I recently got this e-mail in my inbox, from someone who was feeling like a bad mom. Why? Because she’s a working parent.

I keep telling myself I am enough and that I am making the choice that’s right for me and my family by continuing to work with (now 2!) kids.  However, I sometimes feel judged by those closest to me for that decision, particularly a few female family members.  I know they mean well and perhaps are biased by their own experiences having decided to stay home with kids and work once they were older, or to work part-time.  Although I can rationalize this, I still can’t shake the guilt and the feeling of being judged as a “bad mom.” – Working Mama Feeling Judged

Dear Working Mama Feeling Judged,

Oh, mama.  Everywhere we turn, and no matter who we are, we can find evidence that we are all, indeed, “bad moms.”  We’re doing too much of this.  Not enough of that.  One way or another, we’re ruining our children.  And failing as parents.

I’ve never been a fan of all this judging.  And I’ve always hated the mommy wars.  Today, I’m here to offer empathy.  A hug.  Some stories.  And five concrete suggestions of things I’ve done that have helped me get my own head in a better place as a working mom.

First, Learn the History and the Research

In my own struggles with this question, I took great solace from learning that so-called “alloparents” have been critical to child rearing for pretty much all of human history.  I learned the term “alloparents” from Brigid Schulte’s amazing book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play when No One Has the Time.  Here’s a good introduction to the idea, from the book.  For context, Brigid is interviewing Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, an evolutionary anthropologist, and they’re discussing Kung women in the Kalahari Desert in Africa, 2,000 years ago:

“The whole idea that mothers stayed at camp and the men went off to hunt? No way! These women were walking thousands of miles every year with their children. Or if it was not safe, they were leaving them back at camp.” She pauses to drive that point home: Sometimes mothers left their children back at camp. The children were with their fathers, older siblings, grandparents, relatives, and other trusted, nurturing adults- people Hrdy calls “alloparents” (“allo” means “other than” in Greek). “It’s natural for mothers to work. It’s natural for mothers to take care of their children,” she says. “What’s unnatural is for mothers to be the sole caretaker of children. What’s unnatural is not to have more support for mothers.”

I also recommend you pick up a copy of Avital Norman Rothman’s wonderful essay collection entitled The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality.  In the book’s Forward, Christy Turlington Burns writes that the “deeply entrenched ideal of the Good Mother” is a myth that “creates false standards that set[] women up for failure, not success, and for judgment, instead of support.  It is an attempt to disempower the experience of motherhood.  It tells us we are not worthy of our power to create, and that we must conform to narrow ideals of what makes a mother ‘good’.”

“Our collective point of reference for a ‘healthy’ family often goes to a contrived golden era of the 1950s and 1960s, when television shows and magazine advertisements blasted this stereotype into millions of American homes, only perpetuating the Leave It to Beaver fantasy,” says Emma Johnson, in her book, The Kickass Single Mom.

As someone who was raised, in the early years, by a stay-at-home mom, I definitely grappled with the “bad mother” notion when I had kids of my own.  I knew I wanted to keep working and that I’d be a better mom if I did so.  But I had a lot of fear about transitioning my baby to childcare, and missing his “firsts”.  The daycare world seemed so foreign to me.  And the cultural messages told me that working outside the home was somehow going to hurt my kids.  Apparently, something like 60 percent of Americans still believe children are better off when a parent stays home.

We know from research like this Harvard Business School study, however, that this simply isn’t the case.  What did the study find?  That women whose mothers worked outside the home are more likely to have jobs themselves.  They are more likely to hold supervisory responsibility at those jobs.  And they are more likely to earn higher wages than women whose mothers stayed home full time.  Men raised by working mothers are more likely to contribute to household chores.  And they are more likely to spend more time caring for family members.  Not bad qualities in life, I’d wager.

Finally, though I won’t go into detail about it here, check out the literature on “good enough parenting.”  Yep, that’s actually a thing.  David Winnicott, a British pediatrician and psychoanalyst, coined the term “good enough mother”, which says, basically, that our children benefit when we “fail” them in manageable ways, so that they can learn to live in an imperfect world.  “In short,” says Carla Naumburg, PhD, “building our children’s resilience is the gift of the good enough mother.”

Second, Seek Out Examples

Okay, enough with the intellectual piece of this.  Now it’s time for stories!   I truly believe that storytelling has the power to help us weave together work and home.  Can you seek out some examples of other children who go to childcare?  Can you find examples of adults who had “alloparents” growing up?  For me, two different experiences had a tremendous impact on how I feel about working parenthood:

Story One: I was pregnant with my eldest and happened to be at my in-laws house for a holiday.  At the time, I knew I was planning to send my baby to daycare, but I was definitely intimidated by the prospect.  So much so, that I sometimes wondered if my baby would “turn out okay” if subjected to the wrath of the daycare baby room.

While I was there, a family came over to visit – two parents, and two little kids, both of whom were in daycare and had been from the start.  My eyes lit up, and I started asking a million questions.  These kids seemed fine.  Seemed normal (whatever that is for toddlers!).  Seemed well-mannered.  And friendly.  Well-adjusted.  And, perhaps most importantly, seemed to be incredibly well-attached to their parents.  Was that possible?  Yes!  I saw it before my very eyes.  Proof that “daycare kids” could turn out just fine.  And that their parents could be wonderful parents, too.

Story Two:  At one point when my babies were little, a friend of my was talking about her childhood.  She happened to mention that she had gone to daycare while her mother worked.  “Daycare was wonderful!“, she exclaimed with a twinkle in her eye and a smile on her face.  “I can still remember exactly where everything was in each little room.  I loved the teachers.  The toys.  My friends.  And I have such beautiful memories of that place.”  Wow, I thought, reassured.  For me, it was so helpful to hear her reminisce with fondness about her caregiving situation growing up.

Third, Consider Critical Conversations with Family Members

You mentioned feeling judged by your female family members.  Is this based on anything in particular they have said?  Or done?  I’m wondering if a critical conversation with any of them might be in order, using the formula I set out in this piece, New Parents’ Script for Tough Conversations: 4 S’s to Remember.

Are there any ways you can invite these family members deeper into your own world, to learn more about how it works?  I know, with two small kiddos and a full-time job, your bandwidth for extra effort (or drama!) is probably nonexistent.  I’m just wondering if part of their judgment is coming from a place of not knowing how your childcare arrangement works.  Or for not seeing examples of the many ways there are to be a good parent.

Finally, I’d say that if their comments are shaming in any way, remind yourself that “hurt people hurt people.”  And consider drawing some strong boundaries for yourself (here’s how) around what’s okay and what’s not okay for them to do and say when they’re around you.

Fourth, Welcome the Guilt

What’s left after you address any specific comments with your loved ones is, of course, what’s happening in your own head.  My favorite mantra, which I repeat to myself daily, is, “comparison is the thief of joy.”  (Here are the other 9 mantras for working mamas that get me through the day.)

Essentially, I’ve learned to welcome in the guilt.  Sounds counterintuitive, I know.  But it turns out that acknowledging that the guilt is there is way more effective at reducing it than trying to drown it or shame myself for feeling it.  By sitting with the guilt, and simply knowing it’s there, the guilt loses its sting.  And when the sting is gone, I feel much more empowered to be a kick-ass career professional.  And a pretty darn good mom, too.

Finally, Gather Your Working Mama Posse

Last, I’m thinking it would be incredibly helpful to have a group of working moms to rely on for support.  Do you have one already?  If your children go to daycare, can you find a way to connect with the other parents there?  For a while, the other daycare moms and I were going out once a month after the kids’ bedtime, for a drink at a local bar.  Are there other working parents in your office in whom you can confide?  Is there a parent group at your workplace?  If not, can you create one?  (Here are tips on how to do it, if you’re feeling motivated.)   Are there online communities you can join for support?  (Take a session of the Mindful Return course, and you’ll have an alumnae Facebook group of working mama buddies for life!)

What Avital Norman Rothman, editor of The Good Mother Myth, discovered when she started talking to other moms, was that “many other women were just as frustrated and annoyed with this [good mother] myth as I was.  They felt as if they were being held up to unrealistic and arbitrary standards.  Who created this measuring stick for what is good enough and then proceeded to spread it as gospel?  The more I spoke with other moms, the more I realized that the narrative surrounding the Good Mother will only change if we share the realities of our lives and deconstruct the myth, which for too long has been hijacking the hearts, minds, and attention of women across every economic, social, and racial background–some more than others.”

The power of “me too” is immense, mama.

In closing, always remember, Working Mama Feeling Judged,  you are not abandoning your children by working.  That’s not the definition of “abandon”, by any means.  I know there are no easy answers here, but I hope a few of these suggestions brought you some comfort.  If my experience can serve as a helpful example, please know that my boys, who are now 4 ½ and 6 ½, are more than fine and are well-attached to me and to my husband.  And we’ve both been working since they were infants.

I once had a mentor say to me that my concern and worry about whether I was being a devoted enough mother was evidence itself that I was an excellent parent.  You wouldn’t be asking these questions if you didn’t care, mama.  And that you care says to me there’s no ounce of “bad mom” in you.

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