When I was pregnant with my first daughter, I attended a party where I ate the better portion of a wheel of Brie cheese. If you’ve ever had a baby, are thinking of having a baby, or know someone who’s had a baby, then you might know that soft cheeses are strictly forbidden when you’re expecting—according to most Western doctors, at least. (It’s a pasteurization thing. Raw milk ups your chance of ingesting harmful bacteria.)
But what can I tell you? The notion that cheese can be dangerous just seemed ridiculous to me, especially given that when my mom was pregnant with me, they expected I’d be born with a brandy in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
I ate the Brie.
An hour or so later, though, when my stomach started to hurt, I became hysterical: Oh, no. Something is wrong with my baby! What have I done?
I called my doctor, a lovely, sane man who would go on to deliver all four of my children. He listened and then very patiently explained to me that my baby and I were fine. What I had, he told me, was a case of mother’s guilt.
“Let me tell you,” he said, “it starts the minute you conceive that baby and it will not stop until the day you die.”
Truer words have never been spoken.
As aden + anais, our then-fledgling baby-goods company, continued to grow by leaps and bounds, so too did the size of my family. And though I’d always been a working mom, even before I started my company, the struggle to manage work and family life did not get any easier.
Once while I was out of town on business, my husband decided to take the girls out for ice cream. He stepped up to the counter, flanked by four little girls, giggling and chattering and ogling the display case. The cashier looked down at them, looked back at my husband, and in a small voice asked, “Do they have a mother?”
My husband took it in stride: “Of course, mate. She’s just traveling for business.”
But when he recounted the story to me later, instead of scoffing at this person’s ridiculous question, it was like someone reached into my chest and ripped out my still-beating heart.
Once again, I wasn’t there. Once again, I had been away from my girls because of the business. It should go without saying the obvious and insidious double-standard at work here: I have never once been asked, on the days when I’m out and about alone with the girls if they have a father.
Women share a common anguish over juggling their responsibilities. No amount of starry-eyed optimism over the things that women can accomplish in the business world will soothe the guilt of the mom who feels she should be in two places at once: at home, with her children, and at work, doing what earns her a paycheck and what she (hopefully) finds meaningful.
Each of these—children and work—can feel like a calling, we can feel devoted to both. But which one takes precedence moment to moment? What is the cost to our children when we give our career priority in a given moment? These are questions all parents grapple with on a daily basis, even if unconsciously.
Mommy guilt shows up in different ways for different women. It can show up at the grocery store when our kid starts screaming in aisle seven and we think we should have it all under control.
It shows up when we work nights or weekends to finish that project—the one we worked so hard to land—which takes precious time away from them.
It shows up when we don’t know how to make the changes they need or we lack the emotional energy to do so.
It’s there when the “perfect birthday party” doesn’t go as planned and ends in tears and tantrums.
It shows up when we don’t have the space to be emotionally available to them, because, well, stuff happens.
For many of us, it starts at pregnancy with pressure to give birth vaginally like some heroic warrior goddess, surrounded by candles and people chanting.
It starts with the phrase “breast is best,” which brings with it a heavy load of guilt for those who physically can’t produce milk (I couldn’t, despite trying for months), or have to return to a workplace with no lactation rooms, or simply prefer not to breastfeed.
It’s there when we crave time to ourselves but feel as though we should be giving time to our families because to do otherwise is considered selfish.
Instead of seeing the conundrum for what it is—a Chinese finger trap which keeps us struggling instead of accepting our reality—we strive to do it all. We think we can be a superhero mom and superhero career woman all the time, every day. Not surprisingly, this leads to an incredible amount of burnout.
What I struggled with most, especially trying to juggle a full-time job, growing a side business, and raising an expanding family, is the societal belief that working moms are somehow failing because we choose work, rather than to be with our kids day in and day out.
Women are up against commonly held beliefs that we don’t want to work, that we value our careers less than men do, and that huge swaths of us will ultimately leave our jobs to care for our homes and children. (I would guess that every mother reading this was asked at least once during her pregnancy whether she would be returning to work after she gave birth.) The fact that we’ve had children is often given as the reason that so few women have snagged boardroom or C-suite spots.
The judgment about women’s career choices probably won’t stop anytime soon. Most of us would say our choice to work is not, in fact, a choice. Most of us either need to work to support ourselves and our families, or we need to work to feel fulfilled.
Was it a choice to work, or to start my business? Not so much. Working was not only financially important to my family, but it was important to me. When I moved from Australia to New York and initially couldn’t work for lack of an appropriate visa, I learned that I could not be idle for long without suffering the consequences of lethargy, depression and a total lack of interest in life.
My career is fulfilling, and I’m convinced I would be a terrible mother if I were a full-time stay-at-home mom. Even though I once had to use my whole salary to pay for quality childcare, investing in my career has always been worth it.
Excerpted from What It Takes: How I Built a $100 Million Business Against the Odds by Raegan Moya-Jones with permission of Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Raegan Moya-Jones, 2019.