The Gift of Mom Guilt
“Monday is Patriot’s Day. Nothing will be going on.”
I paused from gathering my things from the table. “I forgot about that,” I said. “But my maternity leave ends Monday. Shouldn’t I be here?”
“I’m surprised you even came in for this meeting,” my hospital colleague said. “You’re not on call Monday, and it’s going to be so quiet around here. Stay home.” As he turned to leave, he smiled, and added, “Enjoy one more day with your little one.”
Seventy-two hours later, two pressure cooker bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon finish line on Boylston Street. The entire city mobilized to help the victims. Paramedics raced toward the explosion. Physicians met ambulances in the street to triage patients. At the hospital where I worked, my partners catalogued injuries with black marker scrawled upon patients’ extremities. They clamped bleeding arteries, shouted orders, and rushed patients to the operating room.
Meanwhile, oblivious to the catastrophe, I sat cross legged on a chair in my kitchen and gazed at the fussy two-month old boy who had finally fallen asleep in my lap.
When I learned about the bombings hours later, long after my partners had saved lives and salvaged limbs, the news halted me mid-stride. After my initial shock and worry, guilt washed over me. I should have been there, I thought in self-rebuke. As a trauma surgeon in Boston, I had trained for a decade to care for the injured. Yet when terrorists attacked my own city, I had failed to show. In my earnest desire for one more day at home with my baby, I’d inadvertently abandoned my colleagues. The realization sickened me. Meanwhile my son, doughy and vulnerable, wailed at my shoulder.
A common anguish
In the days that followed, I threw myself into care for the bombing victims, and my inner conflict deepened. I tended to wounds, adjusted ventilator settings, performed bronchoscopies, and counseled family members into the evening hours. My little boy, who from his first moments on earth knew only the sound of my voice and his need for me, bawled all night at home in my absence. I introduced the governor to victims in the intensive care unit. My husband called me in a panic because my son had a fever. I dressed wounds and removed shrapnel under local anesthesia. My milk supply dried up. Guilt took deep root within me during those days and weeks. It persisted into the months and years beyond.
Although my own introduction to working motherhood was dramatic, the disquiet I experienced was by no means unique. We all know that women routinely juggle careers and motherhood, sometimes out of choice, other times out of necessity to support a household. In 1962, 54.4 percent of mothers worked outside the home; in 2012, that statistic rose to 70.5 percent. Today, the majority of first-time mothers work full-time until the last month of pregnancy, and the number of women who return to work after just three months of maternity leave has increased four-fold since the 1960s.
Meanwhile, a quick Google search of “mom guilt” returns over 14 million hits. In an era when working motherhood has become the norm, women share a common anguish over their competing responsibilities. Literature discussing the tension litters bookshelves and clutters inboxes. Conversations with women at the cubicle, in the laboratory, and on the subway platform confirm the shared struggle.
Fixing the problem?
Despite the preponderance of commentary, popular media does little to assuage the self-reproach many of us experience. Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook and author of Lean In, urged women to “have the ambition to run the world, because this world needs you to run it.” Yet while such words may empower the starry-eyed college undergraduate, they can demoralize the mother who cuts back on hours to spend more time at home, or who struggles with angst as she rushes to the office despite her child’s tears.
In contrast, Anne-Marie Slaughter, in her 2012 essay featured in The Atlantic, asserts that women cannot “have it all” until our economic and societal framework prioritizes families. Research from Harvard Business School, with a counterpunch, reassures us that children of working mothers grow up to earn higher incomes. Parenting offers us 31 tongue-in-cheek reasons to shun mom guilt by savoring “life’s little luxuries,” a list that includes scolding an innocent child. In Christian circles, discussions of working motherhood can quickly veer toward emulation of the woman in Proverbs 31 or devolve into disputes about complementarianism and egalitarianism.
These arguments about motherhood and career choices frequently contradict one another, and few adequately address the anguish many women suffer. Most claims—from either side in these debates—place responsibility for “fixing” mom guilt squarely upon women’s shoulders.
When callings seem to collide
Such a multitude of discussions populate the internet because they ultimately fail to solve the predicament. The tension we feel as working mothers is not merely practical—it is also devotional. In their focus on policy, social norms, and leather-bound organizers, popular commentaries on this topic frequently undermine the deeper conflict at play. Mom guilt extends well beyond the trappings of planners, paychecks, and baby bottles. It courses through us in tides that rise and ebb in every moment, fluctuating throughout the day in nuances of bitterness, hopelessness, anxiety, and despair. It is raw, real, and deeply spiritual.
Mom guilt so deeply troubles us because it strands us between Romans 12:6–8 and Deuteronomy 6:7. God graces us with unique gifts, attributes, and talents so that we may enact good works he has “prepared in advance for us to do.” (Eph. 2:10) When we embrace our vocations in service to God, we honor him. Diligence in our careers, when love of Christ motivates us, glorifies the Lord.
Yet, as mothers, the Lord also blesses us with children whom he calls us to shepherd in his ways. Motherhood, like one’s career vocation, is a calling with clear biblical foundations. In the tangle of promotions, deadlines, Twitter feeds, attachment parenting, and organic baby food, these dual ministries of career and motherhood can seem diametrically opposed, if not irreconcilable. We struggle, and our hearts ache, because fulfillment of our God-given duties appears unachievable.
Perhaps no solution satisfies because none exists. Perhaps the ongoing tension draws us toward a different answer entirely.
Inadequacy as invitation
When arguments surrounding the mom-guilt predicament focus only on practicalities, they imply that the capacity to “have it all” remains within our power. They falsely insinuate that if we think smarter or work harder or plan better, we can somehow make everything work. They delude us into relying upon our own efforts and devalue a conflict that penetrates to our bones.
Scripture teaches us to lean into God rather than into our own capabilities (see Prov. 3:5–8). The Bible reveals that God places people into insurmountable circumstances to test their faith, to demonstrate his sovereignty and goodness, and to draw people to himself. David does not defeat Goliath because he’s a great shot. Daniel does not scheme and strive to escape the jaws of lions. Moses does not extract water from a stone through his own talents—in fact his personal flourish in the moment denies him access to the Promised Land! These stories and others highlight not our human strengths and independence, but rather our frailty, our limitedness, and the singular hope we have in the God who rescues us. In the most breathtaking example, God sent his Son to die for our sins because we lack the power, the wisdom, and the courage to redeem ourselves.
The tactics of leaning in, opting out, and reconfiguring priorities seldom untether our hearts from the weight of mom guilt. When the pangs twist from within, we must take heed rather than try to hush them up. Perhaps they signal a call not to strive harder, but rather to set our eyes heavenward. In the moments when we lock up the office after dark or gaze upon our toddler already asleep, when the thoughts begin to race and the desperation gnaws, perhaps the Holy Spirit beckons us to relax our grip upon the minutes or the missed kisses and to surrender to his will.
In such moments, when we acknowledge our own brokenness and lean into his faithfulness, even anxieties that steal our breath can bless us. The guilt we feel as we try to navigate career choices and parenting responsibilities may serve as a longstanding invitation to raise our eyes to him and pray, Lord, I give this to you. I cannot do this alone. Help me. Perhaps in our turning, he may guide us down another path. Perhaps he will equip us to carry on. Or perhaps the simple act of surrender will strengthen us in ways unseen, as disciples of our great God who saves those crushed in spirit.
Kathryn Butler, MD, is a trauma surgeon turned writer and homeschooling mom. Her book on end-of-life care through a Christian lens is anticipated in 2019 (Crossway). She writes at Oceans Rise.