Against Guilt

Writing mothers feel guilty. We shouldn’t. Here’s why.

Last week, I packed my laptop and hit the road Thelma-and-Louise style with fellow She Writer Christine Wolf. We were leaving our families and heading for Writers’ Haven Michigan, a lovely oasis where, as the designated artist-in-residence, I was slated to give a short workshop and work on my own writing as well. The week before, I felt guilty as hell. My little girl had been craving time with me. And I'd been craving affirmation for my choices. 

In the absence of structural supports for working parents, the wisdom of the crowd occasionally provides solace and absolution. So I posted this on FaceBook, the day before we left:

Going to a writing retreat this weekend to put final touches on a proposal long in the works. And to lead short workshop. One of my 5 yo's has been missing her mama. Working mama feeling guilty. Also, ecstatic for opportunity to immerse and hit "send". Advice for letting go of guilt? #realfacebook

The practical advice, Buddhist philosophy, expressions of solidarity, and commands to just-do-it seemed well worth sharing, so I’m sharing them here, with you. For all the ways I hate FakeBook, its capacity to crowdsource a working/writing mother dilemma is grand.

Suggestions were whimsical and inventive: “Meet your 5yo in a dream each night,” wrote Debi Lewis. “Plan it with her: night 1, we meet in a candy forest and try all the candies, night 2 we meet at the park with the highest swings in the world, etc.” Added my fellow traveler Christine, “When my kids were that age, urging me not to leave them (and they all did it with gusto), I'd sometimes make a little handmade ‘book’ of where I was going and what I'd be doing, one page for each day I was gone to demonstrate the time away. I'd include lots of descriptions for another adult to read aloud, and I'd leave space for them to draw the pictures they'd imagine. I'd leave a kiss mark with lipstick in there, too. And when they look back on those books, they smile now.”

Other suggestions were concrete—read Richard Bach's book There's No Such Place As Far Away. Read The Kissing Hand (thank you Kris-there’s-a-book-for-that-Buckley). “Schedule a 1-on-1 date when you're back,” wrote Busy Lane Zachar. “Go for ice cream - take a picnic to the lake, just you two.”

Among wisdom mined from my childhood friends was the reminder to think back to our own experiences as kids of working parents: “We often had ‘whatever you want night’ for dinner when Dad was away for work,” wrote Tish Lane Jenkins. “Cereal, PB&J were all fair game. We loved it.” Wrote Jen Greenberg Roberts, “[T]he parent who is home during the absence can do a lot to make those special times too. We'd eat breakfast for dinner, or go out to Red Lobster -- things we didn't necessarily do when Dad was around. So those became special times with Mom, instead of feeling off-kilter because Dad was out of town.”

There were the Buddhist perspectives - “Hitting send will enable you to be present back home!” wrote Heather Hewett. “I find it useless to try to get rid of the guilt. I'm a Jewish mother. It's in my DNA,” wrote Jew-Bu and mindful parenting guru Carla Naumburg. “I try to notice it and then let it go and get on with my plans. When I can't let it go, I try to remind myself that I am a better mother when I stay focused on the big picture, and that ultimately it will help my kids more in the long term if I am happy and successful.” “You are a role model for finding balance - including meaningful work - for your kids,” wrote Melina Selverston-Scher. “Having time to be totally present with work means you will have time to be totally present with them.”

As the pragmatists weighed in (“Is guilt useful?” asked Kim Graves), many confessed to not really knowing how to totally let go of guilt. “This is my life,” wrote Sarah Russo. “I know how hard that is. Go write anyway,” commanded Miriam Peskowitz who, a few years back, wrote this here on She Writes:

“The time conundrum is especially difficult for women writers with young children, especially hard when the writing, the voice we are searching for is not commercial, when it doesn’t come with a salary or with enough pay that provides, that reassures, that says to the woman writer ‘It’s okay to trade more hours for more childcare so your creative spirit can grow.’”

Shirley Showalter confirmed: “The greatest gift a mother can give her daughter is her self fully realized.”

“No guilt,” wrote Sarah Buttenwieser. “Good going mama to have priorities that include but aren't only the five year olds.”

And this, from dad friend Kevin Levi: “Guilt is reserved for those that have done something wrong. You're a wonderful person, a great mother & work hard to make a better world for your child to live in. Nothing wrong with that. Get a hammer - knock it out of your head.”

So thank you to Karlyn (“waiting breathlessly for your writing”) Crowley. And to my She Writes sister Kamy ("I command you to write it because I can't wait to read it") Wicoff.

I did it. I went, I wrote. Guilt-free.

PS. For some expert advice from a scholar of work-life and women’s careers, check out Alyssa Friede Westring’s latest at HuffPo, Working Moms Inside Out: Guilt Gone Wild.

(And see you at an upcoming retreat!)



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  • Elline Lipkin

    Love this, Deborah! Thank you for sharing your dilemma and honest feelings about an issue so close to many of us.  And I love the other suggestions as well. Seems like it never gets easier, but it is great to have these affirmations.