Guilt and the Working Mom

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Guilt and the Working Mom

I cuddled my five-month-old firstborn, wishing she were awake, wishing the evening were longer. She slept as only a baby can, her soft breath caressing my neck. I wished I could coo to her, watch her smile, laugh, drool — anything. It was 7 p.m. She had done those things earlier with Nana—while I was at work. 

As I held her and cried, I asked myself, Would she know which one of us was her mom? How would having a working mom affect her development? Did I have enough energy to keep the pace? Could I have a career and a family? 

Twenty years later, I sit with my daughter in a different state in a town she now calls home. We are finishing dinner at the hotel restaurant. It’s 10:30 p.m. She has much to say about her new life of independence, her roommates, her job. I order more coffee — for me. I want to hear every word, enjoy every moment, hear about her feelings, her fears, her plans, her dreams. 

In the twenty years since our family has grown from three to six, I have worked in public education and as a relocation counselor. I’ve also been a stay-at-home mom; during that time I dabbled with sales, did freelance writing, taught Bible studies, sometimes traveled as a speaker, and volunteered in my children’s school. But most of the twenty years I have reported to a job outside my home, full-time, on a schedule I did not set. As a mom working outside my home, I questioned other people and searched my soul not just to satisfy my own questions and issues, but to survive. 

Am I Doing the Right Thing?
As I talk with my friends who work outside the home, we may lament our loss of discretionary time; we may wish we had more energy; we may wish we could clone ourselves to fulfill our responsibilities. But here is our biggest concern: We want answers for the guilt we feel. We want assurance before God that we are doing the right thing. I believe Scripture gives us the answers and the assurance. 

Second Corinthians 7:10 speaks of two kinds of guilt. “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” True guilt is the feeling or conviction that comes when we have violated God’s commands. It is real and it is deserved. God created humans with emotions that, if reasonably healthy, respond in predictable ways. He created us with the emotional capacity to feel true guilt when we do not follow His principles. Though our feelings may harden and our consciences become unresponsive, usually we experience a pang when we go against God. 

When we don’t fulfill other people’s expectations, we feel the same emotional response as when we disobey God. But this is false guilt, “worldly sorrow.” It is not valid because we ought to obey God rather than people (Acts 5:29 ). The feeling can be just as painful, just as upsetting, and just as immobilizing. But we suffer for the wrong reasons. 

As a working mother, you will hear all kinds of well-meaning and not so well-meaning advice. One delicious fall evening I pushed Valerie’s buggy around the neighborhood. Since she was a watcher, not a sleeper, I pushed the empty buggy with one arm and balanced her in the other. My neighbor, who was a caring person, cooed into Valerie’s beaming face, “Is that mean old mom still leaving you and going to work? How can she leave such a charmer?” Valerie waved her arms, pumped frog legs, and drooled while grinning from ear to ear. My heart plummeted at hearing my neighbor’s words. Fortunately, no response was needed. 

There will always be those who do not understand your situation, who cannot help you or encourage you. So you must carefully sift through what you hear before internalizing their words. 

So Why Do I Feel So Guilty?
Counterfeit guilt comes from three sources: society, ourselves, and the religious community. As we identify the sources of false guilt, we can dispel its power. 

Hurrying home from work one night, I saw one of those signboards whose message changes weekly. This one read: “Woman’s place is in the home, and she’d better be there right after work!” Very funny, I thought as I downshifted to avoid running into a curb. The sign says it. Though our society tolerates us in the workplace, most or all home responsibilities still sit squarely on our shoulders. 

When our parents were raising us, most moms stayed at home, and all child and home care belonged to them. Although that pattern is not exclusively mandated in Scripture, the expectation remains today — even though that scenario describes only about 7 percent of families today. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 70 percent of women ages eighteen to sixty-four work outside their homes, and 60 percent of women with children under eighteen work outside the home. Within a year of a baby’s birth, most moms are back in the work force. 

Why do I call this expectation false guilt? Because God doesn’t give sole responsibility for home and children to women. ‘Family’ in Scripture is a hammock between two parents. I see men teaching their children and women working in the fields. Our society has allowed the idea of family care to become lopsided, separated, a mutation of the unity and shared responsibility originally intended. 

Society-imposed false guilt has a close cousin called self-imposed false guilt. Sometimes we feel we must do something—we must be active—or we feel guilty. Though it is past midnight, we are exhausted, and the world is sleeping, we must clean that spot in the back of the basement closet. We must repot that plant. We must create homemade potato salad. 

Sometimes I ask myself, “Who am I trying to impress?” God doesn’t need supermoms who are cranky, exhausted, and angry. He just wants real people doing what matters for eternity first and other things “as needed.” If the God of the universe loves me because I’m His daughter, what am I trying to prove? Sometimes what we think we “must” do can be done by someone else. For instance, dad or an older sibling could supervise homework. 

What God’s Word Says
Enter the third cousin to society- and self-imposed guilt: the Christian community. Many Christian communities have restricted women in ways that produce false guilt and low self-esteem. We have learned to question our abilities—the gifts God has given us—and whether or where we should use them. Though some Christian communities have limited a woman’s sphere of influence to home and children, we need to look at the examples God provides in Scripture. If you study Phoebe, Abigail, Deborah, Anna, and a host of other godly women in Scripture, you’ll see that many of their stories highlight leadership, organizational skills, or judgment in spheres other than the home. Phoebe was a leader in the early church. Abigail was a get-things-done lady, fully aware of the political climate in her region. Deborah was a prophetess who, in order to complete God’s assignment, was part of the military. 

We know that God would not have us use our talents in ways that would damage our families, but He is interested in the good of all: women, children, and men. As I read about women in Scripture, a burden of false guilt is lifted from my shoulders. I look at God’s expectations rather than man’s. Doesn’t that encourage your over-extended heart? I sense a great freedom and power in the knowledge that I am investing my talents and gifts in the marketplace. He gave me the kind of abilities that fit there and I’m using them. I feel like a runner who feels the miles roll under her feet. Doing what we were created to do feels good. 

The Facts about Working Moms
Here are some straightforward facts about working moms. I write them because I have discovered through my sometimes painful experiences that we are often misunderstood. 

We love our kids. We are forced to make compromises, but that does not mean our children are not tremendously important to us. 

Most of us are not driven by the desire to acquire things. According to a 1989 study by the U.S. Dept. of Labor, Women’s Bureau: 

  • Thirty percent of working mothers are single parents, of which the majority remain below poverty level. (Ninety-three percent of noncustodial parents pay no child support after one year.) 
  • Twenty-five percent of working mothers have spouses with no income, or their combined income is near poverty level ($14,000 annually.)

Often we must live a day at a time. We don’t have the energy to carry tomorrow’s concerns a day early. But we do care about issues that affect our children, our work, and the well-being of our families. 

We recognize that most of our daughters will become working moms. Because we care about their lives, we are reaching beyond survival and sorting out the issues. If the goal of a kinder, gentler nation is to be achieved, we must create a kinder, gentler world for our children. I believe that no one understands this more vividly than working moms. 

Ways to Lighten the Load
To a working mom, fatigue is a constant companion. But as difficult as this time is, working mom, you will survive. And in the process you will learn a precious lesson: You can’t have it all. 

I am not a philosopher as much as a survivor, so I’ve come up with a few survival tips. The overarching one is, Neglect middle and low priorities. Select only those few priorities that are important, and let the other ones go. Here are some suggestions for doing that. 

Dirt will wait. Kids are more important than cleaning. It takes the same amount of time to wash a floor that has been unwashed for three weeks as a floor that was washed a week ago. 

Yard leaves are biodegradable. Don’t fight unnecessary battles. Take the baby on a buggy ride. Babies last for eternity, leaves don’t. 

Get the best caretaker you can. The early years are important. Your baby will be strongly influenced by his or her caretakers. 

Give thanks that you have no time to shop. The fewer clothes, gadgets, and toys you and your young children have, the less time you’ll spend on upkeep. If you don’t have time to buy things, you won’t need to spend time taking care of them. 

Take care of your body. There are no reissue or replacement body parts. Your kids will become independent and attach to others; you may move to different work. But through all kinds of changes, your body stays with you—for better or for worse. So give some priority to health and rest. 

Two Are Better than One
Through any stage of your child’s development, it’s a good idea to discover someone who has gone through what you are just beginning to go through. As your children get older, these are the women you can call. Even if they cannot give you wisdom to lift you up, they can walk beside you and listen. 

The night I wept over my sleeping infant, I called my older sister. She was a working mom—teaching, finishing her master’s degree, and parenting her two- and four-year-old children. She prepared me by gently sharing what was ahead. “Don’t be surprised when Valerie reaches out to Nana and calls her name first. It hurts, but that attachment can be healthy. She will learn that you are mom.” I’m glad I knew that before it happened. 

Christ in Us
When my children were young, I wrote a paraphrase of what God said to me through the verses of Zechariah 7

“Dear child of mine—working mom, your paycheck is not eternal; your children will grow to adulthood, and this stage will pass. Yes, I care. I am interested in each decision you make as you parent and work. But first, I am interested in My light within you. I created you in My image. Let your light so shine that future generations will not look back and say she had it all in her slice of time. But let them look back and see Me reflected in you. 

“You cannot know their world to show them the way. Only I can lead them. Simply reflect Me. It will be enough if you show them Me.” 

On Your Own: 

Getting A Grip On Guilt 

  1. How did you react to the statement, “When we don’t fulfill other people’s expectations, we feel the same emotional response as when we disobey God, but this is false guilt”? 
  2. According to the author, false guilt comes from three sources: ourselves, society, and the religious community. Of the three, which source generates the most guilt in you? 
  3. Identify areas of your life—children, spouse, work, church, money, other—that generate guilt. Is there a specific person or situation that brings up this emotion? Is the emotion legitimate or false? 
  4. How could you deal with your feelings of false guilt in the future? How will this plan affect the person or situation you identified in question 3?

Written by Miriam Neff, educator and author of Devotions for Women in the Workplace (Moody Press), and Working Moms: Survival to Satisfaction (NavPress)  Used by permission. Content distributed by WorkLife.org > Used for non-profit teaching purposes only.

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