The moment I announced my pregnancy, somebody said to me ‘that’s it now, you’ll never stop worrying or feeling guilty for the rest of your life’. As my daughter’s second birthday approaches, I can see that she was quite possibly right. ‘Mum guilt’ seems to torture us all. It’s found in the constant questioning of yourself and your parenting skills, in the voice that repeatedly asks, ‘am I doing the right thing by my child?’ It’s there in the ever-present niggle in the back of my mind, telling me that I'm not doing the best job as a mum because I am working full-time/going to the gym/enjoying a few child-free hours (delete where appropriate).
For me, there are times when the guilt subsides, however, returning to work after a holiday brings it catapulting back worse than ever. My usual happy-go-lucky little girl who takes everything in her stride cries and clings on to me on her first day back at nursery, breaking my heart and increasing the mum-guilt tenfold. I really have to dig deep on these occasions so as not to come home, sit at my computer and start crying myself. She obviously enjoys the time just hanging out with her mummy and daddy.
I know that the social skills and development she will get from her time at nursery will be invaluable, yet still, the internal struggle is real. Why do I, as a working mother, still feel this overriding sense of guilt? Could society partially be to blame? Although in recent times, working mothers have increased dramatically, it still seems to be a societal norm for the mother to be the main caregiver in the home, and there is still a sense that society is judging us for going after our ambitions.
Or could it be a result of the pandemic? My daughter, having been born six days into the first UK lockdown, spent the initial 18 months of her life with pretty much only my husband and me for company, rarely experiencing family meet-ups, playdates, and baby groups, and I sometimes wonder if this exacerbates my feelings of guilt at leaving her.
The thing is, I LOVE my job. It's a part of me, my passion. It's who I am. Balancing this with being a parent is a constant learning curve, but I know that in order to be the best mum, I also need to do things for myself. After all, as the old adage goes, ‘You can’t pour from an empty cup’.
With all of this in mind, I recently took to social media to ask others how they balance parenting and working. The replies were unanimous: everyone who responded felt the same sense of guilt as I do. They all agreed that striving to get that work/life balance right was incredibly important, and they echoed the need to make sure that when they are with their child or children, they are totally present in the moment. One reply in particular really spoke to me. A fellow working mother, whose children are now adults, spoke of having ‘accomplished and self-reliant grown-up kids who are so proud of their mum, they wouldn’t swap their childhood for anything’. This really struck a chord with me as I envisioned my daughter 16 years from now.
Flexible working is also the holy grail of working mothers. One thing the pandemic has taught us is that you don’t have to be sat in an office Monday to Friday, 9–5, in order to be productive. I flex my hours to suit me. I work longer days Tuesday to Friday so that I can have my all-important mummy/daughter time on a Monday, taking her swimming and just being present with her. I’m incredibly grateful that I am able to do this. It doesn’t combat the guilt that I feel the rest of the time, but it’s some semblance of balance.
As a parent, I think guilt comes with the territory. It shows we care. We will all have hard days, but the most important thing to know is that it’s not forever. One day our little ones will no longer need us as much, so appreciate these moments, prioritise the now, and remember that we are doing it for their future.
Caitlin McAlister is a Business Development Executive at Impact UK.