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The Guilt Only Working Parents Understand

You could say my parents and my parent’s parents and anyone in my extended family have always been quintessential, hard-working Americans.

Salt of the earth, as the old saying goes. They wore soiled, tattered boots. A sweaty handkerchief dangled from the back of their jeans.

They kept their heads down, never complained, and provided for their wives and children. Conversely, the women in my lineage were equally hard workers.

It was instilled in my sister and me that hard work and dedication weren’t just markers of great character – it was also a necessity. If you want to live the American Dream, you have to earn it. That was the message.

Fast forward to 2019 and I’m a 35-year-old single mom with a young son. From 5 in the morning until 10 at night I am working in some capacity. I am the Director of Operations at a marketing firm. I freelance write for various websites (like this one) and I do e-commerce consulting on the side.

Work isn’t just something I do – It’s who I am. If I’m not perfecting a craft, expediting my work more efficiently, or continually challenging myself mentally, I don’t feel right. The importance of work ethic that my family drilled into me was important and sound, but with it came with a price. And that price is was guilt — a lot of it.

As a single mom, pretty much everything that drives me to do better and be better is for my son. Nothing else matters more than him being taken care of, that he’s healthy, and that he’s happy. And, because I am a workaholic, I don’t mind spending that extra time at the office to ensure he gets decent medical care, basic necessities, and a good education.

But the juxtaposition is that, when you’re a fantastic worker, that usually means you’re somehow failing in another aspect of your life. For me, it’s being a fantastic parent and it’s a guilt I can never fully shake or justify.

What time I have with him, I try to make count. I am as involved as I possibly can be, but I usually end up feeling like I somehow fell short.

I know I’ve missed milestones In his life. I know I won’t be able to make every play or game or science presentation he’ll have down the road. And that breaks my heart because I never want him to think I’m an absentee mom. I know there are moments and memories I will never experience or get back and the guilt ways on me every night I tuck him into bed.

But then I remember he HAS a bed because of me. He HAS those pajamas and bedroom and books (all strewn haphazardly across the floor) because of me. That stuffed elephant he always sleeps with? He has that because I took him to a carnival. All those pictures in frames along his wall? Those are photos I took to capture what moments I could.

So yes, it’s wonderful and rewarding being a hard worker. It’s the self-fulfilling prophecy most Americans have always been taught to uphold.

But it does come at a price. And unfortunately, time lost with loved ones is one of the biggest casualties in the battle for success.

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