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Working Mama Guilt

How to avoid the temptation to compare yourself, on both the work and home front.

Working Mama Guilt

Becoming a parent was most definitely unlike any other experience I’d had to date. Other than knowing some basics of taking care of kids from my teenage babysitting years and watching (from a safe distance) a few friends and colleagues enter the world of new parenthood, I didn’t have much real-life knowledge of how it would go.

To fill that gap in relevant reference points, I needed information about how the rest of the world did things. Like coping with baby reflux. Heading back to work on no sleep. And sterilizing pump parts. So I did the inevitable: I compared what I was doing to how others around me were managing.

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Sometimes, these comparisons proved to be really helpful in teaching me new tricks of the trade. Benchmarks can, of course, be useful tools.

But other times, these comparisons served to make me feel pretty crappy: I was pretty excited about that 4-hour stretch of sleep my baby got. Until I learned that my friend’s son who is the exact same age slept 12 straight hours. I thought I had returned to being a productive employee. Until I had to miss an important meeting because my baby was sick, and all my other colleagues were there. I thought my baby was developmentally on track, but a friend’s baby was walking by 8 months. And when I walked past all my diligent coworkers’ offices to get out the door at 4:30pm to get my baby from daycare, I felt like a pretty big slacker.

I’m five years into the parenting thing, and reframing unhelpful comparisons is still a work in progress for me. I’ve learned, however, to start asking myself how I truly feel about something, rather than whether I’m on some sort of “right” track or not. And last year, one of the mamas in the Mindful Return E-Course taught me the manta “comparison is the thief of joy” – which I now remind myself of daily.

Here’s my advice:

If you feel like you’re somehow falling “short” – remind yourself that “short” is a word that implies a comparison to something else. Then ask yourself: is the comparison to your own expectations? If so, perhaps it’s time to adjust them, just as everything else in your universe that now involves keeping another human being alive has had to change.

Or, is it the comparison to what “everyone else” is doing? Or perhaps what so-called “society” says you should be doing? If so, it’s time to turn inward and stop making those other people the yardstick.

As useful as comparisons and benchmarks can be, they shouldn’t dictate to us how we feel about ourselves. A (male) colleague recently lamented to me that despite loving his job, he feels “behind” in his career, because he started in one direction, changed paths, and is now a few years older than most of his work peers. I felt compelled to ask him: you’re “behind what?” “On whose schedule?”

If you truly can’t give up comparison, my recommendation is to find some people who inspire you – perhaps on the calm, or balance, or creativity, or daring front – and compare yourself to them. Not for the purpose of falling short – but for the purpose of learning from them those qualities you aspire to.

Working mamas often struggle with the comparisons and guilt in both “sides” of their lives. So here’s what I suggest for each angle:

  • If having a hard stop at the end of the work day leaves you feeling crummy, choose to compare your quality of work to that of someone you admire, not your end-of-day leave time to your single co-worker.

  • If you find yourself envying the playgroup your stay-at-home mom friend is involved with, befriend other working mamas – perhaps at work or through your childcare. And truly BE with your little one when you are home. The being present piece is what really matters.

  • Either way, repeat this mantra often: I am enough. And believe it, mama.

I do leave at 4:30pm to get my kids nearly every day. And I’m intentionally on a 60% schedule at work. I may not be “keeping up” with others, but this pace works for me.

To use comparison for good, I now dare to ask: Can I be as thoughtful as she is? As committed to being healthy as she is? As gracious and empathetic as I just saw him be to his team? It is much more fun to be inspired by – rather than feel threatened by – other people.

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