Guilt and the working mom

By Kavita Srinivasan

Published: Thu 25 Feb 2021, 5:55 PM

I came home to pump every afternoon when my son was six months old.

The time I was allotted as a postpartum working mum only allowed for milk making, not for snuggles. And so, the few ounces of liquid gold were all I had — my substitute for me.

I was relieved to go back to work… till I wasn’t. I needed to be back home with him. He needed me. How would a bottle of milk fill the hole in his heart I knew my hours of absence had carved out? The more I hated leaving him, the more he hated me leaving.

As the years passed and I stopped breastfeeding, nothing much changed. The guilt got worse because now he could talk. “I want only you,” he would say in his beloved baby voice, his chubby cheeks flushed with pent up desire for me. I was never there. Not for the birthdays, not for the playdates, not for his classes. I showed up for drop off and pick up and even that was a struggle. It was hard meeting the demands of a high-powered job as an Editor-in-Chief, and playing driver/mum. There weren’t enough hours and my days were measured by chores, not love. Wake up-drop off-work-pick up-work-bedtime-work; six hours of sleep later, repeat.

The nights I couldn’t do bedtime because of a press deadline, I would cry, always louder and harder than him. I freshened up before we spoke over BOTIM, of course, but he saw through the cover-up. Was it worth working when I missed him so much? But then, by not working would I get swallowed whole by motherhood?

The only solace in this day-to-day tug of war, was a study conducted by Harvard Business School that found children of working mums were not only more successful, but just as happy as children whose mums stayed at home. I held onto the stats, chanting them as I laboured to balance every second, splitting minutes in half with precision. Sons of working mothers “hold significantly more egalitarian attitudes… Having an employed mom makes daughters think that employment is compatible with parenting,” wrote Kathleen McGinn. Guilty moms could now rest. The research was out.

What about the mums? Were they happy too? Yes, there is worth and merit in having a career and dedicating your hours to you, but can you really have a high- powered career and be a happy mother? When I say high-powered, I mean upwards of 50 hours a week of relentless and demanding presence. Is that possible? That’s what it takes to be a woman, a mother and prove you’ve still got ‘it’. The labour pains aren’t over just yet.

I’ve always worked. I love it. But I will say this — I don’t think it’s possible to have a job that needs all of you, all the time, and be a guilt-free mother. In the day-to-day struggle of being a working mother, there is loss — not of your job, not of your baby… but of yourself. In sharing yourself with the two needy halves of your life, you may lose the one thing that matters — you.

What working mothers need is space and time. Flexibility becomes as necessary as breathing. But when I hear stories of former Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer returning to work two weeks after giving birth to twins, I start questioning myself. The thing is, I shouldn’t have to. Us mothers want both baby and professional purpose, but when can we, if ever, have it all? What would that guilt-free paradise look like? I wonder…

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