Not Guilty is the title of a terrific book by Betty Holcomb, jam packed with what she calls “good news for working mothers. The good news, to sum it up, is that kids don't suffer when their mothers work outside the home.
With the media saturated with stories of successful women deserting the urban corporate jungle to head off into the suburban sunset to be stay at home supermoms, one might actually be tempted to believe the hype that kids are better off when their mothers stay at home. Of course our kids need us. Of course we wish we had more time with them. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t love our work.
Though the guilt gene seems deeply embedded in our maternal DNA, it can keep us from taking pride in what we do and who we are, both as mothers and professional women. Guilt, unless it stems from genuine wrongdoing, is counterproductive. It sucks away energy that should be put to creative use. So it’s important to arm ourselves with reasons to resist the myth that our kids are being shortchanged because we aren’t at home with them during their every waking hour. Just because we work, that doesn’t mean we’re not a powerful source of guidance for our families. On the contrary.
So, about that guilt: Your working contributes to the economic stability of your family. When you leave for work each day you offer your kids a model of reliability, the dependable fulfilling of responsibility. If school is your kids’ work, your job is yours. As Holcomb points out, women whose jobs challenge and reward them rank highest on polls that ask about life’s satisfactions, and we all know that a contented mom makes for happier kids. Pitting women’s ambition against their children’s welfare cheats everyone. There’s nothing wrong and everything right with women being professionally ambitious. Newswoman Ann Curry, quoted in Wendy Sachs’ terrific book, "How She Really Does It: Successful Secrets of Stay-At-Work Moms," proudly says that she’s more ambitious now because she strives to be a role model for her kids.
Research conducted several decades ago by psychology professor Lois Hoffman and continuously ratified over the years produced more good news: she discovered that girls with working mothers score better on social adjustment tests, do better in school and eventually accomplish more professionally. She also reported the results of studies that showed that girls with employed mothers tended to name their moms as the person they most admire. Kids whose moms work outside the home tend to be more self-reliant, and more flexible about male and female roles.
Inevitably, though, your kids will whine about why you have to go to the office instead of, say, coming on the school field trip. Instead of aching with guilt, use those questions as an opportunity to talk with them about why you work. Sharing your needs and interests will help them develop empathy and respect for you and will also teach them that you don’t exist only to meet their needs. Acknowledge that in some families both mom and dad work, and in other families, one parent stays home during the day – emphasize that each family does what’s best for them. Using age appropriate language, tell them that your work is part of who you are. Explain what makes you happy about your job and compare it to moments they are happy. Make the point that work is a natural part of life, like eating and sleeping. Several times a year, take them to your office so they can see what you do and where you spend the day.
Freud was on target when he said that people (and we take that to mean all people) need both work and love. Both are part of who we are. No one can claim our juggling act is easy, but whether you work because you must or because you choose to, your work is a vital part of who you are. So be who you are and when you feel those inevitable pangs of guilt after a particularly stressful day, remember the resiliency of kids who know they are loved and wear your working mom badge with pride.