December 2016Volume 22Number 3PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

Letting go of guilt

My work and my family are my two greatest joys. I am extremely grateful to work with a team and clients that challenge and inspire me. And, I am even more grateful to have a husband and two young daughters that do the same. However, there never seems to be enough time to be the best lawyer, leader, mother and wife I can be.

When my oldest daughter, Zoey, was born 3 ½ years ago, I didn’t slow down at work at all. I just kept barreling forward and tried to put the same level of effort in at home. I chaperoned field trips during the day and prepped for depositions at night. I rushed out the door in the morning and rushed home at night to make sure I got in some playtime before bedtime. I felt guilty leaving my daughter to go to work and I felt guilty leaving work to go home.

When Olive was born last year, I assumed I would continue doing more of the same. I returned to work six weeks after she was born and tried to ease back in to my routine. It didn’t work.

I felt I couldn’t slow down because my work team and my family depend on me. But I was exhausted. I wasn’t getting enough time with my family. I wasn’t spending enough time at work. And, I hadn’t been to the gym in 402 days.

The guilt got worse because I wasn’t taking care of myself and I was never fully present wherever I was. My daughters are growing up and changing at light speed and I simply could not keep up. They are spending their days with caretakers and teachers instead of me or the rest of their family.

When Olive was three months old, I asked my husband if he felt guilty about not having enough time with our daughters. “No,” he said. “We love them. We care for them. And, guilt is a useless emotion.” I wanted to smack him. How could he not feel guilty that we were missing moments we could never get back? How could he not feel guilty that he was regularly late to work? How could he not feel guilty that he might be failing as a parent and a leader?

I realize now that internal monologue may have been influenced by hormones and sleep deprivation. Still, my guilt was palpable. So was my exhaustion.

A few weeks later, I was sitting around a conference table with my all male monthly CEO group. I was ready to quit the group (and nearly everything else). In the midst of telling these guys that I couldn’t keep up with the group or anything else anymore, I broke down.

In response, each of the men shared their feelings about the strains of raising a family and leading a business. They each have their own stresses; small children, grown children, wives that stayed home, wives that work, and family members who are ill or struggling. One of them finally said, “I just decided I am not going to feel guilty about where I spend my time.”

He was so blunt and trite that my first reaction was an internal eye roll. But, after I left the meeting, it hit me that guilt was a distraction. When I’m at work, I want to be fully at work so that my time is well spent. When I’m with my husband, children, family and friends, I want to be fully present so that my time is well spent.

I would be lying if I said that I now live in a post-guilt, fully-present state of mind. But I’m trying.

Member Comments (2)

As you point out in your article, you are not alone. As a recovering perfectionist, I find it incredibly hard not to strive for "best-in-show" at everything I undertake. I'm trying to remember that I'm doing my best in my own show, and that is good enough. I find it helpful to remember a maxim I learned in law school: "Sometimes, 'done' is good."

I'm not sure about guilt being a useless emotion. Is it truly useless or is it a legitimate feeling resulting from a desire to spend more time with your children? Classifying guilt as a useless emotion may simply be a way to make you feel better - and I think that is not being authentic (sorry).
When you make decision to work a lot when you have young kids at home, you hope that decision is a good one which makes you feel good about yourself. If not, maybe you need to change your choice. And that's ok too.

Login to post comments