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Ditching the Guilt As a First Step to Having it All

Let's ditch the guilt on the career front and the home front and live now without regret or apology for a job not only well done, but a life well-balanced.
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This magazine cover image released by The Atlantic magazine shows cover from the July/August 2012 issue featuring an article by former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter. The piece by Anne-Marie Slaughter describes her struggles balancing a high-powered career with raising her two sons. Since her magazine story last week burst open the debate on the difficulties for working mothers, she has heard from hundreds of all ilks, most of whom were grateful that such a high-flying career juggler has spoken up about the need for more flexibility on the job. (AP Photo/The Atlantic)
This magazine cover image released by The Atlantic magazine shows cover from the July/August 2012 issue featuring an article by former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter. The piece by Anne-Marie Slaughter describes her struggles balancing a high-powered career with raising her two sons. Since her magazine story last week burst open the debate on the difficulties for working mothers, she has heard from hundreds of all ilks, most of whom were grateful that such a high-flying career juggler has spoken up about the need for more flexibility on the job. (AP Photo/The Atlantic)

On Monday, April 15th, two very profound things happened.

The first event was and is nothing less than harrowing and wretched. That afternoon, two bombs were detonated at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. This senseless act robbed this earth of three lives, including an 8-year-old boy's, and resulted in countless injuries, many severe. Word of this tragedy spread rapidly, resulting in a global outpouring of compassion.

The second event was much more isolated, affecting only a handful of people, including me. Just hours after the news from Boston started streaming in, I joined my colleagues at The Rockefeller University in a discussion about work-life balance led by Anne-Marie Slaughter. Slaughter, who was catapulted into the limelight after her famous (infamous?) Atlantic article "Why Women Can't Have It All," presented compelling and honest points about gender equity in the workplace, and the current devaluing of the caretaker role versus that of the breadwinner. While it was a minor point in her presentation, Slaughter said something that burned into my brain: One of the most common things people say on their deathbeds is that they wished they'd spent more time with their family, that they had worked less.

The juxtaposition of these two events in my personal space-time continuum has made me seriously reevaluate what the hell I am actually doing in my life. On one hand, I am a caregiver. I have two special and very energetic children who deserve to have a mother who can be fully present on a regular basis. On the other hand, I am a breadwinner. I have a demanding career that I've tirelessly invested in for over a decade. I've put substantial effort into building relationships with colleagues, and maintaining these relationships requires significant input.

I love my kids. I love my job. But why is it that they seem to be competing for my attention? Why am I programmed to be overwhelmed with guilt when the balance shifts toward one or the other? Related: Why do others judge me when I have to make a choice?

These questions stem from a deep-rooted societal philosophy that caretakers -- traditionally women -- should have only that role if they expect to fill it successfully. And breadwinners, well, they need to maintain a competitive, go-getter edge to win that bread. Written into the subtext of the breadwinning framework is the notion that kids will trip them up in the race. Regardless of whether you think this is a fair sentiment, the fact is that this mindset affects far more women than it does men.

This problem has been recognized, with endless discussion and countless measures attempting to reform the workplace culture to reflect the ever-growing overlap between caregiver and breadwinner. But these measures are often too limited or are diluted by a tendency to revert to traditionally defined roles, either in the workplace or at home. That's why reform can no longer be an option. It's a necessity.

In her discussion, Slaughter emphasized the need to reinvent the role of the breadwinner to reflect the notion that many breadwinners are also caregivers. This reinvention means completely changing the belief that to be successful as a breadwinner -- a term that itself implies competition -- you must be professionally present 100% of the time, both men and women. And I couldn't agree more.

But, we can't just say that these philosophies have to change or take half-hearted swipes at reform. For those of us in the dual roles of caretaker and breadwinner (and the roles of friend, sister, niece, grandchild, neighbor, coworker and just being ourselves), we have to change. Yes, the infrastructure of our working culture needs a major overhaul. We need new policies that don't automatically select against people who choose to be working parents. And we need new language to describe these policies, like 'parental' leave instead of 'maternity' leave, because men can be and are caregivers, too.

In addition to these institutional changes, we can do incremental things ourselves that could add up to something substantial. Things like not apologizing for leaving at 5 p.m. to pick up our children or for replacing our laptops and phones with a trip to the park or a snuggle on the couch, sans guilt trip. We can stop worrying that taking off for the night, or heaven forbid an occasional afternoon, will minimize our edge.

But it isn't just about letting go of work guilt. We have to let go of guilt at home, too. Let go of the fact that the house might be a little messy or that the person who's caregiving while you're breadwinning might not do things exactly as you do. Maybe it's a small thing, but ditching guilt on both fronts is one example of how we can change ourselves so that we can, in turn, change our culture. And I can't emphasize enough that when I say "we," I mean both men and women alike.

I've always felt this way, but the recent string of senseless tragedies has exposed a personal sense of urgency. We are all at the mercy of randomness. No one expected the prestige and exhilaration normally associated with the Boston Marathon to be overshadowed by fear, confusion and overwhelming sadness. No one who attended this historic event ever expected a threat to their lives or that lives would actually be lost.

I don't ever want to be that person on her deathbed who says she regrets not being with her family enough. But I, like any complete, multifaceted human, also don't want to die with regrets about my personal goals going unfulfilled or unpursued. No father or mother would want to experience either kind of self-reproach. Even more frightening -- so, so, so much more frightening -- I don't want to be that person who has to face saying goodbye to her own child and then find myself wishing I had been more present, that I had done more.

For me, changing the culture of the workplace goes beyond being a woman who achieves a fancy title and a good paycheck. It means always remembering that my success is best measured by whom I get to share it with and how well-balanced my life is all around. I know that it is impossible to do everything right. But it is possible to live in a way that keeps you from feeling, on your deathbed, the weight of a lifetime of career- or family-related guilt. Let's ditch the guilt on the career front and the home front and live now without regret or apology for a job not only well done, but a life well-balanced.

This article first appeared on Double X Science.