I think a lot about the connections between leadership and motherhood—being a confident leader in the office and at home. Thinking about these connections eased my transition into motherhood, making me feel like I wasn’t in a Brand New Role, but rather moving into a way of showing up that was already familiar to me.
Before I became a mother, I would hear other women talk about their efforts to balance motherhood and their careers, often focusing on time management: “Becoming a mother made me so much more efficient,” they’d say. “I only have so much time, and I’ve gotten good at somehow getting what I need to get done in the time available.”
Soon after my daughter was born, it became clear that motherhood had the complete opposite effect on me. I couldn’t have possibly been more efficient than I had been before—and now I had this huge new responsibility pulling me away from work!
But the biggest issue for me turned out to not be time management at all—it was something I hadn’t heard anyone talk about or warn me about; something I call Guilt Management.
When I was at work, I felt guilty that I wasn’t at home with my daughter. I felt guilty that I wasn’t as efficient as I had been before. I felt guilty about taking breaks to pump milk while my colleagues were tapping away at their keyboards and answering the phones. I felt guilty about being a senior leader at my organization and not having boundless time and attention to give to my work. And when I was at home, I felt guilty that I wasn’t at work. I felt guilty that “working from home” looked so different from working at the office, that I wasn’t in front of my computer typing consistently all day.
Recently, I had lunch with a fellow female leader/mom, and she described to me what she thinks of as her “Daily Walk of Shame”: when she leaves the office at 4 pm, she has to walk from her office down a long hallway, past the office windows of all of the partners of her firm as she leaves to pick up her daughter. Talk about a Guilt Trip.
I know this feeling well. When I dashed out of the office every afternoon, my direct report was still at his desk. On the bus ride home, I would imagine all of the thoughts in his head as he watched me go: “There goes Carole Ann again... must be nice” or “She’s not committed to this organization,” or “I work harder than her.” He never uttered any of these words to me. He didn’t need to—I came up with them all on my own, fantasizing while I was awake at 3 am about all the things my colleagues must think of me as I clumsily juggle career and motherhood. I was torturing myself.
My Grandmother, a devout member of her Bible Study Group, gave me this nugget of unexpected guidance: “Thou shalt not should upon thyself or let others should upon you.” It took a solid span of self-torture, but I finally came up for air and realized that I was shoulding all over myself: I should be at work. I should be at home with my daughter. I should show up for that professional event tonight, even though it’s the third night I’ll be out this week.
And even if these should’s had come through direct feedback from my colleagues, they didn’t have the power to make me feel guilty. They could give me feedback, but what I choose to do with that feedback—turn it into guilt, act on it, dismiss it, address it—is only up to me.
Only I can be responsible for changing a way of thinking that is not supporting me in showing up as an effective leader at work or at home.
Since then, I’ve been tuned into the practice of managing my own guilt as a leader and as a mom—acknowledging the times when I’m shoulding all over myself, and actually managing them rather than let them manage me.
Whether you are a leader at work or at home or both, when that loop of negative thoughts starts up, try asking yourself these key questions:
Where is this negative thought coming from? What evidence do I have to support it?
How does this way of thinking serve me in showing up as the leader I want to be?
What is my genuine want in this situation, as opposed to my should?
How do I want to respond to it?
Guilt Management is a skill that I see women in particular working through all around me. I’d like to start a conversation about it. (And maybe even write a book on it someday.)
I value so much the richness of the Women in Leadership Nexus community—how we have women at all different stages of their lives to join in the conversation and help each other grow.
What’s worked for you in terms of managing guilt as a leader?
What kinds of questions and conversations do we need to be having around this issue so we can be more effective and fulfilled leaders?
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Carole Ann Penney, Strategic Career Coach & Founder of Penney Leadership, develops mission-driven leaders who are ready to take the next steps in their career development. She is a member of The Lady Project’s Board of Directors and mentors emerging female leaders through Brown University's Women's Launch Pad Program. When she is not coaching, she’s developing the most important emerging leader in her life—her three-year-old daughter, Avery Jean. Connect with her at: LinkedIn, Instagram.