9 Lives for Women Blog

Guilty or Unhappy? | March 13th, 2012

No bout of the flu is as bad as a case of the motherhood guilts.  And if your husband, your mother or your best friend is making you feel guilty about working, it’s an ailment you just can’t shake.

When I was growing up my mother did not work, but I was especially intrigued by Mary Tyler Moore, who was one of the first working women glamorized via TV.  I wanted to be Mary Tyler Moore, and I told my sister to ditch the dolls and play office instead.

Though my desire to work had very early roots, and I’ve worked steadily since the age of 16, I know that not all women share my career fervor.  I’m also not a Pollyanna—I know how hard it is to do both.  I have two daughters (ages 21 and 12), and I’ve had plenty of “pull your hair out” moments when it seemed impossible to do all the essential work and family items on my To Do lists.  I’ve also had many days when I’ve felt that something at home could be a bit better (maybe the quality of dinner or a child’s test grade), and the guilts crept up asking if I really should be working more than full-time.

The guilts are insidious—no mother working or not working seems to escape.  But I’m always careful to point out that I’ve had guilty, not unhappy feelings about working.  There’s no denying that work makes me happy.  And it makes me happy that I’m a role model for my daughters who talk about eventual careers more than the flowers they’d like to have at their weddings.

That’s the crux of the issue when you’re considering packing it in and leaving the workforce.  Are you happy working—or not?  Will you truly be happy not working–or are you thinking that it will help you escape what are in reality the inescapable guilts?  Will you leave because you truly want to—or because someone else feels that you “should” leave?

This is one of those real life moments that requires the utmost self-honesty.  If you are not true to yourself now, you will eventually experience discontent.

I once read the most wonderful letter to the editor in the New York Times.  It was written by a Columbia University professor who said,  very simply, that there’s no evidence that a working mother leads to a damaged child, but lots of evidence that an unhappy mother has a negative impact on a child.  She said “when Mommy is happy, Baby is happy”.

This professor’s advice left the “moral” debate behind:  If you don’t like to work and you can afford not to work—don’t work.  If work makes you happy and fulfilled, then find a way to make it work.

  • Think carefully about the difference between feeling guilty and feeling truly unhappy about your job.
  • Make a list of kids that you know that have working mothers.  Think about whether they seem less adjusted, less happy, less motivated or successful in school, etc. than the children of non-working mothers.
  • Don’t consider leaving the workforce without thinking through how you will spend your days at home.  You will still be the same person out of the workforce:  where you will find replacements for the energy, enthusiasm, motivation and intellectual stimulation you have in your current job?
  • Develop a professional written proposal for a flexible work schedule before you assume flexibility is not possible and walk out the door.  Address all the potential objections of your employer.
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