Working Mom Guilt

With a quick sunscreen-scented kiss planted onto each ruddy cheek, I peer into Henry’s blue eyes. “Mom loves you, ok? I love you big, big, big.” A silent nod. “I love you big even when Mom is away, ok?” Another flurry of kisses and then I’m striding through the airport entrance. Whoosh, slide the glass doors as the wheels of my suitcase clatter over the concrete floor. My heart leaps with excitement at the rush of adrenaline that floods my body. I am alone! I practically run up to the Bearskin Airlines counter where the woman regards me blankly. “Bags on the scale,” she spits out dryly. Undeterred, I smile brightly and oblige with enthusiasm. ‘Girl, you can’t bring this Mama down,’ I think to myself. I have been anticipating this moment for nearly six months. I’m embarking on a solo trip to Toronto to attend a Canadian Women in Medicine (CWIM) conference; a reunion of over a thousand physician Moms to focus on our wellness. A getaway for five whole days to indulge in sessions on parenting, sex and mindfulness. I had even enrolled myself to attend a creative writing workshop – something that was certainly out of my comfort zone. I was giddy with anticipation.

Hours later, I flop backwards onto the pristine sheets of the expansive king-sized bed in my lake-view hotel room in downtown Toronto. I grin to myself. If my respite from every day life had ended that very minute, I would have been ecstatic anyway. I had gone to the bathroom solo numerous times, I had drank my coffee without it being up-ended onto my lap, I had endured an entire day of travel without sweat drenching through my entire outfit and I had even chatted with my seat-mate on the plane for two whole hours uninterrupted. Discussing issues of social inequities in the North, the colonial history of Zambia and laughing through common stories of tree planting horrors in bug-infested Northern Ontario, not once did a little person demand a snack, have to be assisted to pee or hurl eardrum-shattering screams over possession of the iPad.

Casting my travel clothes aside, I wrapped myself the soft hotel robe, flipped on the TV while speed dialling room service. Soon, I was satiated with steak, wine and molton chocolate. I felt overcome with joy.

To kid-less folks, this might seem quite ridiculous. But Mamas – I know you feel me. How quickly we forget how delicious these simplicities of life feel.

With Blake at home with kids, I was set to sink into my five days of indulgence and selfishness, and did I ever capitalize on my time alone. I spent mornings sweating it out during unhurried workouts, eating out at interesting restaurants (like a hipster vegan Mexican restaurant, because that exists in the city!), going to the ballet with my Mom, catching up with old friends and spending quiet moments just alone.

Discovered Peloton cycling at the hotel gym. Man, it was SO HARD!
The National Ballet of Canada’s Physical Thinking. It was phenomenal!
At the ballet with my Mom.

During the conference, my days were spent in the camaraderie of a thousand physician moms from across Canada. Surrounded by like-minded, brilliant woman, we discussed our struggles as parents, as partners, as physicians and as women in the medical community. We laughed through shared experiences of trying to maintain sexual relationships with our partners (when all we ever want is ten naps), passed along parenting strategies and life hacks and off-loaded our mutual guilt of being away too much, bribing our children to eat their meals and of our not so stellar parenting moments.

It was a collective catharsis. With hugs, reassuring words and affirming mantras, this incredible community of women lifted each other up in a way that could never be possible through any other medium nor through any other relationship. Despite huge variations in medical specialty, life experience, age, culture, language and ethnicity, we were all pulled tightly together by this shared commonality of being physician moms.

What struck me the most during my conversations with fellow doctor Moms in the ensuing days was that each and every one of these women were gifted in unfathomable ways. Published novelists, accomplished athletes, dedicated academics and researchers, talented artists… there was inconceivable diversity among us. Yet in almost every interaction, words of self-doubt and fatigue punctuated inevitable conversations about our collective feelings of Working Mom Guilt.

Although I obviously cannot speak on behalf of every physician Mama, many of us are primary bread-winners, driven by a feeling of social responsibility who devote countless hours to our patients in ORs, clinics, and hospitals across the country in our collective desire to serve our communities and succeed in high-stress careers that seemingly pit us against our own selves and our roles as Mothers.

“How do you balance it all?” asks the stranger in the airport when realizing my MD and Mama status. I wondered if the same question is ever asked of my male colleagues, but these are musings for another blogpost!

Ah, the golden question. How to find balance. This nebulous concept that we are all trying to grasp while fumbling through sleepless nights at the hospital, tearful goodbyes as we rush out the door for work unable to explain why we can’t stay to play Lego, superficial, hasty interrupted conversations with our partners, all the while, desperately attempting to carve out a tiny slice of the day for ourselves.

Over the nearly five years of being a work-outside-the-home parent, I have truly believed that my absence at home was inevitably causing my children some irreparable harm. This idea has been carried heavily on my shoulders has been the daily source of incredibly stress-inducing Mom Guilt.

At the CWIM conference, however, my ideas around Working Mom Guilt were dispelled. During a session entitled the ‘Good Mom Myth’, Canadian author, therapist and parenting expert Alyson Schafer spoke about the concept of belief systems. She described how our belief systems are subjective, founded on our feelings, yet we treat them as truisms and fact.

For example, many of us work-outside-the-home Mamas hold fast to the belief system that we are constantly being measured, holding our actions against a hypothetical, vertical ruler of ‘success’. Comparing ourselves to other Moms and clambering day-in and day-out up this fictional ‘Mom scale’ of success. Yet, regularly we fall short of our perceived success and in rush those near-constant feelings of shame and guilt.

But what if we took that same ruler, that ‘measure’ of success and simply changed the orientation to the horizontal, challenged Schafer. With the ruler in the horizontal plane, we change our perspective when thinking about our ‘success’ as Moms, reframing it instead as a journey towards mastery. Throwing out our inner narrative of constant comparisons in determining our success and failure (i.e. ‘Look at Lianne, she spends way more time at home with her kids than me. Wow, Andrea’s house is always so spotless. How does she do that?’). Would it be possible instead to exist along our own individual continuum and our own personal journey through Motherhood, letting go of useless comparisons that drive our drowning sense of Mom Guilt.

With that framework in mind, Schafer also said something that literally shattered my long-held assumption that my ‘failings’ as a Mom were causing irreversible damage to my children. For all the time spent at work away from them, for every hour devoted to the gym instead of to home, for every instance that Alice calls me ‘Dad’, I truly, truly felt that my kids were destined for brokenness and for years for future therapy. Where did this belief system come from? On what basis of truth did those feeling arise? Could these ideas possibly be simply untrue?

Mind. Blown.

Why can I not reframe my belief system to think that perhaps because my children are raised in a household where their Mom shows resilience, empathy, sacrifice and compassion every single day helping others, my kids will grow to be thoughtful, kind and benevolent humans. Could it instead be true that because their Mom demonstrates hard work, persistence and financial independence in a traditionally male-dominated and science-based career, Henry and Alice will grow to never question of their ability to achieve their life goals? Could it be that because their primary caregiver is their Dad, they will grow to defy social constructs of gender in their every day lives? Is it possible that because their Mom prioritizes her time at the gym, my children will also grow to respect their bodies and prioritize their physical and mental health?

So, for all of you work-outside-the-home Mams, drop that Mom guilt. Let it go. It doesn’t serve you nor your children.

You many not make it to every school field trip, you may not be the parent who brings the cute, Santa-shaped home-baked Christmas cookies to the class party or you may not be there for every good night kiss and every bleary-eyed good morning hug, but you ARE giving your children a gift much bigger and more lasting than any home-sewn halloween costume.

You are enough. You’ve got this.

2 Comments on “Working Mom Guilt

  1. I get house bumps every time I read your stories. What a gift you have. And you are definitely MORE THAN ENOUGH. 😘


  2. Hi Celia!
    I’m loving the fact that the conference addressed the issues that moms face, it’s a step forward for everyone. Your kids are lovely and you’re doing what you can with the time you have to do it. Enjoy them while you can as they grow much too quickly. We think of you all the time, and never forget how you touched our lives.


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