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Challenge: Stretched Too Thin

'I can't be in two places at once': How I'm losing my working mom guilt

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It was the end of the school year and my kindergartener, Adeline, came home with a bulging paper red folder of worksheets and projects. One was a stapled “book” recapping her school year. Every page had her kindergarten penciled letters spelling out her school, friends and memories, complete with crayon illustrations. You know the kind — stick figures with disproportionate heads and no noses.

As I flipped through the packet, smiling and taking it all in, I saw a grid titled “My Four Memories from the Year.” In the lower left quadrant was “Daddy” with a drawing of Adeline and her daddy in her classroom.

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Rather than seeing it for what it was — a precious drawing from a little girl who loved having her daddy come to her class, all I saw was that it wasn’t mommy in the picture. Adeline’s simple crayon stick figure artwork triggered all the mom guilt, all the struggles of being a working mom who feels stretched too thin. It was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. I looked at it and immediately started bawling, with big crocodile tears pouring down my cheeks.

My husband, Matthew, was astonished at my outburst. “Why are you crying?”

“Because she is going to remember YOU being at school and ME in an office,” came my quick reply.

Adeline was right there when this all happened, and my reaction made her respond. She put her small dimpled hand on my arm, and as she gently rubbed it she said, “Mama, I’m sorry. I forgot when you came to the Valentine’s party and we took pictures.” I brushed my tears aside and said not to be sorry and that I didn’t mean to cry. I hugged her tight and tried to compose myself.

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After Adeline left the room, Matthew and I talked about how I was feeling. He reminded me that I AM a good mom who is there for our kids all the time. And they will remember that their mom loved them deeply and was present in their lives while also working hard and having a successful career.

Our talk made me feel better in the moment. But the truth is, more than a year later, as I am writing these words, I still tear up. Because that working mom guilt is a real thing. I love my work. I love my kids. And unfortunately, I can’t be in two places at once. In our family, that means that I miss a lot of daytime functions.

Thankfully, I have learned that it isn’t about the quantity of time that I have with my kids, it’s about the quality of that time. So, while I can’t make it to every story time at school and volunteer for field trips, I can snuggle up for 1:1 story time in the evening and create our own “field trips” on weekends.

I don't need to feel guilty for working. My work helps provide for our family, brings me much satisfaction, and teaches my children that work has value.

When my kids grow up, I want them to remember they had a hard-working mom who was intentional and genuinely interested in their lives. Last night, when I put my daughter to bed, she hugged my neck and said, “you’re the best mommy in the world.”

I laughed and said, "well maybe not the whole world!" The thing is, I only need to be the best mommy in her world.

And if she believes it, I am going to as well. Even if I don’t make it in the year-end school packet.

Partially excerpted from Jessica’s new book: Stretched Too Thin: How Working Moms Can Lose the Guilt, Work Smarter, and Thrive.

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