If you’re a working mom, you’re probably no stranger to “mom guilt.” The guilty feeling of spending your time and energy at work instead of with your child. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of articles about mom guilt. This is not an article about mom guilt.
This is an article on “co-worker guilt.” The guilty feeling that you’re letting down your co-workers, managers, or organization when you have to attend to family responsibilities.
Wait, this is a thing?
Yes, it is. I talk about this version of guilt with my clients often, but even more frequently as the line between office and home becomes more and more blurred.
And it totally makes sense. Before we have kids, our careers are a top priority. It feels almost obvious, or at least easier, to spend a ton of our time and energy nurturing this part of our lives. Have a deadline? Sure, I’ll pull an all-nighter! Need a volunteer to set up for an event? Absolutely, I have no where I need to be after 5 PM.
Our colleagues can feel like family, and you want them to feel like they can count on you.
Once you have a child, it can feel almost jarring or betrayal-like when work cannot be the only priority. Suddenly you have to leave at 4:30 or 5 PM to pick up the kids at daycare. You have to take a full afternoon off for a doctor visit or re-arrange schedules at the drop of a hat, because of fevers, school closures, or just energy-draining toddler tantrums.
You don’t want to let down your work family. You don’t want your co-workers to think you’ve dropped the ball on projects or client meetings. You don’t want your co-workers to feel you can’t be reliable or dedicated.
[Note: I fully understand and realize there are societal factors at play here around the “motherhood penalty” being “mom-tracked”, and the very real implications of moms feeling under pressure to perform as normal so that they are not penalized in their careers for being parents. This is a much bigger and important topic this specific article is not addressing.]
How do you manage this side of guilt?
First, let’s look at what guilt really is. Guilt is an internal message your body is sending you. It’s your mind’s way of telling you that you violated something or did something wrong and want to do better in the future. You care about your job and your co-workers. You don’t want to do them wrong and if you did, you want to fix it. That makes sense, right?
Here’s where it gets a little more complicated. Is this guilt you’re feeling healthy or unhealthy?
Healthy – You can take a step back and objectively assess that you did in fact do something wrong. Perhaps you completely forgot about something you committed to doing and it left someone in a bad position. You can identify what you did that was wrong and how you want to change your behavior next time. This is what guilt is supposed to do.
Unhealthy – You didn’t actually do anything wrong, but you perceive that you didn’t meet your own expectations. Or, you had no control over the situation and cannot identify anything you could have or would have done differently. Perhaps you had to back out of leading a call and asked someone to step in for you. You feel bad about it, but there’s nothing you could have done differently and this person is fully capable of stepping in. These things happen, and the guilt you’re holding on to here is not serving you. In fact, it’s probably just causing you anxiety and this energy could be better spent elsewhere. Often, you can acknowledge that the standards you were holding yourself to were unrealistic.
At the end of the day, it’s about how this feeling of guilt is serving you. Is it healthy and propelling you to take action in pursuit of a better version of you? Great!
If your guilt is the unhealthy kind and you can acknowledge it’s serving no purpose other than causing anxiety and a downward spiral of emotions, you can reframe your expectations. We can’t do it all and be everywhere for everyone. It’s impossible. You can still be an amazing co-worker and an amazing parent. It might just take some experimentation around what that looks like for you now.
Now, that mom-guilt thing… We’ll continue that another day!
–Jessica Feldt, Life and Leadership Coach for Corporate Mamas
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