The Parent Guilt Trap

I am not a medic, but during 17 years of working in Parenting Education and support, I have had the privilege to coach a number of parents who are combining a job in medicine and a raising a family.  My view from the non-medical world has shown me that on the whole, doctors make great parents.

They are used to bodily functions and fluids, they view ill health and accidents to their offspring as no big deal. I have seen them have a cavalier attitude towards Calpol dosages, and send kids to school with all sorts of complaints, which would have had many of us giving our child a day off.  Those with teenagers studying sciences, can be a useful addition when it comes to homework. Medics are used to working long hard days and nights, with little thanks or knowing quite what’s coming next.  They’re not bad at listening intelligently and swiftly getting to the heart of a child’s problem, due to the necessity of ten minute medical appointments that can detect the start of something serious. Like any working parent though, the guilt of not being around for the ordinary and special milestones of our children growing up is rampant. I have seen it deeply affect performance at home and at work.

You’re not alone if you’re a working parent who is governed by guilt. The trick is, don’t let it dominate. When we focus on guilt, it just grows and becomes a huge energy drain which any parent can ill afford.

In my practice, I often have to coach mums and dads who are struggling with a sense that they are missing out on family life, and causing their children unnecessary heartache and separation anxiety. I once coached a senior executive who was exhausted from running two lives, at work and as a mum to three young children. Actually four lives, she had a marriage that needed a fresh injection of passion, and frail elderly parents at that stage of life when everyday could be bad news or a bonus. This lady took a leap of faith in explaining to her boss that for two hours, when she first got home, her work mobile would be switched off. She expected her boss to complain and insist she was available, just incase. However, to her astonishment, her boss commended her on this idea, and encouraged her to mentally switch off too, during those valuable two hours with her children. It made a huge difference to her to take back control, to dump the guilt, and be able to concentrate better on the needs of her young ones, as the sun was setting on their day.

For medics, who work long hours, parental guilt is an issue which is perhaps even more prevalent. I expect the recent decision to impose a 7-day contract on junior doctors will make many professional medics who are parents reconsider whether they are being asked to sacrifice their families for their careers. The growing number of women who train to be doctors, coupled with the fact that around 35 per cent of doctors marry other doctors, make this a genuine concern. I caught up with a couple of married doctors the other day to ask them what they thought this new decision would be mean. Over the years of raising their three children, they have both worked part time to share the childcare. It’s worked well for them, and they have cut their cloth accordingly within their incomes.

They told me, “The opportunity for doctors to work long hours and extra shifts isn’t new. We know doctors who are parents who take on extra shifts to fund their lives, but the reality is their children simply don’t see them, and both parent and child are missing out.”  “It’s a bit like Sunday Trading,” they said, “When we were kids, the shops were shut on Wednesday afternoons, and you would never consider shopping on a Sunday, it just wasn’t an option.  It was family time.”  However, we have got used to Sunday trading, and only time will tell what the impact on junior doctors will be on having to manage 7 day contracts.

So what can a working parent do to dump the guilt?

When I coach working parents full up with guilt, I encourage them to take a big breath and a big piece of paper and draw out their life as if it were a cake divided into eight slices. They put in each ‘slice’ the major areas of their life, typically work, family, health, house, finance etc. They then talk about what is really important to them, right now, in each area, as if it were a ten out of ten, running perfectly. Then they talk about the reality of each area, and we have a conversation around what it would take to begin to make the reality move towards their ideal goals. For example, phone a sibling on Sunday instead of feeling guilty you never catch up. Or hide a note in your child’s schoolbag that says ‘I’m thinking about you” instead of feeling guilty you’re at work and they’re with a childminder.

It’s also important to keep in mind too that children maybe tougher than you think, and be largely fine being cared for by others. They can have their minds expanded by different carers – I’ve always been a fan of the African saying “It takes a village to raise a child.”

We can help minimize our guilt by doing all we think of to find the best childcare we can afford. Keep a journal for child carers to leave notes about the kind of day your child had, how they felt, what they did or liked in particular, not just ‘ please buy more nappies.’  At work, it can help to tell yourself you have done the best you can to give your child a good day, and now it’s time to focus on work. What we say out loud to ourselves can make a big difference to how we feel. The subconscious part of our mind is waiting for us to programme it, a bit like Sat Nav, so let’s give it some good directions. Here are five favourites:

“ I am a good enough parent.”

“I will make the most of this time at work.”

“I will not feel guilty about leaving work on time.”

“I will make time for me today.”

“ I love my child, and I’m looking forward to seeing her later.”

Your attitude and what you say to yourself about guilt can either feed it or kill it. What would you like to say to yourself as you set off for work, or make the journey home? Write it down; make it happen and be the kind of working parent you want to be.

Judy Reith, parenting coach, author and founder of www.parentingpeople. She is a deeply flawed working parent of 2 grown up children and a teenager. Contact Judy for coaching, she loves nothing more than helping parents feel better about the hardest job we do, raising the next generation.





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