Our topic today is parenting guilt. I’m going to share some info and studies about how this has become an increasingly bigger issue in recent years, and then I’m going to let you hear directly from other educators about how they’re managing it.

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I think it’s a particularly pervasive issue in education because you’re not just choosing between work and family.

It can feel like you’re choosing between one group of children you care deeply about (your students) and another child or children which are members of your household and whom you also care deeply about.

Certainly, people of any gender can experience parenting guilt and we’ll get to that, but statistically, women feel it much more acutely. I looked at a number of studies on this, and the lowest number I found was 57% of working moms feel guilty about not spending enough time with their kids. Some studies showed as high as 87%.

And interestingly, the data didn’t change that much when moms who are not employed outside the home were interviewed. How could that be true when you’re with your kids most of the day? It seems that everyone worries that they’re not focused on nurturing their kids and engaging with them enough. It’s a bit of a red flag for me, that the problem might have more to do with our beliefs about what it means to be a good parent in 2019.

Increasingly complex expectations for parents (and kids)

In my view: The standards have been raised to a nearly impossible level for parents. When I was growing up, everyone in the neighborhood played outside until the street lights came on. My mom made sure I did my homework, fed me dinner, and had me cleaned off and ready for bed at a decent hour. Certainly, she did much more to nurture my development than that and my dad was very present in our home, too. But from the perspective of social pressure, that was the main expectation for my mom.

Increasingly now in the dominant culture in the US, particularly among middle and upper-class families, the way I was raised would border on neglectful. You can’t just let your kids go off and play for hours with no adult supervision.

“Good parenting” now requires all hands on deck from every adult in the home who must be constantly stimulating children’s language, cognitive, and socio-emotional development. This requires enrolling children in endless activities and chauffeuring them around so they can be well-rounded adults.

That sounds snarky, but a lot of the demands on parents are quite legitimate in light of how the world operates and what we know now about how the brain develops:

  • Good parenting now requires monitoring their screen usage and engaging them in conversation about the types of content and messaging they’re seeing online, which is nearly a full-time job in itself.
  • When kids misbehave, child development experts say you should no longer just spank them or put them in time out or issue a punishment, but help them identify and process their feelings, develop better coping strategies for strong emotions, and communicate in healthy, productive ways.
  • Our standard now for good parenting is not just meeting kids’ need for survival and raising them to have good character, but to also be creative problem solvers, uniquely talented, competitive in a global workforce, and a whole host of other really complex outcomes.

Kids need a much broader, deeper, and more diverse skill set in order to succeed in today’s world than what was required in past generations. Preparing kids for that world — at least from my perspective — is a much more demanding job for parents.

And when you think of everything else parents are now juggling — paying for health care costs, grappling with massive social change, holding onto employment in a challenging economy, and a myriad of other issues … well, it’s awfully hard to feel like you’re staying on top of everything and doing it all well.

Letting go of comparison and unhelpful expectations

So, who’s most responsible for carrying the parenting workload at home?

That study I shared which reported that 57% of moms feel mom guilt about not spending enough time with their kids found that only 19% of dads did. One columnist named Cecile Meier posited this is because the standards set by the culture for women are much more demanding.

Women are expected to be the primary caregiver and it’s just assumed they’ll take on the basic parenting duties with no acknowledgment, whereas men are seen as being really great dads for “helping out.” The bar is just lower for dads.

If a dad is doing more than what his father or grandfather did during the generations where most men were hands-off, they’re doing great. Cecile summed up the sentiment, and I’m paraphrasing: “If you feel like an average mom, that means you feel like a bad mom. If you are an average dad, you’re amazing.”

I feel like that’s an important launching point for this episode because it’s that feeling of comparison is part of the problem. Parenting guilt is created when we’re not living up to the expectations that were created for us and that we’ve internalized, or expectations we’ve set for ourselves.

Culturally, parenting expectations are higher for women, which is a big part of why mom guilt is more pervasive than dad guilt. That said, if you are a dad who feels like you’re not doing enough and you’re falling short as a father, you are not alone — you’ll definitely relate to the advice you’re about to hear. You have the advantage of feeling less social pressure to be continually engaging with and nurturing your children, but you’re not immune to that ever-present desire to want to do MORE for your kids.

Viewing yourself and other parents with compassion rather than judgment

I think there’s also a type of parenting guilt that is unique to educators who may feel like, My own children are going to be fine because they have so much, but my students really need me. I have to keep putting them before my own family because their own families are not doing their jobs.

It’s a bit of the savior mentality, where we feel responsible for fixing problems that often we’re not tasked with fixing, or single-handedly compensating for broad social and systemic issues at the expense of our own families.

We focus on what other parents should be doing differently while also feeling that nagging feeling of not having done enough for our own kids. It can become a comparison trap: Well, at least I’m not doing what THAT person is doing.

Now that’s a harsh truth, but I’m saying it anyway because I think a major part of overcoming guilt of any kind is compassion: compassion for self, and compassion for others.

Our students’ parents are also struggling with unrealistic expectations, and it’s even harder if they’re in under-resourced and underserved communities. We get into the trap of saying, “parents these days aren’t doing their job,” and meanwhile, they’re saying the same thing about US and criticizing teachers endlessly.

I think more compassion is needed for the difficulty of both parenting and teaching in our current era. Both are tremendously difficult, and when we point fingers to blame each other, we’re missing that there are much larger changes in society that have upped the ante and made it more difficult for parents AND teachers to thrive in their roles and support kids the way they want to.  

Making choices from a place of compassion–both for yourself as a parent and for your students’ parents– is much more helpful than rather than assuming you need to compensate for the things you believe other parents should be doing but aren’t.

Teachers who are parents share their stories

The remainder of this episode is based on the experiences of teachers who are parents. I asked teachers in the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club to share how they have grappled with this issue (similar to episode 139 of the podcast, called How to keep teaching from ruining your marriage).

What was interesting this time around is that there was a single common denominator that everyone who responded mentioned. I was expecting their responses to center more on the relieving of the guilt, as in, reframing the way they thought about the time they spend focusing on their students.

What I heard instead was a change in the way they actually taught and parented. In other words, they didn’t just change the ways they thought about the expectations on them, they also changed the actions they took and the way they structured their time.

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Erica’s experience (in her own words)

Angela, this is such a good topic. I came back to teaching after a four-year hiatus with a one-year-old and a three-month-old. I’d quit my previous bank job because it required weekly out of state travel, and I didn’t want to do that with young kids. So, I was dealing with a new curriculum, new school, new career, and new mommy-hood all at the same time.

The first year, I committed to not bringing work home, but it wasn’t enough, and I joined the 40 Hour Teacher Work Week Club, with the goal of doing better. Your club worked wonders. I do not bring work home.

I changed my grading practices so that kids graded most of their own work, and then gave me the best to put in the grade book. All tests and quizzes became digital.

I also use some of your April priorities worksheets to begin scheduling time with my husband and children each week. It’s not over the moon special, but it is time where my full attention is on them.

I also had to make time for myself a priority. All of this was easy to do once my workload was down to about 45 hours a week. That’s with the special ed caseload of 16 students and having to write IEPs. I did have seasons of longer work hours, usually around the grading periods. I used the list making system and the planner I got in the club to make sure I stayed organized.

A lot of it was mental work and making sure what I did was good enough, and not striving for perfection. Working through the club materials was the game changer for me. It was really a matter of sitting down and making those priorities plain, and then communicating with my spouse when I was going to need to work longer hours.

I love my job, and can easily just work on stuff for hours on end. But I love my family and needed to really consider how I wanted to live my life.

Amy’s experience

The tips that have helped me most are to work when it’s time to work, and do not work when it’s not. I don’t bring work home unless there’s a specific project with boundaries, and I am very clear about that. I’ve got to the point where I don’t do it. I don’t sit and think about it. It can take every minute, but that’s not fair to my kids. So, I work when it’s time to work, and I don’t work when it’s not. And that sounds so simple, but it’s been a lot of practice to get to that. I leave work at work unless there’s a specific reason not to.

Another thing is to just realize how much of it is my own perfectionism or I don’t really have to do it. When it comes right down to it, it’d be great if my feedback was super, super rapid for my students, but on some days, I don’t care because I’m going to go home to my kid, and my students will get me on my next prep. And I just keep that choice really clear in my mind. The priority planning has really helped me take care of each of my different people, ’cause I’ve got a lot of different kids and a lot of different projects. And to feel like I’m not forgetting somebody, that I’m at least hitting the most important things, has been really important for me.

And then another thing is just to make the choice and then give myself boundaries. I feel guilty taking my daughter to daycare every day ’cause I’ve done daycare for other people’s children in my past, but this is my first child I’ve ever done that to. I just make my best choice, and I pray and it’s a very thoughtful, long, drawn out, horrifying process, but once I’ve chosen where she’s going to be, I do this thing where we just say, “That’s what we’re doing this year. We don’t quit what we’re doing, and unless something major happens, we do the same thing and we keep it the same and I trust that the consistency is what’s best for kids anyway.”

My older kids talk about hard times that were horrible in my mind, and I had so much guilt over, and they’ve become some of their favorite memories. Hard things in our life. And I try to trust the process. Kids need love, and I try to make sure that happens every day, and keep it simple and make sure I hit the high points. And then don’t let myself think about it anymore.

Devona’s experience

My daughter is a senior in high school. I decided at the beginning of this school year that I was going to spend a lot more time with her, and going to her plays, ball games, etc. Thanks to the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club, I knew how to achieve that.

I cut out all of the things that take so much of my valuable time after school. I did not do book orders, BookIt, bank projects, or a decorated theme classroom.

I changed grading rubrics for time-consuming grading, like writing.

I went in early, if needed, to get work done when no one else was at school.

I have still done fun things for my students, like parties, dress up days, and field trips.

If anyone has asked about my not staying late or lack of classroom decorations this year, I just smiled, sighed, and said, “My daughter is a senior. I’m never going to get this time back with her.”

My students have made a lot of games this year, and I am happy with their progress. I have focused on what will have the most impact on my students, and spent time on those activities.

Krystel’s experience

I’m a fourth-grade teacher in Florida. I have 3 kids, and they are 6, 8 and 10 years old right now. I’m a single mom, and I have them 100% of the time.

My first year in teaching, it was horrendous. I didn’t feel like I spent any time with my kids. My entire life was lesson planning. I didn’t feel like I was there enough for my kids. So I joined your club, and since then, I’ve been able to get a lot more done at school. And when I come home, it’s really my time to be with my kids.

I used your resources, which has also made it easier for me to not spend as much money on my classroom, which has freed up the budget.

And I’ve made it a point to make every Saturday family fun day. So, I really dedicate my Saturdays to my kids.

And my Sundays are my spiritual days, so even if we don’t make it to church, at least, you know, we take a walk in the park, or we do something peaceful on Sundays.

Fridays are like my date nights. When I am dating, people like to go out on Friday nights, and I don’t feel guilty about it, because I know my family fun day is on Saturday. And I know that my spiritual renewal day is on Sunday. So, it’s been really helpful for making my job more of a 40-hour workweek.

There were more great responses from teachers who didn’t leave audio messages but instead gave me written commentary:

So here’s how I connected the dots between these responses:

What I heard consistently was to have a clear boundary between work and home. These teachers are either not bringing work home, or finding other ways to create distinct time for work and distinct time for family.

One of the big challenges in this current era is that we are all reachable and interruptible at any time due to our phones. It’s very hard to be “off” particularly since things may still be happening in the evenings and weekends — parents or your principal or your colleagues might be emailing, for example. The lines between work and home are quite blurry for many people in all different fields, so figuring out how you want to separate them is key. If you don’t, other people will decide for you.

My encouragement to you is to question the expectations that have been set around what it means to be a good teacher and what it means to be a good parent. Redefine those roles for yourself. What do your students need most from you? What does your family need most from you?

Focus on prioritizing the things that make the biggest impact and letting go of the rest. Don’t give in to the pressure to do everything and certainly don’t try to do it all at once.

If you’re at school, be 100% present with your students. If you’re at home, be 100% present with your kids. 

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