Motherhood in the age of guilt
The one question that every woman should ask before becoming a mother
The scene is gut wrenching to watch, yet all too common.
In a hospital room located in a large, urban city there lies a woman in a crib with a baby. The baby is her son — he’s been hospitalized for something unknown. Across the room, her husband sits in a chair, snoring lightly. It’s nighttime, possibly around 10 p.m. A nurse comes in and announced that laying with a sick child in a crib is against hospital policy.
After several minutes of back and forth, the woman wins. The nurse backs off and leaves. The woman then returns to her and says to him,
“I’m sorry. I know I do a lot of things for myself and that you need more. I hope you can forgive me. I hope I can forgive me.”
This particular scene comes from the first season’s finale of Workin’ Moms, a new show on Netflix. The aforementioned woman is Kate, one of the central characters of the show. Workin’ Moms is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful and relatable shows about working motherhood in the 21st century. In my seven years of motherhood, I’ve never come across a show like it.
Watching this particular scene elicits so many emotions for me. After all, it’s not uncommon for a mother to take care of a sick child. But for Kate, in this particular story, she is a working mother — a powerful, bad-ass career woman who excels at her job, and has recently received a high-level promotion, which required her to move to another city for three months.
While she’s gone, her son becomes ill and had to be hospitalized. Her husband is at home in Toronto, Canada, taking care of their child by himself while working his own job. He is stressed out but tries to be cheerful and supportive.
Meanwhile, Kate receives the news in the middle of a presentation at work. After a frenzied moment, her boss, also another powerful woman named Victoria Stromanger, calls her outside and demands what she’s doing. After explaining herself, Kate asks Victoria, “You’re a mother. What would you do?”
Victoria replied, “Think about what is important to you, because this is a slippery slope.”
This is where the tension is heightened, and you can see that Kate is at a crossroads. On one hand, she loves her son and wants to be with him and her husband at home, but at the same time, she’s ambitious, driven, and excellent at her job and doesn’t want to let the opportunity slip away. She’s trying to decide what to do. In essence, she is like a lot of mothers nowadays. Or as this article states, “they’re flawed women with different layers.”
In a world where a woman’s competence as a mother is measured by her presence in the home, it’s hard to distinguish what a “good mother” looks like when she’s a working mother. Similar to men and working fathers, a lack of presence means, at least culturally, that she is not a good mother, that she cares more about herself and her career than her own family. Her children may grow up to resent her absence, or at the very least, not know her very well.
Workin’ Moms is a raw, honest and often unforgiving look at motherhood. It also provides a glimpse into the minds of women of all ages and backgrounds brought together a commonality — their children. Through the Mommy and Me group scenes at the beginning of almost every episode, you can see how the mommies battle each other out in a variety of topics, from breastfeeding to having more children to working.
The show speaks to women like me who are trying to straddle both sides of our identity — motherhood and career. It also demonstrates that no matter how privileged a woman seems to be in life (and indeed, most of the women in the show are quite privileged), she still has her own struggles underneath. Whether the struggle is outwardly evident or disguised well depends on the woman.
I was born in the mid-80s and grew up in the 90s with a working mother. She was gone before I woke up and came home very late. This was considered uncommon at the time given that we lived in a third-world country called Vietnam and women stayed at home to take care of their children. I grew up surrounded by aunts, uncles and cousins and hardly saw my mother. I never wondered if it was hard for her to be absent for as long as she was in my life.
I certainly didn’t understand the challenges that women of my time faced, until I became a mom myself. It is not surprising that today, many Millennial women are waiting to have children due to their desire to obtain more education and develop a career first. Perhaps they’re asking themselves the question, “Am I ready?” To me, this is the wrong question to ask.
The more appropriate question to ask oneself before having children is this — Am I ready for the guilt?
Guilt is one of the feelings that makes us human. Guilt is perhaps what my mom felt leaving me at home with my relatives who took care of me while she worked. Guilt is what a lot of modern women (like Kate) feel today as they try to decide what’s best for themselves and their families. Guilt is a result of sacrifice, of opportunity costs. Guilt is a feeling that will inevitably happen when one becomes a parent. The feeling never goes away.
I remember as a new mother seven years ago, I felt a tremendous amount of guilt at leaving my daughter at home with my own mother, who was our babysitter. I thought that the feeling would dissipate as the years go by, but it hasn’t. The feeling continues even after I had my second child. I feel guilty when I let my children watch “too much” television or play “too much” iPad (never mind the fact that everyone’s definition of ‘too much’ is different). I feel guilty when I had to put my son in daycare. I feel guilty when I want to do something by myself, for myself. And I realize that it comes from the general notion that today’s mothers are supposed to be more involved. After all, statistics show that today’s mothers spend more time with their children even though they work outside the home more. Today’s mothers are a contradiction to themselves.
There is no “right” answer to the question of, “Should I have children?” It is simply a matter of how much you are willing to embrace the imperfections and let go of the guilt. Workin’ Moms allowed me to see the realities of parenthood in ways that I hadn’t seen before on television. For those who are currently pondering the question of “Should I have kids?” this show is a good starting point for reflection.