The Guilty Conscience: I Work Therefore I Am Neglectful

“It’s fine. You have to work…again. Maybe we’ll snuggle tomorrow.”

My daughter said it in a way that let me know it most certainly was not fine. For being only nine years old, she sure has mastered how to lay on the guilt in a flawlessly passive-aggressive way, without knowing what passive-aggressive even means.

In my defense, it was 9:30 on a Sunday night, a half hour past her bedtime, when she wanted me to snuggle with her. But I really needed to get a jump-start on the week. I had two freelance deadlines, an author visit to prepare for, a blog to write, Lulu & Milo coloring pages to illustrate, contacts to touch base with, pieces of prose to submit, letters to compose, a sales tax report to file, networking to do, excel spreadsheets to create, two days of substitute teaching, a basketball practice to plan, Girl Scout cookie-selling to oversee, snack supplies to buy and send to school, a birthday present to find, laundry to catch up on…

You get the idea. My life looks like that of millions of other mothers. But some of this is new to me. After being a stay-at-home mom for the last nine years, I’m back working full-time. The last time I did that, I was responsible for zero children. Just a dog. And the only time she made me feel guilty was when I was eating a spoonful of peanut butter in front of her.

I am not the only one who has felt the adjustments that have come with me financially contributing to the family again. My kids have noticed that, even though I am physically home when I work, I’m not as present as I used to be. I know it is partly because I’m still trying to find this little elusive thing called balance, which is exceptionally slippery when you never actually leave your office. My six-year-old son only seems to be bothered if I ask him to be quiet while I work or if I don’t make his chocolate milk as quickly as he would like. But my daughter is extremely sensitive to it.

And it’s hard.

It’s hard because, despite having a seemingly never-ending schedule, I am finally doing what I love. And…here’s the sweet, syrup-soaked cherry…I’m getting paid for it. While I really did enjoy being an English teacher prior to becoming a parent, it wasn’t my dream job. It was my most favorite attainable job. My if-I’m-really-honest-with-myself-I-want-to-be-a-writer-but-I’m-afraid-of-failure-and-I-think-I-could-make-a-damn-good-teacher job. And I wouldn’t trade being home with my kids these last nine years for anything, not even Sandra Boynton’s career. Because I adored it and all its clichéd glory. But now…now I am a writer. An author even. Guys, sometimes I just can’t even. I can’t.

renaissance baby
Now I feel guilt and creeped out all at once.

But then I see my daughter’s mopey face when I tell her maybe I can paint her nails tomorrow. She looks like one of those damn sad babies in Renaissance paintings. And that just makes me feel accosted by every blog post I’ve ever read about making time for your kids. Next thing you know, my kids will start spending all their time at Lucy’s house. And when Lucy’s mom says they should check with me to see if it’s okay to stay for dinner, Grace will get all quiet and sulky and say, “Mom’s not around very much. She won’t even notice we’re not home.” And then Lucy’s mom will mentally adopt my kids right then and there and tell them they can eat as many homemade oatmeal butterscotch cookies they want, since they obviously haven’t had a decent meal in months. And they can come over whenever they want. She even has extra pajamas for them. Oh my, God! Just back off, Lucy’s mom! I’m right here! I only told her I couldn’t snuggle tonight! Ease up on the Angelina Jolie complex.

Um, where was I? Oh yeah…

But I DID make time for them…for nine years. And frankly, I’m still making time for them. I’m still the coach and the Girl Scout leader and the classroom volunteer and the chauffeur and the Full House watching buddy and the snuggler and the problem solver and the laundry do-er. Okay, maybe not that last one. I sucked at laundry before. Now I’m just abysmal.

Yet, those times don’t seem to matter when it’s the one time I am refusing to be there.

Working mothers are lauded for showing our children it’s not just men who can successfully handle a career and family.

Working mothers should be seen as examples of possibility. Then why does my child just see me as neglectful?Click To Tweet

working motherI know part of this simply stems from things being different from how they were before. Had I always been a working parent, she wouldn’t feel as if something was being stolen from her. Because she would never have had it in the first place. And this isn’t like when her little brother was born and I explained that my heart would simply expand to hold my love for him. He wasn’t going to take away any that already belonged to her. Me going back to work is going to take away time that once belonged to her. Because try as I might, Time is pretty much that pair of pre-baby jeans that just.won’t.zip, no matter how badly we want it. Something’s gotta give. And it ain’t gonna be the jeans.

What I’m hoping is that this is a case of the sting still being too fresh for her. I’m hoping she will come around. I’m hoping she will be proud of me. I take that back. I know she is proud of me. And she is extremely proud of my book.

But maybe one day she will realize that I wanted to be her mom AND a writer, not because being her mom alone wasn't enough...but because being her mom made me enough so I could finally become a writer. Click To Tweet

I guess I owe her a pretty big snuggle for that.

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69 Responses

  1. I speak from maternal experience (3 kids)… children are shallow creatures. This is not to disparage their sweetness or the sincerity of their pleas, but everything pretty much comes from a shallow place where immediate gratification trumps deep thoughts. I am sure you are not neglecting your daughter… you know that… she knows that. And she will be happy tomorrow when you watch TV with her, or drive her somewhere and sing in the car. It is only you who will remember, because you are DEEP and your sad moments stick. Persevere my friend and remember… you are showing her how to follow her dreams and that is an important lesson!

    • You just made me smile. I love that…about children being shallow, while we are deep. And you’re right…it’s not their fault. Developmentally, they just can’t fully be there yet…but sometimes it can be so deceptive. It is easy to forget that this is the time of their lives when they are so focused on themselves, by nature’s design. Thank you for your kind and re-focusing words.

  2. Ah! I know exactly what this is like. It’s really a hard balance and kids dont always get why we do things a certain way. But gosh, how blessed were you to have all those years with them at home!

    It’ll balance out. To me, if the kids are still laughing daily = everything is fine. The rest of our list will just hang in there as its always been.

    Really enjoyed reading this because it’s a little reminder that there are many moms doing the same.

    • Thank you so much. And you’re right…on the whole they are happy. The reasonable side of me knows that. But my reasonable side kind of sucks at being assertive.

  3. Oh, that passive-aggressive manipulation! They express it so young that it must be a human biological survival mechanism. When I was pregnant with my first child a friend told me that we all screw up our children, just not in the way we expect. It’s not the things that we feel guilty over that leave the biggest impact on them but things we didn’t even know we’re doing. Not exactly a comfort, I know. There are so many things I want to do differently than my parents but the biggest has to be that I want my kids to know they changed me for the better. I want them to know their impact on my growth as a human being. Your kids will know, I’m sure of it.

    • Oh geez, thanks a lot Karen. You mean now I have to freak out that I’m screwing them up in a way I’m not even aware of? You’re a real good friend. 🙂

      Any you are right. My kids did change me for the better, and in ways I couldn’t expect. I honestly don’t think I would have ever written the book or pursued writing without them coming into my life. I would have probably just been an English teacher forever. Not that that’s a bad thing to be. But you know what I mean.

  4. Am sure long snuggles are bound to make you popular again.

  5. So beautifully written. Congrats on your career return/change! Seriously, amazing. There’s always such hard work when you start something new. I hope you’ll be able to find that balance you’re after 🙂
    I giggled at the “Angelina Jolie would snuggle with me”. You’re so funny.
    I am sending my child (he’s 3) off to day care this year. A day a week, maybe even two by the end of the year. I don’t feel guilty at all, but then I feel a tiny bit guilty for not feeling guilty haha. I’ll be working a little and trying to ‘Get Shit Done’. And if I’m bloody honest, I’m just in need of a small break…and maybe even the ability to get working on a second kid if I’m so lucky. I love him so much but it’s time for me to make adjustments too!

    • We can’t win…we either feel guilty for working OR feel guilty about not feeling guilty. I totally get you. It makes sense to me, and have that socialization with other kids is going to be great for him!

      And you know Angelina would.

  6. “Being her mom made me enough, so I could finally become a writer.”

    That transformative piece of parenthood just does not get enough airtime, but I see it all the time…moms and dads become more of the best parts of themselves both for their children and because of their children. It can mean overcoming the thing that held you back (in your case, your fear of failing so you could put your work out there), or applying the patience you are learning at home in your workplace, or learning to live more in the moment with your kids than before. It plays out in so many ways. Yours came with a new job title and responsibilities and that is going to take some adjustments, but in the end, it’s hard not to believe that your whole family’s life will be richer for it.

    • Okay, so I’m crying a little…and I’m pretty sure you just wrote a kick-ass blog post right here in my comment section. Cut and paste it and slap that baby on your blog!!

      But you are right. I feel so certain none of this would have happened had I not become a mother. I think I would have just continued on as an English teacher.

  7. Can’t you snuggle with one arm and type or illustrate with the other? I feel like you’re not giving this multi-tasking thing your best go. Come on Kelly—what are you, lazy or something?? 😉

  8. Hey, I haven’t read the piece yet but did you “consciously” call it the “guilty conscious” instead of “conscience?” John

    • Um, no. Good catch. Consider it changed. While I’d like to say I was being all smart and play-on-wordy, it was pretty much due to finishing this piece at midnight while battling a cold.

      Thanks for looking out for my grammatical integrity!

  9. Thanks for your inspirational post- I hear you. Take comfort in all of the eyes and ears out here wishing you balance and peace. Naps help a lot too…! 🙂

  10. I remember the constant push/pull of working a 40+ hour per week job (none of the hours from home) while my daughters were in day care and school. Give yourself a break and stop reading all the articles on the subject. Trust your gut.

    Many years ago, a good friend whom I admired for parenting and professional skills told me this: “Just be there.” That’s all you need to do, and you’re already doing it.

  11. Kids are the best at laying a guilt trip, aren’t they? And we fall for it every time! I’m constantly feeling guilty about what I haven’t done or what I should be doing. Even though we both know it’s useless to allow the guilt to creep in, it’s almost impossible to stop it when it’s these people that we love more than life itself. And wow, I’m impressed by how much you do! I don’t lead anything or volunteer at school. Thanks Kelly, now I feel like a complete under-achiever. 🙂

    Also, to maybe actually try to be a little helpful and not all smart-assy, I think this age with the girls has something to do with it. I find with my 11 year old, she just seems to need me more lately. And she was always my self-sufficient one! She’s much more sensitive than the other two (and she used to not be my sensitive one!). I think this is the part where they want to be around us and talk to us ALL THE TIME right before they go full on teenager and start hating us and thinking we’re stupid. So there’s that to look forward to…

    • I think you might be onto something. I do think there is something about this age. And I guess I need to really relish that she DOES want to talk to me all.the.freakin.time. Because I know the time will come when she won’t. I need to get all my important parenting advice in now, while she’s still listening 🙂 And really, you don’t need to be all that impressed by me. Mostly I’m just a nut-job whose “no” somehow always sound like “yes” …and that’s how I get myself into these things.

  12. I love this blog post. I have just got my first job after 5 years of being at home with the kids. Luckily it is a job I can do from home (writing too) but this is going to make it even harder as evenings and weekends will be cut into. I’m glad that I will be making some money and also think that its positive my 3 boys will see that I can do more than changing nappies, wiping noses and tidying their toys up all day long (I’m sure they think I am their slave)! You sound very talented and Im sure your kids will be proud.

    • Congrats!!! It’s nice to know someone else is in the same boat. I can’t complain much about being able to work at home, because it’s pretty amazing…but you’re right. There is a very blurred line about when you’re on the clock and off.

  13. I think she’s just feeling the sting of loss right now. Once that subsides a bit she will be more understanding and I know she will be proud of you and what you’ve done. Kids are really, really good at the guilt thing, though.

  14. You go girl! I feel like I waited WAY too long to go after my dreams, when maybe I should have been showing my kids that I could have my Iadoremykids cake and eat Idreamofbeingawriter too. You rock; I’m incredibly proud of you, and I know your kids will get it… in a little while. Just remember, those cuddles feed you too. So splurge on both. xo

  15. After reading this, I

  16. This is so inspiring, thank you so much for sharing 🙂

  17. Oh my gosh. That last line… perfection. “but because being her mom made me enough, so I could finally become a writer.” Made me cry.

  18. As a former English teacher who is now staying home with two small boys and shopping a picture book around, I read this post as if looking through a lens to the future. I completely sympathize. Reading this post made me feel as if I was reading something I hadn’t yet written. I’m rooting for you. Hopefully you find a balance, or an understanding, in your new chapter of life. Hopefully you find it within the next 6 years or so (I will have to reenter the work force about then). Since my two-year-old is shutting my computer now (apparently I’ve been typing too long), let me end by entreating you to PLEASE post about it…I’m going to need to know! 6 years..

    • Oh I just want to hug you. And if I do find balance, I will be sure to shout it from the top of the highest mountain. You probably won’t even need your computer because you will actually hear me. But I wouldn’t hold your breath 🙂 Wishing you lots of luck and high fives in your journey. Somehow I have a feeling we will both do okay.

  19. Working two jobs (mama and anything else) is tough! Hang in there and try not to feel too guilty. The men of the world certainly don’t seem to feel too guilty about working. 🙂

    • That is a good point. Although, I do think my husband wishes he could spend more time with the kids and come to more things, like those plays that happen in the middle of the day. But even though I know in my head so many other women go through this, it’s really nice to hear it and see everyone supporting each other!

  20. kathy sack

    I worked with 3 boys at home, not so much because we needed my income but because I loved what I did and it made me a more complete person. There were days when the boys were not happy I was going off to work, but they survived and actually thrived. And your kids are doing the same. You are a wonderful Mom, and Grace and Michael are wonderful children. And like all kids, they know which buttons to push to activate Mommy Guilt. Hang in there, you are managing so much right now. But I know that you are still finding snuggle time, they may have to learn to be a little patient (not a bad thing to learn) and they may have to develop a little more independence (not so bad either). But trust me, they know how much you love them. I think that you are all adjusting to changes, and change is never easy. We, the Moms of the world, need to take a deep breath once in awhile and say that it is OK to not have a perfectly clean house, pick up takeout for dinner and in general be less harsh on ourselves. You will find balance. Take care of yourself, you are just as important as everyone and everything else!

    • So here’s my plan: I’m just going to have you write down everything you did as a mom, and I’m going to just do that. Because you certainly ended up with some mighty fine adult boys (I do stop short at calling them “men” 🙂 ) You make so many good points there. I have to remember that more often than not, I’M the one who knows better. Oh, and thanks for making me cry again.

  21. Lovely! Yay for being a mother and a writer!

  22. Reblogged this on Mommys Vice and Everything in Between. and commented:
    I can definitely relate to the sentiments being expressed here. My kids are too little to make me feel guilty and thank God for that for I make myself feel guilty enough on my own. I’ve always worked very hard and this hard work has helped me progress professionally in my career however when I had my son, my priorities shifted and I was no longer willing to sacrifice my quality time with him for being at the office.

    That was about 3 years ago. Now, I have newborn daughter and I am getting to that point where I feel I need to put the foot on the pedal and press it hard so I can start picking up some speed in my career again. How do I balance that now that I have two kids? I don’t know and I guess we’ll have to see…

  23. Gosh, I can really relate to your experiences! I have three little ladies of my own, and it can be quite difficult trying to be there for my husband, my girls, my job, doing grad school, etc. Hang in there, and keep setting a great example! :o)

  24. I recall once that my daughter was upset that I had to work on Christmas Eve. I decided to present her with a hypothetical situation to explain why I was going – why it was important for the hospital to open every day, even Christmas Eve – so I said, “If you broke your arm…” and before I could finish with “…you would want there to be people at the hospital to take care of you,” she said, “THEN you’d stay home!”

  25. You are not the only one who is following your dreams. Regardless of what people think, moms can do more than just be moms. Take the inspiration that being a mom has given you, and run with it!

  26. Reblogged this on Teen, Tween and Baby and commented:
    Yes I like my job, yes I like going to work, and yes I know all of the benefits to me and my children from me working. Some days, sometimes I still feel guilty.

  27. Oh my god, not a Renaissance baby! That’s a great comparison.

  28. Guilt sucks! It’s a balancing act and you can’t ever get it right. Uggh.

  29. Women with children are like superwomen. We play the role of Mother, wife, daugthr, daugther-in-law. After marriage the more important roles of Mother and Wife takes over. There is a reason why our hips are stronger to bear children. And why women are emotionally stronger to survive through labor pains and contractions. And we are juggling between the roles that we were born into with a new role: ‘An Employee’… A working mum. I salute you and other mommies who have to do it all. Looking forward to your next post.

    Pssstt~ do visit me toos at http://www.twentyfirstcenturymomma.wordpress.com

  30. embrace your crazy

    Thank you for this. I am a full-time teacher and mom of 2.5-year-old twins. My husband travels almost every week for his job, which leaves me to function as single mom for most of the time. It’s so incredibly difficult and there are times that it feels like the guilt is eating me alive. My resolution this year was to get back to something that brings me joy (and provides some catharsis), which is why I recently started a blog. It’s been so nice to sit down and write. I love your point about our children giving us the confidence to see who we are. Thanks for your honesty – we need more of it in this mommy world.
    embraceyourcrazy.wordpress.com

    • I hope the blog brings you the same joy and release mine has brought me. I honestly feel it has made me a better parent in many ways. Not only have I connected with other parents whom I learn from, but my posts often give me a chance to analyze my own parenting skills, which I might not otherwise do. You certainly have a lot on your plate, so all the better you are taking the time to do something for yourself. That doesn’t mean it will be easy or the guilt won’t creep in. We put so much pressure on ourselves. Just know you aren’t alone in that, and someone somewhere is sitting in front of a blog and feeling like a crappy parent sometimes too 🙂 Good luck!

  31. I liked this. You definitely come across like a real woman. The reality is about developing your ability to prioritize. I am glad you are being able to work and that you have been able to devote so much time to your children. I think mothering and doing other activities is acceptable and can be good. It is challenging how much they can undermine each other but can support each other. I think if you meet your daughter’s dominant needs then she will be much less hurt. I am sorry if her immature love is not always helpful to you and sorry about your guilt but very glad you really love your daughter. My mother worked and spent like all the rest of her time with her children and I still felt neglected, especially when my father stopped living me as a toddler and I was not granted a permanent stepfather. My parents are good people and I still felt neglected a lot.

    • Thank you. I’m sorry you often felt that way about your parents. It’s such a hard juggling act, but it sounds like your mother loved you to work so hard for you!

  32. […] days ago, I came across a blog post about the eternal guilt of the working mom. In her post, titled “The Guilty Conscience: I Work Therefore I Am Neglectful,” Kelly Suellentrop beautifully describes the complicated and emotional dichotomy of being a working […]

  33. I understand where you are coming from. It is so hard to strike a work/family balance.

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