How to Handle Working-Mom Guilt this School Year

How to Handle Working-Mom Guilt this School Year

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Having three kids, I’m bound to disappoint at least one of them at any given moment. That’s one of the things I like most about summer: I don’t feel as guilty, because there aren’t as many opportunities to miss as there are during the school year. (I also love summer’s warm weather, ability to sleep in, and farmers markets, for the record.)

But here we are, staring the new school year in the eye. While having the kids home all summer can be stressful, sending them back to school has its own challenges. For me, that challenge is guilt. For those of us balancing our time between work and home, the school year invites the guilt of knowing I can’t make to every home game (let alone the long-distance, away ones), daytime concerts (with no evening option), and daytime presentations (c’mon school, you’re killing me). 

Then there’s the novelty that, for some of us, can wear off. It can wear off thanks to the sheer number of events there are to attend. It also can wear off the more children you have. For example, by my third kid, my interest in what feels like the 500th choral concert just isn’t the same as it was when my first child went through it. My daughter’s interest in having me there is, of course, high, so obviously I try to make it. The therapist in me has to remind the mother in me that the feeling itself is OK. Judging it (“why am I feeling this way,” “this must mean I’m a bad mother,” “no one else feels this way”) is what can cause even more negative thoughts, feelings, and responses. Learning to accept the initial thought or feeling nonjudgmentally is the goal.  

One thing is for sure. We’re not alone, and the back-to-school transition can stir up different reactions in each of us. Each parent has his/her own challenges. (The stay-at-home mom — or dad — goes through her own transition of which an entire article could be written.) As anyone who’s read my blog or articles know, transition brings uncertainty, and uncertainty brings worry and anxiety. “Feeling guilty” is a common theme in worry, so it’s bound to be seen when we’re anxious. 

To help shift your relationship with the guilt, that nagging feeling that eats away at us, here are three tips we all need to keep top of mind.

Watch your “should’s.”
I know I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it. If I had a dollar for every “I should …” that my clients say in a day, I could retire. Whether you’re should-ing on yourself for not being there or for feeling this way, please listen. Whenever we use “should,” we’re putting some artificial expectation on ourselves that we’ve already failed to meet. This only reinforces your belief that there is some appropriate and acceptable way to be, feel, think, or act — and you are failing.

It’s nonsense.

Plus, the more you resist your thoughts, the more they’re amplified, and the more they’ll persist. Carl Jung said, “What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size,” which brings me to #2.

Work on accepting what IS.
This includes accepting how you’re feeling and thinking, without judgment. This last part is hard, I know. If I’m being honest with myself, I would rather see clients than go to another choral concert EVER. I notice I feel guilty and have automatic thoughts that I’m a terrible mother. Do I believe them? Not so much, but they are there, and I notice them some days louder than others. How can I step back from the thoughts, allow them to be there without going down the rabbit hole by engaging with them? That’s what acceptance of the “what is” is all about. It takes practice.

Behave consistently with your larger values.
By and large, I try to do things that support what’s most important to me (when I can): my family, quality time with my kids, helping others, and professional development, to name a few. This is why I attend their activities whenever I can. It gets tricky when I want to support them but can’t because of work or something else.

What to do then?

Get creative! If I miss a concert, game, presentation, meal (and I’ve missed many), I try to practice #1 and #2, and set aside some time with them, no distractions, and listen to how the concert, game, whatever went. Sometimes I do something just the two of us. It may not be the same, but it’s acting toward what’s important, which is being present when we can be together.

It’s important to remember that, by and large, we cannot control our thoughts and feelings. There are no bad feelings, just unhelpful ones. Our choice lies in HOW we respond to them. Change is possible, and it is powerful. If you’re interested in learning more, please give me a call.

Joanna Hardis, LISW, is a cognitive behavioral therapist in Shaker Heights. Connect with her on Instagram and Facebook. Or learn more about how she can help you and your family at joannahardis.com.

About the author

Joanna Hardis, LISW, is a cognitive behavioral therapist and Gestalt-certified coach. A mother of three, she combines her personal parenting with her 20+ years of professional experience. She breaks down the evidence-based research into down-to-earth guidance and support. Her specialties are treating adults and children who have anxiety disorders or obsessive compulsive spectrum disorders, are going through life transitions (like life after divorce), or who would like help with their parenting skills. She also offers coaching services for those who want help reaching their goals. Coaching generates change by creating awareness and then offering a different way of being and doing. Joanna lives in Cleveland Heights with her three children and their, dog Giggsy. Learn more about Joanna at joannahardis.com Follow Giggsy on Instagram: @giggsy.annyong.the.dog

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