The following is a modified version of a piece that I wrote 11 years ago, when my kids were 6 and 9. I work less now than I did then… and I’m still not sorry.
Hello readers, sorry it’s been a while. As usual I’ve been buried; perhaps a bit more so than normal- two conferences, a grant, two class projects, and oh yeah ORAL BOARD EXAMS coming up in 5 days. However it has all gone fine. I continue to learn to control how crazy I allow myself to feel… It is a slow process, but I am learning to say no, prioritize, and protect my time with my family. It is hard, but getting easier.
All that being said, the recent conferences have brought up an issue repeatedly with friends and colleagues that I feel compelled to address today. The issue is this: how to react when your children whine that you have to go to work? When they ask “Why?” “Why do you have to go? Why are you a doctor? Why do doctors have to work so much? Why can’t you do something else? Why can’t you come to the field trip like so-an-so’s mom?”
Long ago, before getting married and having children, I read an article in a women’s magazine that I can no longer locate about this very topic. I cannot remember the details, but I have held the basic tenet close to my heart: Never Apologize. What the author meant was, do not inadvertantly give your kids the wrong impression by saying sorry over and over again. Never say ‘I’m sorry I have to go to work’! that author said. Her reasoning was, small children believe that you have the ability to make choices. If you keep saying sorry, they will start to believe that there is something wrong, that there is something lesser about having a mommy that works. If you give them the idea that you don’t like work, they’re going to start to wonder on some level- Mommy doesn’t like work, and yet she chooses to leave me to go do something she doesn’t like? What does that mean about me? I have really taken that to heart, and I never apologize about work. I’ll say I’m sorry that I can’t be there for this particular party, or I’ll say I’m sorry that they’re feeling sad- but I never apologize for working. I tell them that Mommy works because I like working. I tell them that I love being a doctor! I tell them that it’s great that we all go out and do important things and then can come back and share with each other about those things. The alternative to this approach would be to take more of a victim’s stance on it- I’m sorry, but Mommy has to go to work. This latter approach conveys a message that to me, is way too pessimistic a way to look at work for a young child.
I want my children to feel like they have choices. I want them to look forward to making a difference in the world through their jobs, their passions. Now we all know that reality is a lot more complicated than that. There are plenty of times that our situations are less than perfect- I wish that I could work less, or under different conditions, or not at the times assigned to me. Plenty of moms out there are working out of necessity, and there is no job out there that is satisfying all the time. A lot of times in this world, you do what you have to do. So I know that the message that I convey to my children will grow more nuanced as they grow older, for sure. But I do still believe that the fundamental message to young children should be an optimistic one, which is why I follow the axiom of Never Apologize (for working).
Let me clarify a couple of things here. First, I don’t think that these important messages of self-power and autonomy need to be taught by a working mom. Far from it. In my observation, good moms are good moms whether or not they work outside of the home. A good mom will be able instill these beliefs in their kids by her own attitude regardless of whether she heads out each day with a punch card. Rather, I think martyrdom in any mother is what can most damage our children’s capacity for happiness. I know moms who stay at home and are happy and comfortable with that choice, while other SAHM’s are desperately unhappy. The same can be said for working moms. To both sets of unhappy ones, I hope and pray for them that within the confines of their financial situation, that they consider the impact that their unhappiness has on their children… Instilling a capacity for happiness in your child requires that you model self-love to them. (Hope I’m not opening a can of worms with this one… sigh)
I don’t mean to convey that this approach is always the easiest. Believe me, there have been times where I thought my heart would break if my beeper went off- and then it went off. But I look at the fruits of this No Apologies policy- my children- and it seems to be working out OK. My 6 yo Dear Son called me when I was at my last conference and left this message: “Hi Mommy, I just called to say that I’m having fun, and I hope you’re having fun too. Love ya!” Just this past weekend, Dear Daughter looked on the verge of tears when I had to leave for the afternoon to give a big talk to an academic anesthesia society. I almost said sorry- it’s still a temptation- and then caught myself and hugged her, saying instead’ “Hey, we’re a family. We need to support each other when we go out to do important things, OK?” She immediately squared her shoulders, lifted her chin, and smiled at me. Rather than looking mollified, she looked empowered.
That’s my girl.