The struggle of a working parent.
Posted Oct 08, 2019
"Yes, I understand. That every life must end.
As we sit alone. I know someday we must go.
Oh, I am a lucky man. To count on both hands,
The ones I love. Some folks just have one.
Others, they got none.
Stay with me. Let’s just breathe.
Practiced are my sins. Never gonna let me win.
Under everything. Just another human being.
Yeah, I don’t want to hurt. There is so much in this world to make me bleed.
Stay with me. You are all I see…"
—"Just Breathe," Pearl Jam, October 2009
My flight just landed, and I blast "Just Breathe" by Pearl Jam through my headphones as I weave through the sea of so many different faces. I walk through the opening scene of the movie Love Actually. I see the love in the air. Literally.
My heart feels so present. So full. It is being pulled to get home to see my kids. I can’t get there fast enough.
This feeling is hard to describe. I am acutely aware of how badly I need to reconnect with them, almost a visceral despair that is loving but has an edge of sadness. When I think of their faces, I start to tear up.
This feeling can best be imagined as a ball of fullness, gratitude, longing, appreciation, and sorrow. Many would say it sounds simply confused. To me, it feels like a fog lifted, I see completely and not at all, at the same time.
This week burst for me. Busy, yes, but what I mean is that I burst with abundance. New professional opportunities, new connections, a new understanding of self, and varying interests. It feels right.
"There is so much in this world to make me bleed."
The weather is beautiful. A sunny, New England fall day. I cry under my sunglasses in the Uber as Eddie Vedder sings to me. And I am not a crier. My last tears were about six months ago watching the Mr. Rogers documentary. This is a moment of unclear clarity. Listen.
Professional and personally, I am fueled. I am growing. I am inspired.
Parenting—I am lagging. It is Friday now, and I have not put much into my kids’ small tanks this week. I got a note from Eve’s kindergarten teacher that she got a special award (the prized "Duck Foot") for being kind. A huge moment in her little world. And I wasn’t there. And she forgot to tell me over Facetime that night.
My husband and our nanny killed it. My kids are loved by many. But I wasn’t there. I bring home extra candy from Minnesota. It feels cheap. But I still do it. It is the thought that counts—right?
"I wonder every day. As I look upon your face."
My aging mom is in the hospital, and I need to visit and make sure she is OK. That she knows she is loved. I am sure she is scared. I know she is alone. God, please don’t let that happen to me. But it will.
"Yes, I understand. That every life must end. As we sit alone. I know someday we must go."
I frantically type in the Uber home to understand my feelings. Writing is an emotional portal. I feel relieved that this self-exploration will double as a professional article. One is due soon. And I always look for opportunities to kill two birds with one stone. School pickup is in 30 minutes. I better figure this sh*t out fast. This, too, feels cheap.
A close friend often says, “You can have it all. But just not all at the same time.”
I remind myself of this. And take the long view. It’s just this week. Have self-compassion. I am definitely not a martyr. And don’t want to be. Self is so important. But have I jumped to the side of self-indulgence? How will I know??
Three nights away from my kids is my preferred max. I am already at four and have to unpack from the work trip and pack again for a weekend away with my close friends. Kids stay home. Six nights away: double my comfort level. But I want to go. Cooking, wine, connecting—it all satisfies my soul. Plus, I am hosting. No backing out now.
"I am a lucky (wo)man. To count on both hands the ones I love."
The opportunities I have. The life I live. The position I was born into.
And each day, I disappoint someone.
I want it all. For me. And for them.
But time and space are non-compliant.
I owe a couple of patients a return call. And I have a lingering feeling that there is a student I need to get in touch with.
I listen to "Just Breathe" on repeat. It feels like it’s telling me something. I know and don’t know at the same time.
I live from moment to moment. A series of often disjointed experiences weaved together into a quilt I call life. I can be completely present in one scene and jump to the next, even when it feels utterly paradoxical. Opposing even. I deep dive down. And then move on. This fuels me. And drains me too.
OK, I need to run and get the kids. I hope this moment doesn’t pass. I’ll have to come back to understanding this more later. But not when the kids are here—I don’t want them to see me on screens, especially since I am taking off in a couple of hours. But there is so much more to unpack. And explore.
Am I f---ing up my kids?
"Practiced are my sins. Never gonna let me win."
I rationalize and say, "I am modeling a life I want my kid to have. Close relationships, work success, family, and fun."
Or is it a gamble? And I have already lost. Maybe they will just remember the feeling of aloneness, times when Mom wasn’t there for them. And needed me to share the pure exhilaration of a Duck Foot.
"Under everything. Just another human being."
I walk over to the school and can’t find the kids at first. How apropos. What is wrong with me.
Then I catch Ty’s eye. He runs to me and jumps in my arms. No shame from my big 3rd grader. His head smells delicious. His skin is so soft. His eyes so blue. His arms warm. Loving. Unconditionally accepting.
"Nothing you would take. Everything you gave. Hold me until I die."
The love I feel is there. It remains. It is the same.
The self-doubt vanishes. Or at least retreats. For now.
"Stay with me.
You are all I see.
Did I say that I need you?
Did I say that I want you?’
Oh, if I didn't.
I am a fool, you see.
Nobody knows this more than me.
I come clean."
Just breathe. My nanny reminds me that emotions aren't necessarily reality. The guilt and sadness that feels so real to me are not reflected at home. This is a me thing—not a them thing, apparently. I know this to be true and see it every day in my work with patients, but when it catches hold personally, it is impossible to see the trees from the forest. This comment from my nanny helps shake the perception.
Each day in my clinical practice, I hear the same thing: "I am doing the best I can, but it often feels like it is not enough. I should be doing it more. Or better." In a 2017 Pew Study, 43 percent of full-time working mothers and 63 percent of fathers reported that they don't feel like they spend enough time with their children. Work is most often cited as the reason why (52 percent of moms, 64 percent of dads).
We challenge these thoughts together. I ask, "What evidence do you have that this is true?" There is a constant recalibration from dated expectations these mothers impose on themselves to the reality of today.
Many working parents have an irrational but incredibly persistent inner thought that says: "My kids would be better off if I was home." Although that might be true in some situations, the current literature does not support that. There is a disconnect from our inner lashings and the reality of the modern, often dual-income family.
A research study from Harvard (2015) found that children of working mothers are just as happy in adulthood as children of stay-at-home moms. OK, that is a relief. For my patients. And for me. Just breathe.
My nanny reminds me of when my daughter would play house, and Eve would cook for her babies, kiss them on their heads, and then leave to "help her patients."
Again, I go back to the research. Not to add to the Mommy Wars, but for personal reasons, the literature also shows that daughters of working mothers have higher annual earnings, are 1.21 times more likely to be employed as adults, are 1.29 times more likely to be supervisors, and spend 44 minutes of additional time at work each week. Sons and daughters of working mothers achieve significantly more education too.
Sons benefit. Research shows that these guys tend to pitch in more with their own children, marry partners who also work and financially contribute to the household, and also hold more equitable gender views.
So, despite being a working woman committed to her career, it feels nearly impossible to dodge the guilt that often plagues parents who work outside of the house. A few tips:
- Ask yourself if this is a feeling, or is it evidence-based? Feelings are feelings, and not necessarily the reality of your children's lives.
- Take the long view. Some weeks are harder than others. Remind yourself that this feeling is time-limited. Before you know it, you will be back in the throes of the family—maybe even waiting for a reprieve.
- Find a moment to reconnect, if possible. Small moments feel better, and often are enough to challenge any irrational thoughts.
- Come back to the research. The literature shows your kids will be just fine—and even benefit from you working.
- Go easy on yourself. The grass is always greener. If you were at home, this feeling would probably come in another form. Parenting is hard, no matter how you slice it.
- Lastly, just breathe. It makes everything better. Music helps, too.