The working mom’s lament

Last week, my office held their ever fabulous once-a-year Kids Day, which, to my kids, is like a state fair, Disneyworld, and The Best Day Ever in History all rolled into one. Think Build-A Bear, spin art, Mickey Mouse photo ops, cotton candy–basically everything you’ve ever said “no” to. All in one place. For free.

Not surprisingly, Thalia and Sage have talked about it non-stop since last year; a good 364 days of planning  whether they’d have the pizza or the peanut butter this year.

Last week, Kids Day came again.

Smack in the middle of a huge project.

A huge project that had me out of the office for the day.

(Darn that work, actually making me do work.)

Thankfully my awesome sitter was happy to bring them, but I couldn’t help feeling wretchedly guilty the entire day. Not that there wasn’t enough spin art and cupcake decorating and balloon animals to keep them from thinking about their mother abandoning them…er I mean “having a meeting.”

Still, I felt like some awful anti-hero character in an Upper East Side tell-all novel turned feature film.

Welcome to “The Advertising Diaries,” in which a creative director with nice shoes (really nice) and a view of the Empire State Building sends her nanny to Take Your Kids To Work Day. The inciting incident involves a four year-old calling the sitter “mom” for the fiftieth time, and the third act culminates in a display of gut-wrenching Central Park drama not seen since Kramer vs Kramer.

I would of course be played by Tina Fey.

The text came to my phone the moment I stepped in the elevator: It’s over. Do you want us to wait for you?

I arrived back just in time to catch my sugar-hyped girls happily straggling out of the event with painted pumpkins and butterfly-painted faces and brown bags filed with spoils that they were begging to eat. Yes time was over. No time had begun again.

I led them to a nearby office to draw quietly with some other kids while I tried–desperately, and with so much need–to wrap up work for the day so we could spend some time together like the other parents had done with their own kids. As I got ready to shut my laptop, I heard the sound of little feet dancing down the hall (how wonderful is that sound at work?) toward my office. Thalia poked her head in to hand me a note before twirling and leaping right back again.

a note from T

I’m not sure if I hugged her more, or if she hugged me more.


54 thoughts on “The working mom’s lament”

  1. Somehow this salves the wounds of a morning chock full of fail. I was the working mom who dragged the 3 year old to the 7 year old’s tooth extraction that wasn’t. Drugs, cuddles and promises couldn’t make the necessary extraction happen, so we’ll try again when schedules permit.

    I took her to the dentist, yet what I feel is I let her tooth rot. I cleared my schedule, but I feel like I was the symbol of failure.

    No one is better than us, but no one is worse than the mom we see as we try to honor all of our commitments.

  2. I want to help you look on the bright side, but there’s no need; Thalia did a better job than I ever could.

    (Nice penmanship, Thalia! I’m impressed.)

  3. Children are so amazingly forgiving of our shortcomings — thank God! I know I’ve had times, like you, where I have torn myself apart with guilt, only to later realize that my little guy wasn’t bothered by whatever happened at all.

  4. Aw. Better than TV. Even better than Kids Day.

    (I can’t help but smile at the crazy propaganda going on: “Look, kids! This is what you have to look forward to in the world of work! Face painting! Build a Bear! Sweets! Work is awesome!”)

  5. So I always read your posts, but for the first time, as I sit at my desk on the opposite end of the city from my kids, you had me in such tears, that I had to comment. You set such a beautiful example for your kids every day. I might even see you beaming across town!

  6. I worked with a creative director who bragged about how she never had to potty train her kids…that was what the nanny was for. I always felt sorry for her kids. You, on the other hand, are setting a great example for your kids. They obviously know how much you love them and how important they are to you. Advertising is an almost impossible business to find a life balance. It sounds like you’re doing a pretty stellar job!

  7. Thanks for this, Liz. This is what I really needed to read, after seeing on a popular Mommy site that, yet again, us working moms are contributing to the future prison population and the complete destruction of society. We’re not, of course, but knowing that doesn’t prevent me from spitting fire at my laptop when I read it and realize that people really do believe it.

    Those notes are the best. I’ve saved every one of them and I’m sure you will too.

  8. The best comment I have ever gotten on my blog was from a fellow scientist mom whose kid is older than my kids are. I don’t remember what post she was commenting on, but she said that in the preschool/early elementary years, it can be hard because kids don’t really understand why their lives are different from those of their friends (she lives in a part of LA with a lot of wealthy families w/stay at home moms), but now her daughter is so proud to have a mom who is a scientist and has said she is glad her mom works.

    I think Thalia and Sage will feel the same way when they are older. And judging from that note, maybe Thalia already feels that way.

  9. Best. Compliment. Ever. I like working, and I love being with my daughter, but sometimes I feel like I am failing at both. You did your work, and you arranged for your daughters to have a great day, followed up with Mom time. I think this is at least one day where you won in both arenas!

  10. That is lovely! I hope you will look at it on days when you feel guilty. Hell have it tattooed on your arm so you can always remember how great you are.

  11. Awww. If your kids grow up to be thinking, responsible, loving human beings – whether or not you are at work is inconsequential. You’re clearly doing it right.

    (And I’m a SAHM.)

    I would never begrudge another mother’s choices to work or not to work unless they are truly harmful to children (think: leaving them in a hot car.)

  12. When does it get easier? Never? My daughter is 2.5, I have a job that I seriously love, and yet. The crushing guilt and just missing her so much.

    1. I look back at my early blog posts about being devastated that I missed a “first” of some sort on a business trip. I can definitely say I’m no longer as guilty about those things. So I guess that while some days are still hard the weeks do get easier.

  13. Thank you so much for this Liz! You and those that commented have made my day- feels so good to be in the company of those I highly respect. This guilt is a ginormous burden.

  14. As a new mom who will be returning, nervously, to a job I love in two weeks (my son will be 5 months old) this post was so poignant. It’s funny, though, because I see myself as Thalia, the little girl running down the hall of “mommy’s office”. As a kindergartner when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I wrote that I wanted to wear a suit and heels and be a business woman like my mom, who worked in risk management in a high-rise downtown at the time. Being the only child of a single, working mom definitely had its tough times, but the respect I have for my mom, who balanced it the best she could, is such a great reminder for me as I now embark on my own similar journey…

  15. I’m turning around after four days out of town to leave again for business on Wednesday morning. I needed this, thank you.

  16. I knew I liked you for a reason. I struggle with life in advertising as well, agree wholeheartedly with whoever said it’s impossible to maintain work/life balance in this crazy business.

  17. At our Take Your Kids To Work Day I had to foist my kids on the assistant account executive and dash to the client for hours. They all had a blast, including the aae. It wasn’t my vision for the day, but it was fine. Too often I rattle myself like a Jack hammer over stuff that…and usually….it’s fine.. Thanks for posting this. I love your blog. And that note!

  18. I don’t even know you guys (except Amanda), and I empathize with all the above. I’m 63 yo and my kids are grown (26, 32, 25) – yet, I STILL agonize over past decisions made, guilt, and worry. The stakes just get higher. I’m truly working on letting go. Still – we are always their mothers, aren’t we?

  19. I loved reading all the comments here.

    I wish everyone could let go of the guilt, though. I think we torment ourselves comparing our lives to the idealized 50s life that for some reason stuck in popular culture as the ideal for parenting. Maybe because it was the first era in which there were TV shows to capture the ideal? And we all grew up watching Leave it to Beaver reruns? I’m no sociologist, so I don’t know.

    But I do know that (1) the 50s weren’t really what we idealize them to be. Studies show that the average mother spends more time with her kids now- even though she works. (2) For most of human history, mothers have worked at something other than being a mother. Our foremothers weren’t spending their days catering to their kids needs. They were working really hard. Harder than I work. For more hours than I work. Doing work that frankly sucked and was probably not all that rewarding. And somehow, human society did not collapse. It kept advancing, in fact… to the point where I can now work at a cushy office job that I love, and use my money to buy the things my foremothers used to have to make themselves. And for this, I am supposed to feel guilty?

    OK, I’m ranting. I’ll spare you the rant- but I feel strongly about this, so I’ll leave a link to a post I wrote awhile back on the subject of how mothers have always worked. And hope you can all find your way away from the guilt. I am 99.9999% sure that you have absolutely nothing to feel guilty about!

    1. Thanks Cloud. I can only speak for myself in saying I don’t feel guilty about working. I love working and I can’t imagine ever not working.

      I feel guilty about disappointing my kids; when they have a reasonable expectation (and heck, I have an expectation) based on promises that I’ve made that I can’t meet…guilt.

      1. But is that really guilt?

        I’ve been thinking about this off and on all day, and almost didn’t come back to leave this comment because of course I can’t say how you feel and only a complete jerk would try.

        And now I’m going to be that complete jerk, because I kept thinking about another comment someone once left on a post of mine. (I get such smart comments… it is the best thing about blogging! Well, that and the chance to ramble on about whatever I want to.)

        Anyway, the comment said that she thought people sometimes conflate guilt with other feelings that make us feel bad. So we say we’re feeling guilty, when really we’re sad, or just wish that things could be different. It seems like semantics, but I think it is important, because guilt implies we think we’re doing something wrong and that we should have done something differently. The rest of the world picks up on that and the idea that we ARE doing something wrong perpetuates, when of course we aren’t. We are just making the trade offs that come with life. We have done the right thing, it is just that the right thing isn’t the perfect thing.

        So, I feel guilty if I have a hard day at work and therefore lose my cool at my kids and yell. Or, for that matter, when I have a hard day at home with them and therefore lose my cool and yell. But I don’t feel guilty when I have a late meeting and their father has to take them to soccer practice- then I feel a little sad that I’m missing something, but not guilty, because my family needs my income and I need my job to stay sane. Staying for that late meeting was the right thing to do, even if in a perfect world it would have been on a different night and I could have gone to BOTH the meeting and soccer practice.

        FWIW, I read your original post and didn’t read guilt. I read “gee, this sucked but my kids are so awesome that they fixed it.” My comment about guilt was more in response to the guilt I read in other comments than what I read in your original post. Sorry, I failed to say that. And of course, only you know if you felt guilty or sad or something else altogether. I don’t mean to imply I know how you felt, or- worse!- that I know how anyone SHOULD feel. I’m just throwing something out there for us all to think about as we try to make happy lives as working mothers.

        1. Thanks Cloud, I always love your comments.

          I would say I was feeling a combination of guilt, disappointment, sadness and resentment. If only it were single-faceted it would be so easy, right?

        2. Thanks Cloud, I was definitely one that needed to read and listen to your point of view. I think the distinction you make between possibly feeling guilt and identifying the true emotion being felt – maybe sadness is an important one.

          -always glad to have help getting outside of my own head

  20. It’s mothers like you that are my hero. I stay home with my two children. I do love it, but I miss work. I think it’s incredible that you manage to go to work every day, and do what you do at home. And obviously Thalia thinks you’re incredible too 🙂

  21. I may be especially emotional today, but that little letter made me cry. It’s hard being a working mom. It’s hard being a mom!
    I’ve really been enjoying your blog.

  22. Here I was yesterday feeling guilty that I was five minutes late picking up the kids from preschool, because I tried to get all of the dishes done back at home after hitting the gym during those short as hell two and a half hours that they’re actually in school . Then, after running into the building & chucking it down the hallway toward their classes, I had the fact that I’d forgotten both boys’ school snacks thrown at me by their teachers. Seems Mommy packed the juice, but no food. Felt like I really let my kiddos down. Bigtime. I NEVR do this kind of thing. How dare I put myself first with trying to get healthy and then wanting a clean kitchen so I could play with them once we got back home! I could barely look them in the eyes, I felt like such a failure… (I also wanted to shout, “I’m really, normally a totally attentive Mom! Honest! I swear!!” at those teachers with their judgemental looks…. Well, either that or tell them just where they could shove those sh*tty*ss looks of theirs.)

    Thanks for the reminder that there are just some things that are out of our control and it’s probably always hurting/bothering Us more than it ever does Them. I was still feeling down about it…… but this post definitely made me smile, and remember the judgement-free love and admiration our children have for us.

    That picture is insanely precious, btw. Frame it, for sure!

    1. I’m sorry you feel that way at the hands of the teachers. It’s the last thing you need when you’re already feeling bad. I feel so fortunate that our teachers have always gone out of their way to be kind when I have uh…lapses. Of course the school year is still young.

      1. Maybe that’s why I got that “attitude”… because the school year is still young. And they are wondering how many more times I’ll “lapse”. lol It’s my first year there… BUT, I’ll prove them wrong yet! 😉

  23. That was so sweet of Thalia. This just shows how great a mother you are and how much Thalia understands you. It is sad that you weren’t able to go but I am glad that things went well and forgiven.

  24. I’m a SAHM, but I never judge a working mom’s decision. I think it is great that each woman gets to make the decision that is best for herself and her family.

    1. I hope this doesn’t come across defensively, but not all working moms have “made a decision.” Sometimes it’s not a choice, it’s a necessity. Just something to consider.

  25. Oh, god this tugged at my heart. Do I know that feeling. I’ve been slammed this month and my two year old has been plagued with colds and ear infections since starting nursery school. Usually I drop everything and take him to the pediatrician. He needed to go the doctor this week and I was in the midst of facilitating my annual marketing retreat and my husband couldn’t go either. I asked our wonderful nanny to take him to the pediatrician (luckily, she comes with us to his well-baby checks so she knows all of the doctors and nurses). I should feel good that I could get him into the doctor as quickly as I did but instead I just felt like S$%!T. I’ve never not taken my child the the doctor myself and frankly the feelings of guilt were overwhelming. During a break at my retreat I almost burst into tears thinking about the choice I made. I probably won’t do that again if I can help it. As working moms we do the best we can. Thank god our children (like your little Thalia) seem to recognize that and love us even when we are hard on ourselves.

    1. Oh Portia, I wrote about the very same thing last year.
      You might find some of the comments helpful. What’s important, as I’ve learned, is being at the ballet recitals. Being at the soccer games. Being at the graduation ceremonies. Whether you’re there while they have their temperature checked–well, they don’t seem to remember that stuff at all. Not that that makes you feel better. But it’s good for us to remember.

  26. I read this post days ago and I’ve been thinking about it since. It’s so complicated. Of course, you’re the reason that they’re there in the first place (I mean Kids Day, not the the world, but that too!) but it’s unfair that you can’t be there for all the fun stuff.

    No working mom can. And no stay at home mom can, either, really. Everyone has other commitments that sometimes get in the way. We steal as much time as we can with our children, but it’s never enough (although sometimes it’s way too much).

    I look back to my childhood– I had a working mom, and I don’t remember the absence. I mean, she must have been– she worked full time and when I was in high school, she came home much later than I did, but in my memories, she is always there. Because she was in ways that mattered.

  27. yes. this working mom shtick is crazy-making. especially for those of us who love our jobs AND our kids AND our partners. the guilt is hard to assuage. but the proof of okay-ness is in the pudding, right? Sage and Thalia are awesome little people. because of you and Nate and the decisions you guys have made. everytime I get a letter from my son’s kindergarten teacher about upcoming trips that need chaperones or asking parents to volunteer for lunch duty or choice time or whatever, my heart breaks. I can only do what I can, but my kids rock so I must be doing something right, right? RIGHT???? [insert guilt-ridden sob here.]

  28. I totally relate to this post – and the note by Thalia is so priceless!
    Every year CES seems at the same time as my older son’s birthday (now 12).. He tells all of his friends that his mom in “never” town for his birthday..Of course I was in town for the most important birthday (his birth) and many others. Finally they moved it so this year I will be home. But my “Thalia” note was now hearing that he is telling his friends that he wants to be a tech blogger like his mama..

  29. Late to this party but just wanted to say I heart Thalia. And you.

    A couple of weeks ago I had to fly to/from Atlanta on my birthday for a client meeting. Laurel was extremely sad about this and gave me about as hard a time about it as if it were here birthday — I felt super guilty even though I didn’t even really care about my birthday! But the welcome home banner she made made everything right. I’m starting to think notes/artwork from kids may be the antidote to anything that hurts the working mother’s heart.

  30. I adore this note. I adore Thalia, and always have. I want to kiss her and give her chocolate.

    The thing that hurts (and maybe helps) is that they wanted to go, and have a great time. They would have LOVED to share the day with you. But they were happy to spend it with someone else. Truly, it’s humbling.

    1. If you give her chocolate, she will adore you too. (Although I think she’d feel that way without the chocolate.)

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