I have a 12 year old son. For all 12 of those years, apart from a short spell of maternity leave, I have worked. I am not a high flying career woman. I have always worked in senior administrative roles and now I am lucky enough to work term-time only , so my working Mum guilt is a lot less. However, it is still there.
I think that the guilt manifests itself in stages. The first is when you are coming to the end of maternity leave. For me this coincided with the baby being in a good routine and becoming a pleasure to spend time with and instead of the endless round of feeding and changing, I was actually beginning to enjoy my time at home with my son.
I remember doing budget sheet after budget sheet trying to work out ways that we could cut back so that I could forget returning to work and be a stay at home mum forever. Of course, as is the case for many mums these days, this just wasn't possible.
The second phase of guilt was the nursery drop off. The first day was the worst. Armed with his nursery bag and a big list of instructions for the nursery nurse, I dropped him off and handed him over. I was almost disappointed when he didn't cry! But that soon changed as he became older.
Starting the day with the trauma of the baby crying and those little arms reaching out to you became the norm. I wouldn't be able to concentrate and although determined not to be the mother from hell, I found myself ringing the nursery to check everything was OK. Of course it was. He would settle as soon as I was out of sight.
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Missing the first milestone is the next one to feel guilty about. I missed the day that my son pulled himself up on the furniture as he was trying to move around for the first time. My husband was with him and I was gutted. I cried for hours that evening.
Many of my friends just went about their daily life without reading too much into things; accepting that this was how it had to be and I wish I could have been the same.
Once they start pre-school and school, the guilt increases at a fast pace. By this stage they are well aware that other mummys drop their children off in the morning and pick them up at night - whereas they have to be dropped off at the crack of dawn at the Breakfast Club or they have to stay after school every night at the after school club. They don't want this - they want to be able to see you at three o clock and perhaps to have friends back for tea, but they can't because you are at work.
Flexible hours can help so that you can either pick up or drop off once every week - or even once a fortnight if they can't manage that.
At least then you get to make your child happy and also meet a few of the other mums on the playground. Before long I had a network of mums - we all had each other's numbers and if we were running late or if work was a problem, there was always someone to call. My son was happy to have tea at a number of houses and I was happy to return the favour on my day for pick up. It worked well and it alleviated a lot of the pain.
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I also made the most of the weekends as most working mums will. I made sure that he attended all the parties at weekends and that he was a member of clubs for swimming and football as the other children were.
I perhaps overdid things - let him do too many things, have too many things to compensate for me being at work so much.
If I had notice I could usually plan to be there for school events - although it meant several frantic drives and running in my heels down the driveway to school at a pace that I haven't managed since I was in the 100m at school! If I couldn't go and my husband was busy at work, we would often send Aunty or Grandma or if we were really desperate, a family friend. Anyone so long as he had someone there that he could look for as he took the stage! And on the occasions that I did make it, as I looked around the assembly hall, I could see clearly that other families had to make the same compromise as us.
As the children get older it is harder to manage. Up until my son was about 8 or 9, he would enjoy the after school activities and holiday clubs, but as he got a little bit older he wanted to do his own thing a bit more. I don't mean wander the streets, but he didnt want to be up and out of the house by nine o clock every day in the holidays - he wanted to chill a bit. This is when I changed direction completely and found term-time only work.
It really has made a difference to our lives. I no longer have to spend a fortune on clubs that he doesn't really want to go to and I know that I can be around for him and indulge him to make up for all the years that I have palmed him off on whoever happens to be around. Holiday clubs are attended and enjoyed -there is a huge difference between wanting to be someone than having to be somewhere.
For most families these days, working is a necessity and you have to find ways of working and ways of dealing with it to suit you. Some may say that may way of dealing with things was indulgent - certainly the family income was hit quite significantly! However it works for me - and that is the most important thing.
When choosing whether or not to go back to work, and how to cope with the guilt - you have to do what is right for you.
Having been through it, my tips are this:
- Work out a realistic household budget and see if there is flexibility within this to cut a few hours to enable you to spend more time with your family. Even if it isn't a regular arrangement , to know that you have a few hours spare to use when you need to is a comfort.
- Be honest with your employer - if you want to be at school events, do your best to plan in advance and keep your employer informed;
- Be on good relations with your childminders/nursery - the nursery my son went to were great! I would ring and they would tell me how he was. Sometimes, if he had been crying when I left, I would ring from the car park and the Manager would go down to his room and let me know that he had settled - this made for a much better working day!
- Don't pre-empt how you might feel. My friend has recently gone on maternity leave and is adamant that she will go back to work full-time. Her sister was the same - and has recently gone part-time, after finding that she felt too guilty to leave her daughter. I don't think you can plan how you feel. Deal with situations as they happen.
- Remember that you can only do your best. If you can't be there for every school assembly then don't be hard on yourself - think positively and just look forward to the next one, rather than feeling guilty about the one that you have missed.
- Make up for it in other ways. You may not be able to pick up from school every day, but make an occasion of it when you do.
- Be careful not to over-compensate - one of my friends buys her son a relatively large present or item of clothing everytime she misses something or is late and that has now become an expensive and unnecessary habit.
- Remember - children have short memories! They might feel sad because you have missed the carol concert - but it will be forgotten the minute you meet them from the after-school club with a chocolate bar in your hand!
- And finally .......feeling guilty is normal! You are not the first person to feel this way , and you certainly won't be the last. Millions of mothers and fathers have to manage their lives in this way. Try not to let the guilt take over the enjoyment of being a parent - it really isn't worth it.