Why You Need To Dump Career Guilt Immediately Whether You Work or Choose Not To Work

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Career guilt—it can be difficult to shake. Many discussions about eliminating career guilt focus on women who continued their careers after motherhood, and, for both personal and professional reasons, I understand that. In my practice as a workplace civil rights attorney, I represent working mothers. I know the challenges career moms face—from the guilt that can arise from leaving your child in the hands of a daytime caregiver to the very real bias mothers face in the workplace. 

However, I also know of a lesser talked about phenomenon—the guilt many women feel from leaving their careers for motherhood. You don’t have to have continued your career to experience career guilt. The shame that comes from the absence of a career is also a quiet reality for many mothers. 

Of course, there are many who have never felt an ounce of guilt regarding any of their choices, and that is fantastic. Wherever you fall on the spectrum of career guilt, however, know this: Career guilt is not helpful, and you need to dump it from your life immediately. Here’s why.

The Problem With Career Guilt.

First, think of it this way: Guilt implies you’ve done something wrong. You feel guilty over behavior you believe you shouldn’t have engaged in. For example, you get into a fight with your sister and say some things you shouldn’t have, and you feel guilty. You overindulge at dinner several nights in a row, and you feel guilty. You let your kid watch the iPad for a few hours instead of playing outside, and you feel guilty. 

Whether or not the guilt is necessary in those situations depends on several factors, but often we feel it when we believe we experienced a lapse in judgment—that our choices could have been better. It’s an attack of that pesky little thing called our conscience.

Career guilt is similar, but it’s also different. It’s a deep feeling of personal failure that results from our inability to trust our instincts. However, choosing to continue working in a field you are passionate about or opting to leave the workforce after having kids isn’t a personal failing. It’s a personal choice that is usually given great thought and consideration. 

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So, Where Does Career Guilt Come From?

There are several reasons women experience career guilt. First, our culture is teeming with conflicting messages for women. It’s the classic double bind where women are criticized no matter what they do. It’s impossible to please everyone, and no matter what choices you make, someone somewhere will believe you could have made a better one.

Common thoughts that plague working moms. 

Mothers who continue working and who suffer from career guilt commonly experience some of the following thoughts: 

·      They may worry they are failing as caregivers for their children.

·      They may think their children will not love them as much or be close to them.

·      They might feel guilty for missing work when children are sick or for other kid-related reasons. As a result, they might feel like bad employees.

·      They may wonder what important milestones they are missing or if their children’s daytime caregivers are treating their children with enough love and concern.

·      They might feel as though their children don’t need them.

Everyone is different. You may experience some, none, or all of these feelings.  

Common thoughts that plague moms who leave their careers.

Some women know from day one that they want to become stay-at-home moms. Others come about the decision much later. The point is, while some women never doubt their decision to leave—or never start—a career, others do. Even when they know the decision was the right choice for them, they may secretly feel they’ve let themselves down in some way. Other negative thoughts these moms may have:

·      They may worry they’ve wasted their years of education and training.

·      They might fear that they have “failed the sisterhood” in some way.

·      They may believe they’ve been reduced to a stereotype.

·      They might feel a loss of status and identity.

·      They may feel guilty for not “enjoying every minute” with their children.

So, how do we eliminate career guilt?

Regardless of what side of the fence you sit on, if you want to eliminate harmful career guilt, you need do the following:

Step One: Ask yourself— “Am I happy?”

Guilt and negative thoughts aside, are you happy with your decision to either continue or discontinue your career? Was it made in haste or was it carefully thought out? If you have regrets, know that your plans can always change. You still have time to switch paths if you so desire—even if you can’t do so right away. 

However, if you are happy with your decision, but still suffering from lingering guilt, take time to get to the root of those negative feelings. Where do they come from? Did you absorb certain expectations from friends, family, or society that have you doubting yourself? Are you worried about what other people think about your choices? If so, you need to find a way to let goof all that.

Step Two: Let. It. Go.

If you are happy with your decision, know that it is right for you and your family, but still feel pangs of guilt from the negative thoughts that creep in, you need to learn to let all that negativity go. Maybe it’s something you can do on your own, or maybe it’s something you’ll need assistance with from friends, family, or a mental health professional. Only you will know the answer to that. Until then, you can start by shaking off the outside pressures and expectations weighing on you.

You’re not a bad mom because you go to work each day. Similarly, you’re not a failure because you left your career altogether. Choices regarding work and family are personal—there is no one-size fits all method. Anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong. 

Step 3: Connect with people who understand.

Finally, whether you are a stay-at-home mom or a career mom, find people who understand your struggle and connect with them. Start a working parents group in your workplace. Join a local mom’s club. Sometimes the realization that you are not alone is the best cure for doubt and loneliness—and always remember: no matter what you are feeling, you are never alone.


Candace Alnaji is a workplace civil rights attorney, working parents advocate, freelance writer, and proud mom. You can find her writing about law, motherhood, and more on her blog as The Mom at Law.You can also find her on Facebook,Instagram,Twitter, and Pinterest.