Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Guest post: Mommy guilt - the struggle is real

One of the first things I did when I got a job that paid money was hire a cleaning lady. It was a given that I would, since I hate housework, and am no good at it. I actually suck pretty hard at it.

As time went on, I outsourced more and more stuff. Some of it was because we suddenly had things we never had before, like backyards–who’s got time to mow that? Landscaper!–and children. Oh, children. They’re outsourced more than anything else. They’ve got daycare, tutors, and a babysitter. And right now, we’re pared down, because there is only one babysitter. There was a point in time when I had two: one for drop off and one for pickup.

Apparently, getting a cleaning lady is a source of shame or guilt for some people–women, mostly–because they take it as a point of pride that they clean their own house, even if they could afford help, because it makes them a real woman. Or something. Some even insist that they [airquote] like it or even that it [airquote] relaxes them. (You should see the face I’m making right now. Hint: it’s full of skepticism) I work in a highly Portuguese area, and these women are nuts about their houses. But not me. I hate cleaning and I outsource it. And I never felt badly about it, until I was told I was supposed to, that is.

Same with being a working mommy. Everyone always worked in my family, and I never thought it was any big thing, but now that I have kids, apparently, I’m supposed to be torn apart by guilt, or so TV,, and social media tell me. And you know what, their influence is not to be ignored, because the struggle has become pretty darn real.

Any working mother knows the awful tug and pull of the mommy guilt. You’re tired and you need the help, but you also want to do things for the kids and the house because it makes you a true mom. Or something. The more you suffer, the more it shows that you’re a tough mother, so to say.

The guilt is terrible, and it has so many layers. It’s a freaking milhojas. Behold: a) you feel guilty that you’re not doing enough for and with your kids; b) you don’t want to do stuff with your kids and you feel guilty about that; c) you work and you feel guilty that you’re not home; d) you know you’d suck at being at home (because see the first paragraph. I suck really hard at all that stuff), and you feel guilty about that; e) you don’t want to stay home anyway, and… you guessed, you feel guilty about it.

And do not underestimate the power of other mommies. The good ones say, “Everyone makes the choices that are right for them and their family,” with the subtext being “the only right choice is my choice.” The mean ones straight up put you down for your choices. “Nothing like being with mommy!” vs. “Contributing nothing to society.” It’s a big deal.

Just the other day, I ran into a fellow young doc at the hospital, and via smalltalk we figured out that he had just had his third baby, and that his wife was staying home.

“And let me tell you,” he adds. “The behavior in our younger children? Huge difference.”

Now granted, I was annoyed and due to my own insecurities, so the next statement does me no credit.

“Oh,” I say. “So should I quit my job and go stay home with the kids?”

No sooner were the words out of my mouth, and Fellow Young Doc didn’t even have the chance to utter some PC comment, a random nurse, whose name I don’t know and who was not a part of the conversation, sticks her nose, literally, between the two of us, and says, emphatically:

“YES!” I kind of looked at her, open mouthed. She then elaborated, in case I didn’t get the point: “Yes! I stayed home with my kids, and let me tell you, it’s always better when mommy is around!”

She said it a couple of more times too.

Fellow Young Doc removed himself politely from the conversation, and I was left to pout and seethe.

Here’s a paradox, catch 22, predicament for the modern woman today. We’re supposed to have all this choice, but what happens when we make the choice? If we choose motherhood and family – we’re wasting female brainpower and negating years of the feminist movement. Don’t you want more for yourself? If, on the other hand, we choose career and work – we are a failed unfulfilled woman. What is a woman without a child? If we do both – we are doing a half assed job at both. What’s the point of having kids if someone else raises them? (which, by the way, is something I have heard multiple times as well from random judgmental people). And if you’re working part time, do you have the best or the worst of both worlds? Or are you just doing a half assed job half of the time?

So, here I am feeling guilty about the fact that yes, I work, but I don’t work that hard, and I still have a nanny, a cleaning service, a landscaper, and now we’ve even found a service that will deliver delicious home cooked meals twice a week. And I’m all, Oh boo hoo, I only see my kids for an hour each day….

Then, I picked up Mary Poppins to read to my son. By the way, have you ever read the actual book?? Julie Andrews has it all wrong in the movie with her sunny disposition. The real Mary Poppins from the book is very unpleasant, and I really don’t understand why the kids were so smitten with her because she’s kind of mean to them, and she’s always sniffing and paying herself compliments, and looking down her nose at everyone.

Anyway, the book starts with the old nanny leaving, and Mrs. Banks being incredibly stressed about that. Meanwhile, remember, Mr. Banks had told her that to have 4 kids they’d have to live in a shabby house because they aren’t rich. So they’re living in a shabby house with 4 kids, a nanny, a cook, a maid, a lady who does, and a gardner. And the mom presumably doesn’t work, because people didn’t back then. And she’s so stressed out about having lost one of her 5 staff, and having to spend time with her children. And not an ounce of guilt.

Yeah, so now, I feel guilty about feeling guilty. I really seriously cannot win. Can’t we all just give ourselves a break? I have no helpful advice. I just wanted to point out the struggle because I know I’m not the only one.

-Sasha Retana, MD.


  1. When I was an intern, one of the NPs said to me that she had deliberately given up her dream of being a surgeon because she felt she wouldn't be a good mom working those hours. Mind you, she didn't even have a boyfriend at the time. Now here she was with two kids working 45 hours a week as an NP AND a second job as a travel nurse on the weekends she wasn't at the hospital in order to make ends meet. 60 hours a week anyway. I almost asked her how her plan had worked out for her, since she was making less money and not pursuing her dream while working surgeon hours. What a fool. It's too bad because she would have made a great surgeon. It's hard to feel that bad for her with her shitting all over my life choices though.

  2. Chapter one-million-and-ten in the book Women Can't Win. I never felt guilty for working and had a lot of odd conversations about it when mine was little. "Isn't it hard to leave her?" "Nope." "Don't you wish you could stay home?" "Nope. Did that for six months. Hated it." People didn't quite know what to do with me, especially since I'm a mom by adoption so I was presumed to be even MORE grateful to be a mom than if I'd birthed her....this is so effed up I can't even believe it. I've gotten this from other docs, which is what pissed me off the most - both about not taking a longer break from work (I am the primary breadwinner) and for sending my kid to daycare rather than hiring a nanny. The women I am most comfortable with are the women who are fully comfortable with their own choices and thus do not see a need to justify them by making them what "everybody" should do. If you hate being home, or you hate working, then it's easier to tolerate if you tell yourself you "have" to do it, and seeing someone else make the other choice and thrive calls all that into question. I had a friend (using the term loosely) who chose to be an NP rather than an MD so she could be more available to her kids. She clearly thought our infertility was punishment for putting my career ahead of family life (which wasn't the reason we postponed having kids, but never mind).

    Phew. Guess you hit a nerve :)

  3. I read this before it was posted - previewed it, and you are so funny I was almost in tears. Terrible stories but love your spin/writing style. I feel you on the Mary Poppins - for me it was Pippi Longstocking (stay at home moms getting together for tea and complaining about the house help? Really?). Keep being you and lose the guilt it's tough but we are so amazing forget the opinions and tropes. You are not the only one we are all in this, and we can all break free, if we support each other! You are not half assed you are double assed (if that's a good thing lol) so keep it up:)

    1. I'm so happy that you thought it was funny! I write when inspired, and then it's just my thoughts on paper...

  4. we are literally on the same wavelength. I HATE housework and probably suck at it worse than you do. Even in med school, and now as a resident, I budget a house cleaner once a week - without a second thought of guilt. A mentor once told me that hiring people to do things that dont make you happy make you a better person and help maximize the time you are home. (actually, she also told me that you can pay someone to clean your house or drive carpool but you dont want to pay someone to sleep with your spouse. so save your energy for what matters). One thing Ive been learning since becoming an ED resident is that every family works differently and no need to feel guilty as long as everyone is safe happy fed and cared for. Seeing so many family dynamics in the ED makes me realize lots of ways work. Another mentor once told me that "your kids literally have never lived a different lifestyle. they dont judge and dont wish it were different because they dont know what it is like. they dont read mommy blogs. " my 5 year old daughter thinks its so cool her mom is a doctor and asks what other moms do all day if they dont work. thats her reality. Great post and you are a rockstar superstar.

  5. I have a cleaner and a landscaper and if I had the funds I would hire a daily housekeeper that would clean up and cook every single day. I don't feel guilty. Why should I? I have spent the last 14 years in school and training and it wasn't so I can personally see to a sparkling kitchen sink.

    The delegation of childcare is slightly more of a compromise. I want to be able to spend a lot more than an hour or two a day with my son. But staying entirely at home would mean giving up something that is a part of me, and that SAHM ghost of my former self would make a crappy parent. So its a compromise. For some women a sparkling kitchen sink is a big part of them and that's ok too. Either way, if your are loving and affectionate with your children in the time you have with them they will be fine.

  6. One of the first things I plan on doing as an attending as a reward to myself is to finally get some help with the cleaning. I can't wait for that glorious day.

    One of the first things one of my best friends from med school (now resident with 4 month old baby) told me was not to get wallowed down in the mommy guilt. I told myself, not me. I had counseled plenty of my OB patients and pediatric parents and made sure I was encouraging and no matter what, telling them they were doing a good job. I didn't know I was supposed to feel guilty to be a working mother. My mom worked full-time as did my dad. I went to daycare. I drank formula. I didn't get skin to skin time after birth, and one time I even fell off the changing table. I think I turned out just fine. I didn't know I was supposed to feel guilty about any of these things as an adult because my buddies growing up all had similar stories and also turned out fine. I thought that's the way most people did things.

    But I'm already feeling guilty too. I'm only 2-3 weeks into maternity leave and I'm continually oscillating feeling ready to go back to a job that I like and feel pretty good at, ready to leave the diapers and fusses to someone else for a few hours, vs. snuggling my little peanut on the couch hoping leave lasts forever. (It does depend a little bit on how fussy someone is being at the time). I think I need to do a better job of just doing what I tell my patients - you are doing a great job when your child knows they are safe, feels loved, and is well-fed and frequently toileted/changed. I loved one of the comments I read on a recent post here - everything else is style points.

    Also one of my favorite attendings in medical school who didn't have kids at the time said the secret to happiness is delegation. She outsourced cooking and cleaning and a few other things. She also had her dream job and designed an internal medicine teaching service team almost completely run by medical students (with significant oversight by herself and an off-service intern) that paralleled the resident IM teams. She loved teaching and made sure she got interesting cases - and we loved it because it was the clerkship that made us most feel like a real doctors. I remember one of my male cohorts whispering to me afterward, "Do you really think she means it? She gets someone else to do all that stuff?" I remember thinking - sounds like living the dream to me.

    So here's to living your dream - the one that's uniquely yours and enables you to best make the world a better place in your own individual way, raising your kids the best way you know how, and is enjoyable and fulfilling to you along the way.

  7. THANK YOU for this super timely post. I just saw a family in clinic today where the mom (with zero guilt/shame) talked about how her kid was in daycare and work was great and she and her husband were taking a trip (alone) overseas. And all I could think to myself was, "I want to be her friend!" I hail from a family where my mother (and all female relatives) were/are SAHM's. My sister is a SAHM. The women I have most interactions with are either childless or SAHMs. My mom goes out of her way to call my daughter's daycare her "family." I do love spending a lot of time with my kid. I find her fascinating and her joy is so refreshing. But I feel like a real person when I go to "work" (aka medical school; before the career change, as a researcher). I feel like I have/will contribute to the world in a real way and have interesting things to talk to my husband about instead of what parks we played at and how many times darling daughter pooped. But as you said, the guilt is REAL. I forge on because I know my kids will be proud of me. I know that someday my nieces and other young female relatives will have a strong working role model to talk with if they decide they too want to pursue a career while being a mother. And lastly I keep going cause the school debt has to be paid off someday ;) Anyways, that's a long random rant.....just, thank you for posting!

    1. you're welcome! there were students in med school with me that had kids and I was always in awe of how they were doing it. Good job!

  8. As I have wrestled through the stages of motherhood and am entering a new career-phase in medicine, I have come to realize it's less about being a SAHM or a working mom - it is about who I am called to be at each unique phase of my life. Sometimes I have sacrificed a career path because my home and child-rearing responsibilities were greater; sometimes I have pursued a strong desire (competitive athletics) that seemed to have little tangible reward; sometimes I have worked low-paying flexible jobs because that is what our family needed at the time; and now my husband is making significant sacrifices to allow me to pursue a dream and a calling in medicine. My perspective is that it's less about formula and more about being honest with myself - am I being self-indulgent, or am I secure in who I am called to be? We all need accountability from close friends and loved ones as we walk life's road. And it's okay to make course corrections if needed. Best of luck on your journey!


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