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Working Mom Guilt Is Exhausting

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Last week after our 2-year-old projectile vomited on me, the chihuahua and the kitchen floor, my husband and I congratulated ourselves on our excellent teamwork. I had dashed the still-puking child into the bathroom while my husband mopped the floor in record time.

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We do as much as a team as possible. We wake up our son together, and we walk the dogs as a family. We change diapers and manage tantrums as a unified front. When I'm not working, I jump into whatever tasks I can—cooking, doing dishes, bathtime, bedtime—to make sure my husband isn't shouldering too much. It's a lovely balance of teamwork and mutual respect for each other's time and parenting abilities.

And it's completely and utterly exhausting.

You see, I'm the breadwinner in the family, working semi-flexible, full-time hours while my husband takes care of our son. Growing up in an ultra-traditional household, my family dynamic involved a hardworking dad who came home exhausted every night. While he relaxed, mom handled all the child care and household tasks late into the evenings. My own feminist leanings led me to believe that it's easy to flip that dynamic when mom is the breadwinner. But most families don't.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, married mothers employed full-time are more likely to do household activities and provide child care on an average day than married fathers who are employed full-time. For that, I thank one factor I hadn't accounted for: mom guilt.

I jump into family tasks not because my husband asks for help, but because my guilt demands it.

The gnawing feeling—unreasonable as it may be—is that I have to stay involved or I'll miss out on my son's childhood. There's the little voice that says I have to be present or I'll be pushed into the fringes of the family. And there's the ongoing fear that my husband will harbor resentment if I take advantage of his time because he's not earning a salary.

I jump into family tasks not because my husband asks for help, but because my guilt demands it. As long as I'm not working and my son is awake, I'm constantly in his face trying to create memories. While I'm at my computer, I keep up a steady stream of conversation or take photos of his puttering. While I cook or clean, I keep him close by so that even chores offer bonding moments.

It's not a question of "having it all" in any high-powered, supermom kind of way. My generation saw women go that route in the shoulder-padded '80s, and it didn't seem to go very well. Instead, we're on a constant quest to find that razor's edge known as work/life balance.

But even for those of us who willingly sacrificed career ambitions for family, and yet accept that sometimes work has to come first, that guilt monster has a way of masquerading as maternal instinct. It insinuates itself into the deepest emotional crevice and whispers that we have to be present and involved, whenever and however possible, even when there's a perfectly capable partner at home.

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The martyr route isn't very satisfying and it's likely to cause more resentment than absenteeism. So unless there's projectile vomit involved, I suspect it's OK to get out of everyone's faces just a little bit. It's fine for my son to play in another room even when I'm around. It's OK to step away from a toddler tantrum if my husband has it under control. I'm allowed to put a little space between motherhood, work and me.

Do you have working mom guilt?

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