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Erica's New Book Releasing the Mother Load is officially out! Order your copy today!
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February 20, 2024

February 22, 2023

Navigating Working Mom Struggles: How to Let Go of Norms, Expectations, and Guilt

E:
161
with
Mary Beth Somich
Mental Health Counselor

We have exciting news–Happy as a Mother has evolved into The Momwell Podcast! The podcast is staying the same–same great experts, same mission, same format. But we’re now operating under a new name–Momwell.

What You'll Learn

  • Why Priorities Matter More Than “Balance”
  • Working Mom Struggles and Gender Norms
  • How Intensive Mothering Plays into Working Mom Struggles
  • The Invisible Load and Working Mom Struggles
  • Overcoming Working Mom Struggles
  • Coping with Guilt and Shame as a Working Mom
  • Navigating Working Mom Struggles and Embracing Imperfection

Working mom struggles are real—we’re bombarded with messages and expectations about “having it all” and encouraged to seek “work-life balance.” We often end up feeling as though we’re failing both at home and in our careers. 

But what if we let go of external measuring sticks about what it means to be a good mom and focused instead on our values and priorities? Today, I’m joined by licensed mental health counselor Mary Beth Somitch, founder of Your Journey Through, to discuss working mom struggles and how to let go of the pressure to be perfect. 

Struggling to Balance My Career and Motherhood

I knew that being a working mom wasn’t going to be easy. But I thought that I would find “balance” and excel both at work and home with some support and practice. 

Almost immediately after going on maternity leave, however, I felt torn in two. I grieved the loss of my identity and I missed working. And as soon as those thoughts came into my mind, I experienced guilt and shame for even thinking it. 

Part of me believed that I was supposed to be constantly thrilled about being at home and that my old priorities had no place in my life now. I felt guilty for searching for fulfillment outside of my motherhood role. 

Was I a bad mom? Why did it feel like I was failing no matter what?

I didn’t understand what was wrong with me. Was I a bad mom? Was I not cut out for this? Why did it feel like I was failing no matter what? 

I struggled with these feelings during each of my consecutive maternity leaves. It took a lot of unlearning to realize that it was okay to want to work, to find fulfillment outside of motherhood, and to acknowledge that my priorities and values didn’t align with social pressures and expectations. 

I was excited to discuss working mom struggles with Mary Beth and to unpack the guilt and shame we often experience when we work outside of the home. 

Why Priorities Matter More Than “Balance”

We often hear the term “work-life balance” thrown around for moms—as if we can somehow seamlessly juggle both roles and succeed at both equally. But Mary Beth said that the word “balance” sets an unrealistic standard. 

Moms often feel pressured to work as if they don’t have kids and mother as if they don’t work. The idea of “balance” often makes moms feel like they should be able to give 100% in both roles and still remain calm and collected. But that isn’t a reasonable goal. We can’t be expected to give our full selves to both roles at all times. 

We can’t be expected to give our full selves to both roles at all times.

Instead, Mary Beth believes in normalizing the idea that managing work and family involves an ever-changing shift in priorities, dependent on many factors including our children’s age, the nature of our work, our schedules, the size of our family, our support level, and our wants and needs. 

We will likely feel out of balance at times. Maybe we want to stay at home but can’t afford to stop working. Maybe we want to work but have to stay at home due to economic and financial reasons. Maybe we want to find some flexibility in our career to work part-time. And maybe we truly do value our career and want to prioritize it. 

It’s important to remember that what works for one mom or family doesn’t work for everyone. But it’s also important to remember that priorities are often steeped in gender norms, making it more difficult to uncover what’s truly important to us. 

Working Mom Struggles and Gender Norms

When I was at home on maternity leave, I was grateful to have that opportunity, especially knowing that in other countries it’s not always an option. At the same time, I was ready to return to work when that time was up. 

But a voice inside my head told me that my priorities were wrong. When gender expert Kate Mangino appeared on the podcast to unpack gender norms, she pointed out that priorities are often socialized based on gender norms. It can be hard for us to determine what we want versus what society tells us we should want. 

It can be hard for us to determine what we want versus what society tells us we should want.

Mary Beth pointed out that dads often don’t have the same pressure around priorities. They aren’t socialized to push for “balance” in the same way moms are. Even beginning before pregnancy, moms are socialized to learn and know everything about the baby. That research and knowledge often becomes a part-time job by itself. 

When we feel conflicted about prioritizing work, we often have to challenge those engrained gender norms and determine what priorities have been handed to us by others. 

How Intensive Mothering Plays into Working Mom Struggles

Intensive mothering ideology also plays a factor in shaping our priorities. We’re conditioned to believe that in order to be a good mom, we must be and do it all, put our children’s needs above our own, and sacrifice all of our time, money, and energy for them. 

When we believe that, we might feel as if spending time away from our kids is wrong. That can create additional working mom struggles, leaving us feeling guilty if we aren’t with our children at all hours of the day. 

But Mary Beth pointed out that using the quantity of time and proximity to our children as our measuring stick for “the perfect mom” is not ideal. Attachment research shows that quality of time matters over quantity, and that physical proximity is not necessary for a strong bond with your child. 

Attachment research shows that quality of time matters over quantity.

Being physically present doesn’t even equate to quality time—if you’re answering emails while with your family or fielding texts from the nanny at work, you aren’t truly present. That’s why both work and home require boundaries.

It’s natural to shift priorities when we become moms. As we transition into motherhood, we take on a new identity with new responsibilities and new priorities. 

But the idea that we as moms should be the only ones to keep those new priorities in the forefront, sacrificing our own careers or scaling back at work, is steeped in gender norms and intensive mothering. 

We often end up becoming the default ones to take off work, to field phone calls from school, and to bear the burden of career loss and the gender wage gap that comes along with it. 

The Invisible Load and Working Mom Struggles

Another factor at play that contributes to working mom struggles is the invisible load. Moms often carry the bulk of the household labor when their partners are the only ones working outside of the home. 

But studies have shown that when moms work outside of the home or out-earn their partners, their share of the household labor actually increases. This reinforces the idea that gender roles shape the invisible load far more than our working status does. 

Moms are so socialized to take on the invisible labor in the home that they often feel as if they must work a “second shift” after work, carrying out the household chores and juggling the invisible load. 

The mental load even invades their free time, leaving them feeling as if they never get the chance to take time off or rest. On average, dads have three more hours of leisure time per week than moms. 

Mary Beth pointed out that when moms feel as if they must always be working, whether outside the home or in it, it’s a recipe for burnout. She thinks of it as burners on a stove—if you try to cook with all the burners on high blast, you’re bound to burn something. Likewise, we can’t put our full effort and energy into everything without burning out. 

This is why thinking of our priorities as fluid and everchanging is helpful. It’s not sustainable to do all of the things all of the time. 

Overcoming Working Mom Struggles

It wasn’t until my breakdown/breakthrough, when I realized I was struggling with postpartum depression, that I was able to let go of the perfect mother myth and begin to challenge these beliefs that kept me bearing the weight of the invisible load. 

Once I began unpacking my own beliefs and tuned into my own priorities and my family values, my husband and I were able to make changes in our home. I was able to overcome many of the working mom struggles I had faced. 

Now, our lives look very different. He has more work flexibility than I do, and as a result, he is the primary point of contact for the school. We have worked to share the invisible load and break away from the gender norms we had been given, while my work time is protected. 

But it took questioning the construct of motherhood, delving into gender norms, defining our own values, and becoming curious about our beliefs. I had to open up my mind and be willing to do things differently. 

I had to open up my mind and be willing to do things differently.

Mary Beth pointed out that having ongoing conversations with our partner is important. They might be willing to disrupt gender norms and work on sharing the load, but it likely doesn’t occur to them because they aren’t the ones carrying the labor. 

It also takes internal boundary-setting and curiosity. We often weave gender norms and intensive mothering ideals into our identity as moms. When that happens, it can be very hard to let go. 

Coping with Guilt and Shame as a Working Mom

Mary Beth said that one of the first steps to overcoming working mom struggles is pulling apart the ideas of obligation and urgency. Do I have to be the one to do this, or can my partner share in the labor? Is this even something that needs to be done now? Or is it something that needs to be done at all? 

Maybe the dishes in the sink can wait until tomorrow. Maybe you don’t have to create homemade Halloween costumes. Maybe Christmas cards don’t work for you and your family. 

It’s ultimately about tuning into your own values and questioning the expectations you have about yourself as a mom. 

Another important reframe is to create a new measuring stick for what being a “good mom” is. Mary Beth suggested focusing on presence over proximity. If you find presence difficult, due to neurodivergence or the weight of the invisible load, you can begin by protecting small 5-10 minute chunks of “present” time each day. 

We also have to let go of shame. As moms, we often conflate mom guilt and shame. But there is an important distinction. Guilt isn’t inherently a negative emotion—it can be an indicator that something is not in alignment with our values. For example, if we feel guilty because we are distracted during family time, we can recommit to being more present. 

Guilt can be an indicator that something is not in alignment with our values.

Shame, on the other hand, makes us feel as if we are failing. We might tell ourselves that we are failing as moms and that our kids deserve better. This keeps us from problem-solving and leaves us in a shame spiral. 

Mary Beth said that acceptance is key. When we can accept that working mom struggles are real, and that our priorities will ebb and flow over time, we can embrace the stage that we are in. Our priorities might change from day to day or year to year—and that’s okay. 

Navigating Working Mom Struggles and Embracing Imperfection

As we start to unpack our own emotions, values, and priorities, we can begin to let go of the idea that there is a perfect mom or a perfect balance between working and home. 

Mary Beth pointed out that perfectionism is often a means of control. If we find ourselves pushing towards doing and being more, it might be that we are trying to exert more control over our lives. A better approach might be to focus on our values and see where we can let go of labor, expectations, and the “shoulds” of motherhood. 

When we tune into our values, we can chart a path for our family that feels right.

When we tune into our values and begin to let go of outside expectations, gender norms, and perfectionism, we can chart a path for our family that feels right. We can understand that working mom struggles will come and go, and that we don’t have to feel guilty for caring about both our career and our children.

Instead of trying to live our lives with all the burners on full blast, we can choose paths of slowness and ease and acknowledge that we don’t have to “have it all” or be perfectly balanced. We can turn down the heat, tap into our true priorities, and create a life that feels right for our family. 

Struggling with guilt as a working mom? Connect with a virtual mom therapist for Therapy Support! Book a FREE 15 minute consultation today!

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Tags:

Working moms, Parenting, Values, Gender norms

Stage:

Postpartum, Motherhood

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OUR GUEST

Mary Beth Somich
Mental Health Counselor

Mary Beth Somich is a licensed therapist, private practice owner, podcast host, and course creator. She is passionate about using her training at Columbia University to promote modern mental health and help make therapy accessible and relatable. She mentors other therapists in promoting their own mental health platforms & expanding their reach on Instagram in efforts to build thriving private practices and passive income streams. 

You can connect with Mary Beth through her own IG account, @yourjourneythrough or check out her website for therapists: instagrowthfortherapists.com/home.

Erica Djossa
Erica Djossa
PMH-C | Founder of Momwell
Erica is the founder of Momwell, providing educational resources and virtual therapy for moms. She is a mom of three boys and a registered psychotherapist. Erica’s work has been featured in the Toronto Star, Breakfast Television, Scary Mommy, Medium, Pop Sugar, and Romper. how they want it.
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