How I Overcame Working Mom Guilt

Yes, I always left the office by six o'clock so that I could be home to hear about my kids' days, help with homework, and just hang out with them. But when they asked why they were the only ones who had a babysitter, rather than their mom picking them up from school, it killed me.
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By Anne Devereux-Mills, Chief Strategy Officer of Lantern

I was in the peak of the career race to the top within the highly competitive advertising industry when I had my two daughters. Excitement about being a mom and about my affinity for my career were both so fresh in my early thirties that I wasn't clear on how to do both things well -- or the sacrifices I would have to make along the way. I quickly realized the emotional toll of juggling a career and being a mom was heavy, and that I needed to develop an approach to be able to enjoy and succeed at both.

My personal solution was to become uber-disciplined about time management between work and parenting. I decided on my priorities and values -- my daughters were my number one priority and work was number two -- and made those clear to my colleagues as soon as I became a mother. While my assistant knew that any call from my daughters took priority over work responsibilities during the day, other than those occasional interruptions, I was all business during work hours. I was hyper-focused on doing a great job and quickly rose through the ranks of the company.

This demanding schedule left very little time for me, and even less for my already failing marriage. I knew that in order to release excess stress -- and do something for myself -- I needed to exercise. I adjusted my schedule so that I'd leave the house at 4:45 a.m., drive from New Jersey into New York City, work out for an hour, and get to the office by 7:30 a.m.

But as my career accelerated, the guilt and stress I felt about the "mother I was not being" ate away at me.

Yes, I always left the office by six o'clock so that I could be home to hear about my kids' days, help with homework, and just hang out with them. But when they asked why they were the only ones who had a babysitter, rather than their mom picking them up from school, it killed me. I felt like I wasn't giving my daughters a consistent routine and network of support. And the more I focused on the kids, the more I missed out on after-work networking with colleagues and clients.

I was exhausting myself as an executive and parent, and not feeling like I was doing either one perfectly.

Perfectly. That is a really telling word, because high achievers, especially high achievers who are high-achieving moms and high-performing workers, find ourselves constantly falling short. And this creates anxiety and stress with very few outlets. I constantly feared falling short and was very unforgiving of myself when I wasn't everything for everyone. When I compared myself to non-maternal coworkers, I fell short. And when I compared myself to moms with stay-at-home careers, I fell short, too.

I felt like I couldn't talk about how hard being a working mother was because I didn't want to appear weak. Also, by not talking about how hard motherhood or work was, I played into my belief that I was falling short. If no one was talking about it, everyone else was finding the balance easy, right?

One of the biggest mistakes I've made in my career, and as a mother, was not talking about how challenging it was. Having honest discussions would have made me realize how hard it was for both the working and stay-at-home mothers around me.

Here are some things I learned while juggling work and parenting that I want to pass on to the next generation of working mothers.

I learned that "perfection" is an unattainable goal. As soon as I stopped striving for perfection, and shifted my focus to my personal values -- being the best I could be within the real limits of my life -- I could end each day with the recognition that I did the best with what I had. When I didn't have a great day, I could know it was only that -- one day -- and that tomorrow would be another chance to do my best.

I learned that it was impossible to do everything alone. Learning to ask for help, both at home and at work, made me more effective and reduced the burden and pressure I felt when I tried to do everything myself. What's more, when I achieved a goal either at work or home, the win was felt across both fronts. And disappointments were also dispersed, so that I didn't have to carry the full burden.

Finally, I learned that if I didn't take time for myself, I couldn't be my best for others. The morning work-out is a regimen I continue to this day. I also have a nightly bath ritual to signal to my mind and my body that it is time to turn off. It helps me transition into sleep and focus on recharging my own batteries.

If I could do it again, would I do it differently? Yes. I got great fulfillment -- along with the stress and anxiety -- by trying to succeed both at home and at work. But I would have been kinder to myself. I would have realized that when something is so difficult that I am losing sleep, that there might be a better way to approach it. And I would have definitely looked for coaching support and stress management tools to help make me my strongest, most centered self.

-- Anne Devereux-Mills, Chief Strategy Officer of Lantern

This article first appeared on Lantern's blog, which shares expert advice and research on strengthening emotional well-being.