How to say goodbye to ‘mother guilt’: balancing career and family

Podcast: 'Not Guilty -  Balancing A Successful Career And Motherhood' with Nicolette Rubinsztein and Emma Walsh

Can a career mum have it all? And can we have it without the guilt?

Nicolette Rubinsztein

In this insightful and frank discussion, Parents At Work CEO Emma Walsh and author Nicolette Rubinsztein chat about Nicolette’s book ‘Not Guilty – 7 Strategies for Successful Career Mums’, and share their own experiences dealing with the guilt that many working mothers experience when balancing family life and a career.

When the podcast was recorded, Emma polled the more than 100 live listeners about their experience with guilt, and the results were no doubt unsurprising to many a working mum. More than 80% of the listeners said they felt regularly hijacked by guilt, and 10% said they felt totally hijacked by guilt all the time.

Nicolette is a company director, as well as a former General Manager at Commonwealth Bank, and spent years working part-time in executive roles as she raised her three children. She knows exactly what it’s like to struggle under the juggle of maintaining a happy home life whilst thriving and progressing in your career.

“It goes in waves,” says Nicolette. “There are periods where you feel like you’ve got things under control and there are periods where it all comes crashing down around you – and you’ve got to learn to predict and look out for that.

“To me, the children are the barometer of what’s going on. They’re like the canary in the coal mine – the first to voice their dissatisfaction with whatever is going on. I found that the weeks I worked late or travelled, the tantrums and bad behaviour would escalate – and I’d think very quickly, okay, message received. And I’d pull things back in.”

The balancing act, and the guilt that comes along with that, often begins when a woman first returns back to work after having a child. Emma believes that this parental leave transition stage is crucial to how women not only manage their guilt, but their thinking about career progression in years to come.

“If we do not address how women manage that parental leave transition - their connectivity to their jobs, their ability to connect well when they get back, and transition back in a way that works for them – then forget it,” Emma says. “You’re not going to have women in the leadership pipeline.”

Emma Walsh

“I talk a lot about women who plateau”, Emma continues. “Women who deliberately plateau themselves, because the challenge is they think ‘I just can’t do that big job – I’d love to, my motivation from a career perspective is there, but I choose not to sacrifice family for that career opportunity’”.

And often, says Emma, that decision is a quiet one, and not voiced out loud. Women make that decision in their head and their manager won’t know, and won’t know exactly why they do not want to step up in a role or take on a leadership position. And then many women never find out whether they could do it or make it work, as they are afraid of the risk.

So, is it possible to get rid of those feelings of guilt? Nicolette believes so – she feels she had a (mostly) guilt-free experience as a working mother, and shares what it was that helped her.

Research is the first thing – “Research shows that a happy mum is the most important thing to a child”, says Nicolette. “It also shows that mums who do work have higher levels of mental wellbeing and lower levels of anxiety – so the research is there supporting me.”

Another thing that helped was part-time and flexible work options. Nicolette believes working mums need to make sure they have enough time with their child every day, to reduce that ‘guilt burden’. And ensure it’s “proper quality time,” Nicolette says. “Not dragging them around the supermarket!”

Great childcare is another support. “If you know your child is really being well cared for while you’re working, that makes all the difference,” Nicolette advises.

Listen to this invaluable podcast in full below, and hear more from Emma and Nicolette as they discuss managing your feelings of ‘mother guilt’ and how to ward them off – and feel content in your role as employee and parent.