Thursday, May 13, 2010

Mommy guilt

I've noticed that one common theme on this blog: Guilt.

As working mothers, we often feel guilty. We feel guilty for not spending enough time with our kids, and at the same time, we feel guilty for not working hard enough at our jobs. After I was recently saying how I felt bad that my husband had a longer commute to work than I did, a male attending said to me, "You are always feeling guilty. I never feel that way. Ever."

I recently read a post on The Differential, a medical student blog, where a 4th year med student writes about her children being angry that she's moving them halfway across the country for her radiology residency. She feels guilty for uprooting her family and wonders if she should have picked a less competitive specialty that was more geographically flexible. For the most part, the comments to her post were supportive, but of course, there were a few people who called her "selfish" and said that she is not putting her children's needs first.

I knew a few people in my class who uprooted their families to train in competitive specialties. They were all men. (Although to be fair, 90% of the parents in the class were men.) If a man had made a post like that, would people have called him selfish? I don't think so. If only because a man never would have made a post like that. If the father's career calls for a cross-country move, that's just The Way It Is.

Men don't write blog posts about how they feel bad they missed putting their baby to sleep two nights last week, they don't obsess over the fact that their infant got one bottle of formula instead of breast milk (ever notice that there aren't any male "boob nazis"?), and they don't attend lectures about how to achieve a work-family balance. There isn't going to be a blog called Fathers in Medicine any time soon where men talk about the challenges of balancing fatherhood and a career as a physician. Not to say male physicians don't love their kids, because I know they do. But they don't have the kind of guilt that we do.

Actually, I'm a little jealous. Maybe we should all try to be more like men and not feel so damn guilty all the time.


  1. Didn't I tell you this two years ago, and you totally yelled at me? You must have been post call.


  2. I did? Well, that's possible, I guess. I somehow have this feeling like deja vu I made an identical post to this once before.

  3. You said male "boob nazi." Ha.

    I decided to hang up the working mommy guilt, a while back. Now I have "I'm going through a divorce and what are my children experiencing" guilt. It's even worse, if you can imagine.

    Mommy guilt is ubiquitous. I like to think it serves some higher purpose in life. Hopefully it makes us more present for our kids when we are around, at its best. As women, we will channel guilt into whatever black hole there is in our lives. I don't think there is any hope for getting rid of it. If you find a solution, let me know Fizzy.

  4. And here I am feeling guilty for abandoning my career for my son and my husband. He needed to move cross country for his career and I said, "OK". And I didn't realize what that would do to MY career...and I regret it every day of my life right now. Because the son is gone - all grown up. The husband is at a career pinacle. And I'm stuck with nothing much....
    Don't let it happen to you, Mother's in strong. Make them take 50%....

  5. Wow, I read the post and the comments you were referring to, and am shocked at some of the nasty comments! I think this is one of those polarizing topics (like breast vs. bottle, working vs. stay at home) that will always have passionate people on opposite ends. I absolutely agree with you though, Fizzy - I do think there are double standards, and that no one would question a dad who had to move for his career. As women and men become more equal, hopefully these types of very painful attacks on character will stop.

  6. Ugh, mommy guilt...I've know I've had it.
    Great post!

  7. To assuage some guilt, I'm the daughter of a litigator - the 80 hr/week type of lawyer. And then there were occasional months when she was gone altogether with a case out of state. I survived just fine. And not because I had a super-dad who picked up the slack. My dad did fine, but he worked long hours, too. My brother and I became pretty independent at an early age - but it's not like we were parentless.

    While I've had occasional resentments at a couple things my mom missed - and she no doubt has had occasional regrets, much more often I reflect on what a feat it was for her to make the soccer games, etc. that she did. She made her family a priority and spent time with us whenever she had the choice - and we appreciated that.

    I also realize that if my mom had been home, she would have driven me absolutely crazy. She is a person who needs to be busy. Like intellectually challenged and pulled in all directions and kicking butt kinda busy. And I don't think she would have been fulfilled or happy if she had done anything else. As her children, we would have been unhappy too - instead of living in awe of our kick butt mom.

  8. Yeah, I hear ya. Guilt is not unique to women in medicine, I think it's fairly universal in the working mom scene, it's just that ours seems to be amongst the most "unbalanced" of all professions so it's a bit more pronounced in us.

    I am one who is uprooting my family to pursue training in a competitive specialty (derm), but it NEVER crossed my mind that moving was a bigger sacrifice, or would be harder on my family, than if I'd chosen a more soul-demanding specialty (in terms of work hours, stress, etc). I don't mean to minimize the stress uprooting a family can cause; it's just that my kids are all under the age of 4, so all they really understand is how much they see mommy and daddy right now, or if we're there to tuck them in at night. Not so much where we are while we're seeing them, or the location of the bed we're tucking them into. I do understand that'd be different if our kids were school-aged and had to leave friends, community, etc.

    As far as the dad part goes, I know *most* men never experience the same level of worry or guilt about leaving their kids to go to work. However, I am lucky in that my husband (also in medicine) does share that guilt with me in a very equal sense. He has juggled the stay-at-home gig too, and would be our kids primary parent if we weren't so steep into debt. He adored his time at home, doing normal "SAHM stuff," so that I could get my medicine career back on track after taking a few years off (between med school and residency to be home with our babies).

    Actually, it's possible that my husband struggles with leaving them in someone else's care even more than I do. I think that's because I've found an area of medicine about which I'm passionate, excited, and it happens to be a field that will also allow a certain degree of balance in my life as a mom doctor. I'll still likely feel "stretched thin," as you describe, but I think the juggling act is even harder for people who aren't 100% in love with their professions/careers, yet have to leave their kids to continue working.

    Anyway, I will stop there and just say that I feel your pain, but that there are some men out there (even a few in medicine) who are as committed to parenthood as we are. The challenge for them is that it takes a rare program to understand something like paternity leave, and they're not "supposed to" have those feeling of missing their children while they're at work. I think that kind of societal pressure plays into the roles we end up defining for ourselves once we become parents.

  9. As a child of 2 physicians I can tell you that you are/will be very appreciated by your children - whatever age they are now and in the future. I love that my parents do what they love to do, the learning they fostered in me and I think your children will appreciate that, too. You will laugh, but on my blog, I posted just this week about the opposite: people judging kids of parents who are physicians, saying that they are rich and spoiled and somehow believe they deserve special treatment (to make the long story short, an acquaintance of mine read my personal statement for medical school where I sighted my parents as my inspiration, etc).
    But returning to your post, feelings of guilt were not uncommon in my family, mostly stated by my mom, but I'm sure my dad felt them, too. As as former kid I can tell you that it's perfectly ok, we understand, even though it may not seem like it to you right now. :)

  10. One of my favourite quotes,

    "Always choose guilt over resentment." - Gabor Mate

  11. Hi, me again from Down under

    When I had to go back to Full time + work when my daugter was 9 months I was wracked with guilt. I found it hard to do anything for me as I was spending too much time away from her as it was. My hair was barely ever cut, legs unwaxed, my exercise routine was difficult (although I did have a treadmill and a jogging stroller- so I got enough) and I was a wreck.

    I got some counselling which helped a bit and i breastfed first thing in the morning and at night until she was 20 months, that helped too

    But what helped the most is that she is growing into a delightful little girl...and she loves me...and I love her. We have a wonderful relationship, not ruined at all.

    Now I have number 2, my gorgeous 9 week old boy and i had to go back to some work, 2 days/week when he was 4 weeks old. I am still not looking forward to full time when he is 5 months but I have let a lot fo the guilt go.
    My husband, mum and dad and 2 days of good child care have been a great thing for my daughter, and my son will be able to add a big sister to that list.
    We make sure we do nice things as a family, picnics at the beach, we're members of the zoo...and my babies see the look for pure joy and love when I come home to them.

    Not saying mummy guilt has gone...will it ever? But it is better.
    I agree happy mum and dad=happy children.

  12. I didn't have any guilt over moving my 3 year old across country for my residency..but as I added children and got proficiency at feeling guilty improved.
    Being a mom is all about feeling guilty..if it wasn't guilt about moving my family for my job... it would be guilt about something else.
    There are 2 things about motherhood you can count on...feeling guily and ruining your children's lives like everyday from the age of 14 until the are 20.

  13. I'm a male surgeon, and I'm moving across the country to take job I'm not super excited about so that my wife can do a Heme/Onc fellowship. We both feel guilty about not spending enough time with our son. But my level of guilt is nowhere near hers. Good post, it made us both laugh.

  14. I agree with Gizabeth's "Mommy guilt is ubiquitous". Having chosen to go into family medicine to have time to be a mommy and nurturing wife to a husband in orthopaedic residency, I often find myself feeling guilt for not pursuing something more lucrative. Friends are now completing their training in Opthalmology, general surgery, otolaryngology - did I take the easy way out?


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