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Navigating Coworker Guilt as a Parent

In the depths of our minds, where our work and personal lives intersect, guilt often looms like a shadow, casting doubt on every decision we make. Balancing our professional responsibilities with the pull of our obligations at home or in our personal lives is a delicate act, one that has consumed my thoughts lately as I've found myself pulled away from work more frequently than I'd like to admit. I have felt these feelings before of course, when I first returned to work following the birth of my daughter–coworker guilt. It’s a concept first explored by my amazing friend and colleague Jess Feldt. 

On our recent episode of "The Tightrope: Balancing Career, Motherhood, and Everything in Between," Jess Feldt and I delved into the intricate emotions surrounding coworker guilt and working parenthood. If you aren’t familiar with the term coworker guilt–Jess does an amazing job of breaking it down on her own blog here. On our podcast, we explore the multifaceted nature of guilt, uncovering its various implications. Our discussion unearthed insights that resonated deeply with me, prompting a closer examination of my own experiences and struggles.

A busy working mom juggles her child and her work bag.

One of the most poignant points that surfaced during our exchange was the notion of value shifts, particularly for folks returning to work after parenthood. As priorities realign and responsibilities multiply, there is a profound transformation that takes place within us, as working parents and mothers. Our values change. Our goals change. We must adapt to this new perspective, all while grappling with the guilt of potentially falling short in any part of our life. It's a delicate act that requires constant adjustment and introspection. The reality is that your goals before children were maybe very aligned with your eager young coworker or your colleague who’s kids are in college. Work and that version of success was center stage for a lot of us. But life, and children, have a funny way of changing us. 

On our podcast, Jess talks at length about the importance of discerning between productive and unproductive guilt when we are processing these changes. Productive guilt serves as a driving force, pushing us to strive for improvement. If your pursuit of work-life balance has led to burnout and you've reached a point of giving up, it's a clear indication that adjustments are necessary. You rightfully feel guilty leaving your teammates in a lurch and you need to make a change. But there's another kind of guilt, unproductive guilt, and this is the one that merely weighs us down with unnecessary burdens. It’s that consistent quiet voice that pulls on us and says “You aren’t good enough. You are failing. You clearly aren’t trying hard enough. Everyone can do this except for you.” When in reality we are trying SO HARD. But do we really need to prioritize making happy hour happen to prove ourselves as valuable team members? Or is that just what a workplace culture unsupportive of parenthood suggests? Differentiating between these two types of guilt is essential for preserving a healthy mindset and navigating the complexities of guilt in the workplace.

We also discussed the prevailing culture of overwork and hustle, challenging folks to rethink their priorities and values. This one hit home hard for me. There's a pervasive notion that productivity is synonymous with sacrificing personal fulfillment, but it's time to challenge this narrative. We should work to live, we shouldn’t live to work, right? We need a paradigm shift towards a workplace culture that values balance and well-being, one that recognizes the value of working parents and individuals with diverse interests outside of work. Beyond that, we need managers and bosses that believe in this mindset and lead by example. 

To grapple with coworker guilt, working parents need to confront societal norms and redefine our personal values. We are so often focused on the needs of our children that we rarely stop to do a very important realignment. We are rushing to work, rushing, home, rushing to feed, rushing to bed. Most working parents never take a pause to say, “Wait. I have changed. What does that mean for me?” Or they do–but it’s too late, and by that point, it feels like the universe is crashing around them. We need to explore the power of periodically envisioning our ideal lives and identifying what truly matters to us–with ourselves and with our partners. This exercise will serve as a compass, guiding us towards actions aligned with our authentic selves and away from the constraints of societal expectations.

 Which is a fancy way of saying–Is the life you are fighting so hard for really what you want? Or is it just what you wanted? When is the last time you’ve stopped and asked that? Because that answer can change and it most certainly will.

 These changes do not make us failures–regardless of what that little voice says, or regardless of what “Greg in Sales” thinks. This journey is not a straight path–it’s a thousand bends in the road. A thousand versions of ourselves. A thousand identity shifts. A smarter person than I am once said, “Being a mother is death by a thousand cuts.” You will change again and again, as your children change, and the healthiest and happiest of us learn to ride that change, instead of clinging to past versions of what we thought our life would be. May Sally in Communications with 2 kids in college remember what it is like to have young children and be a working mother. And resend this to yourself in 20 years–because life has a funny way of making us forget. 

Setting personal boundaries is essential when dealing with coworkers who may feel that you're not showing up enough or have different career goals. By confronting societal norms and redefining our personal values, we can navigate our professional and personal lives with greater clarity and purpose. It's about reclaiming control over our time and energy, refusing to be swept away by the tide of external expectations. This means being clear about our priorities and commitments, and communicating them effectively with our colleagues. It's okay to say no to additional tasks or responsibilities that don't align with your goals or values, and it's important to set realistic boundaries to protect your time and energy. By doing so, we can alleviate feelings of guilt and focus on what truly matters to us, both professionally and personally. It's about finding clarity amidst the chaos, and carving out our own path towards fulfillment and contentment.

As we continue to advocate for a reevaluation of workplace culture and personal expectations, let us remember the importance of setting boundaries and prioritizing well-being. By aligning our actions with our true values and aspirations, we can alleviate the burden of guilt and cultivate a more fulfilling professional and personal life. Let's keep this conversation going and support one another on our journeys towards balance and fulfillment. Together, we can create workplaces that honor the complexity of our identities and empower individuals to thrive holistically. —DBC 🌟

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