Banishing the Working Mom Guilt Blues

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Banishing the Working Mom Guilt Blues

By Sarah Alter - 01/27/2020
Sarah Alter

On a recent Saturday morning, after a busy week crisscrossing the country from Seattle to Dallas, to Orlando and Charlotte, I found myself exhausted and cranky. I’d returned to Chicago the night before on a late night flight. Now, I found myself alone reflecting on the past week. My husband was busy teaching at the University of Chicago Business School and my two oldest, Emma and Thani, I presumed were still fast asleep at their respective colleges. Upstairs, my youngest son Eli, a high schooler, also was still snoozing.

The good news: my busy travel itinerary had racked up some hefty airline miles. Best part, I’d spent my week being so inspired by story after story I heard from members, corporate partners and regional leaders who are driving the success of our mission to create a more collaborative, flexible and diverse workplace for everyone. 

But then my mind flashed to a text message from Eli, a text I had neglected to see until late last night. There it was, with a trail of support and responses from his siblings, my husband, friends – everybody but me.

Suddenly I felt overwhelmed with anxiety as my mind flooded with the recent news of violence and mass shootings that have caused parents across the country to worry about sending their children to school. 

Thankfully Eli was safe inside our home and his message turned out to be a false alarm. But I was racked with guilt. Like most working moms I know, sometimes I feel like I’m forever coming up short when it comes to doing enough, giving enough and being enough for my kids.

I’d been so absorbed in my day Friday that I hadn’t even checked my personal phone. I realized that Eli had texted me earlier in the day when I was speaking at one of our regional events, oblivious to what he was going through.

When I got home last night, my husband Michael was out for dinner with Eli and some of his normal tribe of buddies.

When they finally returned from the restaurant, I rushed up to hug my 6-foot-3 son who is a full foot taller than his 5-2 mom.

On this Saturday morning, still trying to deal with my guilt, Eli finally wandered down an hour or two later and asked if I would take him to the car dealer. As we drove there, he shared what it felt like when it dawned on him what might be happening. He said the first thing he needed to do was to reach out to his family. I told him how truly sorry I was for not being there. He told me it was OK. I told him it wasn’t. I also told him how sad it was that this is a reality in schools today.

Eli looked at me and smiled and said, “Don’t worry about me, I can handle whatever comes my way.”

At that moment I was able to embrace my shortfalls as a mother (we all have them) and refocus on what truly matters. My son was growing up to be a capable young man who knew I loved him even when I wasn’t available at the other end of the phone. Isn’t that what truly matters?

NOTE: Sarah Alter is president and CEO of the Network of Executive Women, a learning and leadership community representing 12,400 members in 22 regional groups in the United States and Canada. Learn more at

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