I’d like to start things off by saying that this is from the perspective of my personal experiences as a working mother. I do not speak for all working moms nor do I mean to ignore the experiences of other wonderful moms out there who have different circumstances.
I was working as a financial advisor when, at 29 years old, I made the decision to switch careers. With the support of my husband, I applied to Teachers College. I received my acceptance letter and I was elated! Over the next few days though, I started not feeling well. Weeks passed where I felt like I had been hit by a truck and nothing seemed to make me feel better. My husband and I were out shopping at Walmart when I told him I was going to pick up a pregnancy test, just for fun. We laughed at the idea because due to my severe PCOS, I was told that I would not be able to get pregnant without help from a fertility clinic. After we came home, I went to use the test and instantly the digital screen showed “+6weeks”. In a daze, I came out of the washroom and showed my husband. He looked at the test, looked at me, and said “Take another one while I throw out the garbage”. That’s how sure we were that it was a false positive. I took the other test and got the same result. At this point, I was getting worried so I called my sister, a doctor, to come as soon as she could with one of the tests from her clinic. She did, and that test confirmed my pregnancy. I FaceTimed my parents, who were still living overseas, and I was bawling. I was not ready. I had just gotten into Teachers College and we were on one income now. All our friends and relatives were ecstatic because they knew I had beaten the odds of getting pregnant. Even my doctor was in shock! My husband and I could not process the news. As it turns out, I was 8 weeks pregnant by the time I found out. I called the College and explained my situation and they deferred my acceptance to the following year after I had given birth.
My pregnancy went very smoothly except for the morning sickness in the first few months. In November, we welcomed a healthy baby boy. I went through severe postpartum depression for around 4 months after and six months later I was in Teachers College. I pumped constantly. My husband, who worked from home, was the primary caregiver of our son for a year while I went to school. I cannot even begin to explain to you the level of guilt that I felt leaving my son every morning. When I would come home and he would shy away from me as if I was a stranger, my heart would break. Deep down though, I knew I was doing what was best for myself and my family. Becoming a teacher was my dream and it would allow me to be present for my children a lot more than my old job would have allowed me to be. We struggled financially because I was not working when I had my son, so I did not qualify for maternity leave. But we made it work with the amazing support from family.
I began a full-time teaching job with a private school as soon as I got out of college. I would need another essay to explain why teachers do not work from 9 to 3. It really bothers me when people say “at least you have an easy job” because those people have no clue what being a teacher really entails and I know my fellow colleagues will back me up on this. I would put my son in the bathtub and mark papers on the floor next to him and my students would get a laugh when they heard where the water marks on their tests were from. After putting him to bed, I would work on lesson plans. It’s the unappreciated work behind the scenes that makes teachers good at their job.
Three years later, with the help of science, I became pregnant with our daughter. The pregnancy was horrible. With Hyperemesis Gravidarum, I was in and out of the hospital and at 6 months, I had to have my gallbladder removed. We were elated when she made her arrival in September. Thankfully in Canada, parents are given a year of maternity leave. I took full advantage of it as I did not have that chance with our son. She was my princess who refused to take a bottle so we were attached to each other, literally!. When a year came and it was time for me to return to work, it was very hard to give up those bonding moments that we had in the day. My husband was no longer working from home and I am forever grateful to my parents, who had moved to Canada by this time, for caring for our kids while we were at work. I won’t forget a day during the first week I went back to work and I came home. My mom was holding my daughter and as I put out my hands to take her, she turned away and clung to my mom. The rejection was too much for me. I broke down in tears because all I could think was that I was putting my career ahead of my kids and that they would resent me for it. My family was so supportive in reminding me that going to work was taking care of my kids and that as a teacher, I did have the benefits of spending the holidays with them which a lot of people can’t do with their line of work. I knew that. But knowing that cannot push out the heartbreak of hearing your child cry when you have to leave.
Listen, I know I am not the only mother in the world who has kids and has to work. I also appreciate that some mothers are in much more difficult situations than I am and this is not meant to be a “woe is me” essay. What I want this to be is a message that you are not alone in feeling this way and it is okay to have this guilt. As mothers, we carry guilt like Luke carried Yoda (yes, I just made a Star Wars reference) the moment we find out we are pregnant! “Mom guilt” is there regardless of whether we work or stay at home. “Am I feeding them the right food?”, “ Am I reading to them enough?”, “ Are they socializing enough?”, and the list goes on. Now add the guilt of going back to work and it can become overwhelming. The guilt is baseless, but it’s there. Telling a working mom not to feel guilty is trying to tell a person not to breathe. You can try, but it won’t last long. I have missed so many of my kids’ milestones that it still brings me to tears when I think about it. That pain still lingers.
The opportunity to join the public school system came up and I took the plunge. It was not easy because it meant giving up my seniority with the private school and starting from the bottom as a supply teacher. I knew in the long term it would be better for me, so my family supported my decision. After a year of supplying, I got my first contract position. The next day, I found out I was pregnant. How?! Well, I know HOW but from being told I could never have kids to now having three kids, two of which were conceived without medical help, blew my mind. I will admit that I was not happy. I finally got my career on the right track but financially we were still living paycheck to paycheck. Our family was complete with 2 kids so we had sold or donated all baby-related items. Now we had to buy it all over again and we had to buy a van!!! A VAN!!
Fast forward to the arrival of our precious boy and now I can’t imagine my life without him. I was able to apply for maternity leave and planned on taking the whole year, especially since I had PPD again. Because I was a contract teacher, there was no guarantee of a teaching job once the leave ended so that was stressful to think about. Then 9 months into my leave, my school called me and said: “One of our teachers left suddenly and we need someone to take her place. If you want it, it’s yours”. C’MON! Are you kidding me?! You cannot imagine the position I was in at that moment. I was torn between giving up the remaining months of maternity leave with my son to get a job at my school or risk saying no and then not having a job once the leave is over. My parents came to the rescue once again. They agreed to care for him when I returned to work, so I did. Financially, it made complete sense but emotionally, it was painful. My son would say to me when I came home “Mommy, I miss ew when ew go to work. Stay wid me.” Once again the mom guilt consumed me. Whispers of “How can you choose money and career over time with your child” were on repeat in my head. The comments from people such as “You’re back to work already? That must have been hard on your son.” I felt like replying “Ya, no kidding Susan! Thanks for reminding me, and you know what? It’s hard on me too!”
My youngest is now 3 years old and he starts school this September. All three of my kids have turned out just fine having a working mom. They have a special relationship with their grandparents who cared for them and I absolutely love that. My parents and my sister have always helped us whenever we needed it. I will never forget how much their generosity has saved us through this all.
With all three being in school this September, you’d think that the guilt will be gone, but it won’t. Sometimes my older kids would tell me “Mommy, I wish you would drop us off and pick us up like the other mommies” or “So and so’s mom attended my performance but you weren’t there because of your work.” They ask me to play with them and I tell them I can’t because I have so much marking to catch up on and I can see the disappointment in their faces. I know they understand why I can’t be there but I also know they want me to be there and that’s where the guilt comes in.
When they get older they will understand that I went to work to support and provide for them. That they will see me as an example of a hard-working mom who lived up to her responsibilities of caring for her family. But right now, when they look at me with those eyes and beg me to be there when I can’t, the guilt takes over all rational thinking.
The working mom guilt will always be there. It is part of who I am as a mother but here is the crucial point. It is MY guilt. I feel that way because of MY emotions and not because of what other people chose to think about working moms. People could assign working moms superhero status and it wouldn’t make a difference to me. The guilt would still be there and that’s okay. They say that becoming a parent involves the highest level of self-sacrifice performed with wholehearted love. There is so much truth to this. We don’t just give up our time and resources for our children. We give up the peace of mind because we will forever be second-guessing how our choices affect them.
If you feel the same guilt as I do about being a working mom, you are not alone. Understand that the guilt is evidence of the care and compassion you have towards your children and you will always be a hero in their eyes.