A little girl twirling with her mother in her backyard

How to Let Go of Parental Guilt

As back-to-school season approaches, I’m reminded of the stress and challenges I faced transitioning my children from the more relaxed summer months to the school-year routine. Not only was the adjustment itself difficult for the children, but the “mommy guilt” I felt from trying to maintain my priority focus on my children while also remaining fully invested in my career was particularly overwhelming during this time of year.

That was more than 20 years ago. And still today, according to a recent Pew Research Center study, 26 percent of working mothers feel that they spend too little time with their children. Most of us struggle with the temptation to try to balance time with family and our workload at the office flawlessly. However, I’ve found over the years that trying to be the perfect mother often leads to frustration and feelings of inadequacy. These feelings are not limited to mothers, either. I recently discovered that among millennial fathers, there is intense pressure to be and do it all. According to a BabyCenter study released last month, 9 in 10 millennial fathers say it’s important to be the “perfect dad” and 1 in 3 report feeling overwhelmed.

Despite this widespread guilt, here’s some good news! According to a study released in the Journal of Family and Marriage, the old adage – quality over quantity – is absolutely true. Despite the natural tendency for mothers to place pressure on ourselves to spend more time with our children, the quality of time spent with our little ones has a greater effect on child development.

Surprised? The researchers who developed this study were, too. Their hypothesis was built on the belief that more time spent with children would result in enhanced child development and success. Instead, mothers who invested quality time with their children by reading together, sharing meals or talking one-on-one saw more successful behavioral, emotional and academic outcomes in their little ones later on in life.

As a reformed perfectionist, I learned the hard way that quality of life is not about striving for perfection at home and work. It comes down to balance and choice. It’s vital to prioritize what is most important. I’ve had to cull down many interests over the years in order to focus on what is most meaningful in the long-run. Nothing is more important than your child, and in my journey to maintain balance, I’ve found ways to make rewarding, everyday connections with my children (and now grandchildren) without sacrificing success in the workplace. Here are a few of my favorite ways to spend quality time with the children in my life: 

  • Unplug in the Evening: After coming home from the office, completely let go of work stress and be fully present with your little ones. Turn off your mobile device(s) and establish evening rituals with your children, like taking a walk, reading a book together or dancing to fun music.
  • Take Part in Play Pretend Games: When our children were young, my husband and I would allow them to direct us in play time. We would let them lead, engaging and listening in their imaginary play world. This kind of interaction made our children feel loved, respected, seen and heard while also allowing my husband and me to relax and unwind after the workday! With our grandchildren, we are delighted to have the opportunity to repeat this fun all over again.
  • Give Back to Others: Helping other people feels good and reminds us of all we have to be grateful for. Getting children involved in giving back at an early age is a meaningful way to spend quality time together and nurture the development of important character traits, such as gratitude, sharing and generosity. You can create lasting memories together by doing simple community service projects, like adopting a family to shop for during the holidays or making a home-cooked meal for an elderly neighbor.

In my experience as a working mother (now grandmother) and the leader of an early education company, I’ve learned that we working parents actually have a unique opportunity to be an example of balance and servant leadership for our children. Research supports this as well, as the Harvard Business School recently released the results of a study that found the daughters of working mothers had more successful careers and the sons were more caring with their families. Thank goodness, what a breath of fresh air!

Finally, research is starting to disprove the longstanding notion that as working mothers, we are putting our children at a disadvantage. And, according to researchers, by spending quality time together – even if it’s limited because of a work schedule – we are investing in our children’s future and possibly improving their academic achievement, behavior and emotional well-being. Learning about these recent studies helps put me at ease, even though my children are now grown into adults. For newer working parents, focus on the quality of the time you spend with your children, and my hope is that you too can let go of mommy (and daddy) guilt once and for all.

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