Working Moms Working Through Guilt

Pandemic parenting and the myth of perfection.
Working Moms Working Through Guilt

I don’t know about you, but this is not the parent I signed up to be. And it’s more than just about being a working mom in a pandemic. This goes back to before COVID, before the pandemic.

When my husband and I decided it was time to get pregnant, we imagined a home full of love and support rooted in cutting edge science. As two pediatric psychologists we are very much that couple that constantly analyzes our actions and our son’s behavior to ensure we are practicing what we preach and he turns into a thoughtful caring human. That may make us sound like the perfect parents, but in truth parenting is hard for everyone. When I am tired or stressed, I also make mistakes. I am human after all. But never in my wildest dreams did I imagine having to parent in the middle of a global pandemic. Never did I think I would be trying to figure out how to balance online schooling with a highly demanding job, all while constantly cleaning every surface in sight and praying a deadly illness would not enter into our home (my husband who works in one of the hospitals that was the epicenter of the virus in New York City is a diabetic who also has an autoimmune disease and thus an extremely high risk patient).

I work in Pediatric Hematology and Oncology, meaning that my patients are facing cancer and other blood disorders. Their lives actually look quite like the lives we all now live, even without COVID. They must wear a mask everywhere they go, they are not allowed visitors, and as a result are socially and physically isolated. At the beginning of the pandemic there were few resources these parents needed about how to structure their day without school or how to explain illness and stress to their children. It was a life they had been used to living. Despite this, the new challenge of an increased expectation around working long distance and available resources to include their children in a more normal academic routine still led to a great deal of stress for them. And for the first time I could empathize with them as I frequently heard the same sentiment I was constantly thinking. “I know how to do this and be better, why is this so hard?”

As someone who frequently is asked the question “how do I parent my child in an unthinkable situation” I have always told them to treat your child as if they are normal. Continuing to set boundaries and have rules, even when they are sick, only means they will grow up in as normal household as possible. But the problem with COVID is that we have all been struggling to figure out what that new normal looks like. As a healthcare provider, we did not benefit from downtime. There were days where we could enjoy lengthy walks because we worked remotely and did not have a commute. But as a whole the workload was the same if not more. I remember early in my training I had a mentor that was grappling with the right time to have a child and expressed a desire to avoid what one of her mentors described. This mentor’s young daughter had drawn a family portrait with her missing and when queried “where is Mommy?” The girl answered “she’s inside, writing a grant” and pointed to Mommy at a desk working while the family was outside playing in the sunshine. On occasion both my husband and I do have things that need to be completed at home but we both appreciate the work-life continuum (notice I did not say balance!) and have worked hard to set boundaries to have ample quality family time. But when you work from home and must simultaneously take on the role of every key person in your child’s life that is just not attainable anymore.

So how do I do it? How do I take my Leslie Knope, type-A sunshine personality and adapt that to a year that dealt us blow after blow? The truth is I don’t.

As a parent, I recognize that I am not perfect and guilt is part of the process.

I try to have conversations with my son to check in with him and let him give me feedback about what he needs and balance that with what is realistic. I’m going to feel guilty no matter what I do, so I try to get over when he says things like “I missed you today” or “you were pretty angry, you should have taken a deep breath.” If I’m going to adapt to this life, I need to be willing to hear that and truly adapt. As a professional I am reminded of a week about midway through the year that was bookended by conversations with two incredibly successful men of all people (horrible fun fact and PSA: believe it or not ladies, research says we are less supportive of each other than men are of us when it comes to issues of parenting. That seems hard to believe given the overwhelming stigma, discrimination, and barriers placed in front of working moms, but it is true. We need to be better about lifting each other up and stop making it hard for other women because we had it hard back in our day.). One of these men told me I should never apologize for my son (who had walked in on a very important meeting and in his cute innocence started talking to two psychologists I consider to be superstars and therefore I was lucky to have give me 30 minutes of their time). The other, my boss, a world famous Pediatric Oncologist, told me I needed to stop thinking I could act as if the pandemic was not happening. His professional goal for me was to not give up and keep moving forward no matter what the pace and productivity looked like. If I could do that, he would be proud of me. To further stress the importance of what I said earlier, there were women present in these meetings. I can only assume we are all so used to being afraid of being a working mom that no one felt they had the right to say anything.

It is hard to take the psychology out of parenting when you often put your clinician hat on to keep your cool during those difficult moments. But the gift of this year wasn’t time to get into shape (I lost my ability to play soccer 3 times a week so that was a big fail) or spend more time in quiet reflection (ask any healthcare provider, nothing is quiet ever) or learn a new hobby (that’s only for 20 somethings and retired folk). The gift of this year was to learn that progress is better than perfection. Yes, my son is going to have to be in front of a screen for way more hours than I ever wanted (in truth, he had such little screen time in his early childhood at the start of the pandemic we had to BEG him to stay on for more than 45 minutes at a time). Yes, he is going to interrupt meetings (at this point, if people in that meeting are not understanding about a child periodically popping in, there is something seriously wrong with them). Yes, I will not be as productive this year as I thought I would be (I myself have put off applying for a major research grant to prioritize other things which included sleep). But all of this does not mean that I have given up either. I use multiple color coordinated calendars to ensure that I plan my deadlines around ensuring my son has time for zoom-playdates, family game time, and I always tuck him into bed at night. I just bought myself 15 masks from Ulta because there is nothing like watching some Bridgerton with something that smells pretty and feels nice on my face on the nights I take off from writing. I could tell you about parenting research pre- and post- pandemic. I could tell you about child development in the face of adversity. But why? I think the most important thing any of us can hear right now is we are all figuring out how to do the best that we can in a situation none of us signed up for. For the young women I mentor and the moms of my patients, I am frequently a loud voice of empathy and self-compassion. My message?

As long as we keep moving forward with flexibility and a kindness that allows us to be imperfect, that’s something to be proud of.

Dr. Lila Pereira is a licensed Pediatric Psychologist and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry. She works and sees patients with a history of cancer or blood disorders in the suburbs of New York City at a large Academic Medical Center. Her research explores the importance of different forms of peer support in families facing pediatric and young adult cancer. She is also a board member of Families in Psychology Project, a research and advocacy group supporting psychologists in their quest to become parents while progressing through the academic pipeline. She has conducted research examining the barriers trainees and early career psychologists face when starting a family of their own.


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