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Back in “the good old days,” mom stayed home and raised the kids, dad worked, and everyone was happy. Right? Probably not.
In her book, The Kickass Single Mom, Emma Johnson notes that “our collective point of reference for a ‘healthy’ family often goes to a contrived golden era of the 1950s and 1960s, when television shows and magazine advertisements blasted this stereotype into millions of American homes, only perpetuating the Leave It to Beaver fantasy.”
As someone who was raised, in the early years, by a stay-at-home mom, I definitely grappled with this image when I had kids of my own. I knew I wanted to keep working and that I’d be a better mom if I did so. But I had a lot of fear about transitioning my baby to childcare, and missing his “firsts”. The daycare world seemed so foreign to me. And the cultural messages told me that working outside the home was somehow going to hurt my kids. Apparently, 60 percent of Americans still believe children are better off when a parent stays home. (Though we know, from research like this Harvard Business School study, that this simply isn’t the case.)
If you believe this fantasy, not only do you get sucked into the wild world of working mom guilt, but you may make professional decisions that don’t set yourself up for career or professional success. If you truly believe you shouldn’t be working, will you push yourself to excel professionally? Probably not.
Two strategies have helped me immensely in ditching this outdated fantasy and overcoming the working mom guilt.
First, I took great solace from learning that so-called “alloparents” have been critical to child rearing for pretty much all of human history. I learned the term “alloparents” from Brigid Schulte’s amazing book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play when No One Has the Time. Here’s a good introduction to the idea, from the book. For context, Brigid is interviewing Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, an evolutionary anthropologist, and they’re discussing Kung women in the Kalahari Desert in Africa, 2,000 years ago:
“The whole idea that mothers stayed at camp and the men went off to hunt? No way! These women were walking thousands of miles every year with their children. Or if it was not safe, they were leaving them back at camp.” She pauses to drive that point home: Sometimes mothers left their children back at camp. The children were with their fathers, older siblings, grandparents, relatives, and other trusted, nurturing adults- people Hrdy calls “alloparents” (“allo” means “other than” in Greek). “It’s natural for mothers to work. It’s natural for mothers to take care of their children,” she says. “What’s unnatural is for mothers to be the sole caretaker of children. What’s unnatural is not to have more support for mothers.”
Second, I’ve learned to welcome in the guilt. Sounds counterintuitive, I know. But it turns out that acknowledging that the guilt is there is way more effective at reducing it than trying to drown it or shame myself for feeling it. By sitting with the guilt, and simply knowing it’s there, the guilt loses its sting. And when the sting is gone, I feel much more empowered to be a kick-ass career professional. And a pretty darn good mom, too.
Lori K. Mihalich-Levin, JD, is the founder of Mindful Return, author of "Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave," and creator of the Mindful Return E-Course. A partner in the health care practice of a global law firm, she also is mama to two beautiful red-headed boys. Lori holds a law degree from the Georgetown University Law Center and completed her undergraduate studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
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