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Mothers often feel guilty — but when does it become unhealthy?

When my daughter Jenny doesn’t want me to go to work, she simply hides the car keys — this morning, in the cat litter box. When my son Ben doesn’t want me to go to work, he just says, “No, Momma,” with one tear rolling slowly off his cheek.

If you’re like me, you grapple with mother guilt. You believe the perfect mother stays home.

Close your eyes and you can hear the voices: “They’re only little for a short time. No one else can care for them like you can.”

Open your eyes, and you see the mortgage payment, the gas and electric bills and the ever-increasing cost of groceries. You might not want to work, but financially you must. Either you’re single, your husband is still supporting his ex-wife and the children from his first marriage or his income doesn’t stretch for the number of children you both have. Maybe you don’t want him to feel all the financial pressure alone. Perhaps you simply want to work, aware that while you love the children like no one else, you’re more patient and loving when you’re only with the kids from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m.

Still, mother guilt lingers. The question isn’t: Should you reproach yourself? (You’re probably going to feel guilty no matter how good a mother you are.) The question is: How will you manage your guilt?

Healthy motherguilt prompts working mothers to stop and think when they find their work or outside activities taking them away for extra hours from their kids. It stops them from allowing too evenings out from cutting into their mothering time. Ideally, healthy motherguilt causes working mothers to downscale the career expectations they hold so they’re not too exhausted in the evening to be fully present with their children.

Healthy guilt allows me to leave my briefcase at the office and to turn down nearly every paid (or unpaid) evening or weekend and early morning project. Healthy guilt prompts conversations about why I work and why their daddy does — and why we don’t have the role contrast of a devoted mother and an absent father. Healthy guilt, along with love, leads to occasional days off, calls home and more special weekends.

But what about unhealthy guilt? I called Dr. Jay Belsky, a researcher and professor at the University of California, Davis. “Mothers who feel guilty undermine their own psychological well-being. This It instills a motivation to overcompensate, and can lead to the mother losing perspective on what her job as a parent is,” he said. “She can want too much for her children to like her, but she’s a parent and the responsible party in the relationship, and this is a more important role than being the child’s friend.”

“Parents who feel guilty because they’re away so often,” says Belsky, “overcompensate by not holding their children accountable and by letting them get away with too much. Even mothers who stay at home can feel susceptible to wanting their children to consider them more as a friend than as a parent. The truth be told, if a mother does her parenting job responsibly, her children will grow up responsibly, and she’ll have many decades of friendship with them.”

Mothers consumed by self-blame forget that by lightening their husband’s financial burden, they enable him to be more of a father. They condemn themselves for producing the money that feeds their kids and warms their home. They blind themselves to the fact that their kids are happy.

If your kids are like mine, they enjoy their time with their second mom and preschool or day care friends too. My kids’ second mom, Rosa, gives my kids things I can’t. For one, she has three kids my children love. She also has a mom who’s my kids’ third grandma — and their only local grandma. Since I’m away from my kids from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, I come fresh to them in the evening, eager to hold them in my arms and play with them.

Just as recess was the best part of my school day, evenings and weekends are the best parts of my life. But, I wouldn’t have liked full-time recess. I agree with Dr. Belsky: “What matters most to a child is not whether or not their mother works, but whether she’s emotionally and mentally healthy.”

Dr. Lynne Curry — author of Beating the Workplace Bully and Solutions — runs a management/human resources consulting firm, The Growth Company, Inc., and founded Workplace Coach Blog and BullyWhisperer.

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