom with 4 kids age 6 and under. This is a true real live family I met. Dad doesn’t want those kids 50% of the time! He’s lying about his income so he’s not too concerned with having a hefty support payment. How is mom going to get a job? How will she get any child support if dad is cheating the system? We can cross our fingers that he gets caught. And yes, welfare, food stamps, and other government programs exist. Those vehicles are both soul crushing and heaven sent at the same time. m too tired at this hour to I’crank open that can of worms.

    Sadly, very very sadly, there are so many variables at play.
    And so much raw emotion.

    Like my girl Oprah says – ‘what I know for sure’ is that it took decades for divorce to be a word we stopped whispering.
    We’ve come so far.
    As much as I wish the world was perfectly perfect, it isn’t. (But it is beautiful and wonderful, isn’t it?)
    Social media lets us share our experiences and bat ideas back and forth like never before.
    20 years from now, I envision us all with powerful microchips in our heads that will readily calculate and recalculate all of the pertinent details and spit out instructions for how we should proceed.

    Then what will we have to talk about?

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