How to Manage Mom Guilt

When I went back into the workforce full time after kids, I thought I was ready. My kids were (mostly) sleeping through the night, I had successfully adjusted my younger one to pre-school, and I cleaned and organized the art closet. I was ready.

I was not ready.

In my first month, the head of HR told me that “mothers don’t succeed here” after she and my boss regaled me with stories of leaving their crying children and how their kids would call them while at work, begging them to come home. I knew this didn’t match my expectation of being a working mom, but I soon found myself trying to match the model they set.

I did my best to still wake my kids up every morning and put them to bed every night, but I wasn’t present. If I was home for dinner, I was often on my phone, answering emails, messages or calls. I worked nights and weekends, wanting to demonstrate my commitment to the company, and maybe prove that I still had “it” after kids.

To compensate, I planned elaborate birthday parties for my kids, and another celebration for their school friends. When my coaching colleagues asked to meet, I scheduled it. I connected with friends over lunch or Saturday night dinners. All this left me feeling more depleted and pulled in so many directions.

It’s no surprise that after keeping this up for more than a year, I ended up coming down with walking pneumonia. I literally worked myself sick, and I couldn’t leave the couch for months. I left that job soon after, and in some ways the pandemic was a blessing in that it allowed me to recover, repair my relationship with my kids, and let me create a healthier relationship to work that includes motherhood.

Between my own hard learned experiences, research trends and supporting clients through this adjustment, I’ve discovered that it takes a bit more thought for moms returning to work. Whether it’s the transition itself, or because a mom is depressed about going back to work after maternity leave, or conflicted about returning to her role, or because she’s worried about how to get a job after being a stay-at-home mom for 20 years, it’s not as simple as ‘go to work and collect a paycheck.’

Regardless of the situation, I’ve found that it’s critical to be thoughtful and intentional about the time and energy that you spend in the different aspects of your life, to help create your idea of working motherhood, balance and expectations. Without this exploration, we often take on others’ ideas of these matter, which leads to feelings of overwhelm, anxiety and mom guilt.

In working with some of my clients who face these challenges, I often guide them through this useful exercise, which takes about 20-30 minutes of focused time, and helps them find their intention and identify their priorities as a working mom.

Step One

In a quiet space, take a seat and close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.

Step Two

Visualize your entire day as a working mom, thinking through each element and transition. For example, how do you feel when you wake up? How do you set yourself and your kids up for success? What does your work day look like? What do you tell your kids about your day? What do they tell you?

Step Three

While recognizing it likely can’t be perfect every day, are there one or two elements of this day that really stand out to you? Something that you want to make sure happens?

Step Four

In order to accomplish the moments you visualized, take note if there is any help or support you need. It could be from a partner or relative, your boss or work colleague, or even a service you hire.

Going through this visualization and reflection exercise should leave you with more clarity about what’s really important to you at home and work, and what you most want to focus on while you make a big transition.

Armed with this knowledge, you can be more intentional when making decisions about how to structure your days and prioritize your time and energy – to avoid feeling overly stressed and like a failure at everything. No matter if you are a mom going back work after 10 years or 10 weeks, being clear about the working mom you want to be will make the transition smoother and more successful.