Thursday, June 21, 2012

Parental Guilt – An Equal Opportunity Pain in the A$$

With Father’s Day last weekend there has been a lot of press about the changing roles in families today.  My family is prime example.  I work, sometimes a lot.  My husband is a stay at home dad to our three boys.  When we started this five years ago, it was something of a novelty.  We weren’t the first to do it, but there definitely weren’t a lot of other stay at home dads in our central Texas neighborhood.  Five years later and the legions of dads taking on primary child care (both working and stay at home dads) have visibly grown.  And that means we can now welcome these dads into the Mommy Guilt Club. 

Mommy Guilt or Parental Guilt is that sinking feeling you get in the pit of your stomach knowing that you’re missing those first steps, the first word, the first time they throw a ball or ride a bike.  You’ll be there for the second time, but it’s not the same.  It’s also the guilt you feel for the fact that you actually like being away from the kids and doing your job.  So you feel like a bad parent because you aren’t there and a worst parent because you’re enjoying your time away from them. 
A lot of this is a new phenomenon; it started with the age of helicopter parenting and the idea that if you aren’t there during your child’s early years you are giving them a disadvantage in life.  There are studies that back up the idea, along with studies that say letting your kids watch TV (we do – Dinosaur Train rocks!) is bad, not making them eat a healthy well balanced meal at every setting will make them obese (they know the difference between Happy Meals and Kids Meals, and have a preference), and not reading to them at night will drop their IQs by a few points (good thing they’re smart to start off with…).  There are so many ways of being a “bad” parent and being a working parent is top of the list. 

This makes you feel especially bad when you actually like being a working parent.  Taking time off to be with the kids makes you feel guilty that you’re not finishing that brief or haven’t yet reviewed that contract.  There’s always a pile of stuff on your desk that should be looked at but hasn’t been yet.  So when you take the half day to watch your baby graduate from Kindergarten, you’re struck by the fact that you’ve missed so much of his life and still aren’t on top of everything at work.  It feels like a lose-lose in every possible way.

So how can you deal with the dreaded Parental Guilt?  What is my grand advice?  Relax.  No one is a perfect parent.  Those that stay at home and are with their kids 24/7 have the same concerns you do.  And no one is a perfect employee.  Those without kids never clean their desks either.  The real secret to success is understanding that you can’t be everything all of the time.  So focus on what’s in front of you.  If you’re working, trust your child’s caregiver to take care of him.  Focus on your work.  Don’t worry about missing the first whatever.  It’s more important that you’re there for the ones that come after.  If you give all of your attention to your employer during working hours, then it will be easier to actually have off hours.  And when you’re off, focus on the family.  Don’t keep going over your to do list in your head when you should be playing “What dinosaur am I?” with your 5 year old.  Be present mentally, not just physically, and the time that you do get with the family will be truly quality time.  They’ll remember that more than whether you saw their first goal or not. 

It’s hard, I know.  I still struggle with it every day.  But a few ground rules can help.  I take the kids to school in the morning and once a week we have breakfast (thank you IHOP!) before school/work.  Phone is off and I just listen to how his week is going.  Then I get to work, usually an hour or two before everyone else - internet company, we don’t officially start until 9-9:30ish…  And I focus on work.  I don’t call the hubs to see how the boys are doing, although he does kindly send me pics of cute stuff every so often.  Barring some time sensitive matter (and no, you’re lack of planning does not constitute an emergency on my part), I leave the office by 5:30.  I have dinner, an hour of play time and bed time rituals with the boys.  I focus on them; I try really hard not to check my phone until after they’ve gone to bed.  I’ll work till 2am if necessary – after they’ve gone to bed.  But those 2 hours every night are precious and work is not allowed. 

So far, this has worked for me.  I’m not sure what adjustments we’ll need to make as they get older or my career grows.  For now, I’ve made a tentative truce with my mommy guilt.  It’s not strong, but I’ll take what I can get.  So what do you do to manage the parental guilt?

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