I have a confession: Nothing makes me more furious than reading stories about "mommy guilt" on the internet. Yes, it's true that most mothers struggle to do right by our kids and feel like crap when, for whatever reason, we can't produce enough milk or afford the best childcare or stomach Goodnight Moon for the 10th time in one sitting. And yes, I hold myself to unreasonable standards of parenting — just like every other working mother I know. But I think there's a far more dangerous feeling that most of us share and no one talks about. I like to call it "mommy despair." Mommy despair is something you feel deep in your bones. It can make your breath unexpectedly catch in the back of your throat. It makes you want to call your own mother to cry and complain about the unfairness of being a working parent. How can we spend nine months bringing a life into this world, only to have three months (and that's if we're very lucky) to spend full time with our kid? How are we supposed to accept that, outside of losing a job or winning the lottery, we'll probably never spend that much uninterrupted time with them again before they leave home for good? Most days, I'm able to push these dark thoughts to a far corner of my brain, where they can't derail my otherwise productive life. But today, as I was walking to the office, I spotted a group of toddlers from a nearby daycare. They were all tethered together as they teetered around the block. Adorable. Normally, I would have smiled, but not today. Maybe I'm overtired or feeling a little vulnerable, because I thought it was going to break down into a very ugly cry. My 14-month-old daughter is my favorite person in the world. I say this not only because she is awesome, but also because she has changed the way I look at the world. Grass, cheese, Mickey Mouse — everything around me is so different now. Why, then, do I feel like I'm missing so much of her life? Why can't I be the one to take her for a walk around the goddamn block in the middle of a Thursday morning? Instead, I have to settle for photos of this sort of outing, kindly snapped and forwarded by my nanny hours after it actually happened. I get to sit at my desk wondering if my daughter was having fun, if she's old enough yet to wish that I could have been there, too. As a working mom, I spend roughly 40 hours per week away from my kid. She wakes up most mornings around 7 a.m. and I'm usually out of the door by 9. Most evenings, I'm back at home by 7 p.m. and she's down by 8. If you do the math, I get to spend roughly three hours with her each day. And those aren't her best hours — or mine, if I'm being totally honest. At the end of a long day, I'm usually a bit drained and cranky. She is, too. Most of our time together is a crazy blur of feeding, dressing, cleaning, changing, and distracting — normal, rewarding parenting activities that become less joyful when the clock is ticking. I know her dad feels the same way. If we're not careful, we both shift into autopilot mode, where we're just trying to get through every task on our daily to-do list without ever coming up for air. Or, you know, an adult conversation. But that's another story.
To be clear, I love my job, which, by the way, offers 12 weeks of paid parental leave. I love the people who I work with and telling them about the latest thing my daughter has done that has completely exploded my universe. (I know most parents think their kids are magical creatures, but as my discriminating mother attests, my daughter really is incredible.) Yet, because of the way this country treats working parents, there are times when I feel like I'm missing out on too much. In Germany, where maternity benefits can extend to a year or more, there's a good chance that I'd just be coming back from my leave now. Here, taking that kind of time off isn't just financially impossible, it's potentially a career killer. And so my daughter's new words and exciting "firsts" are happening while I’m away each day. That stuff gets to me, even though I'm blessed to have an empathetic nanny who never lets me know what I’m missing out on. But the feelings I truly have to bury, the "not fairs" I try to avoid at all costs, are focused on her smallest gestures. For instance, the "hi" my daughter throws out a hundred-or-so times while I'm gone every day. ("Hi" was her first word and continues to be her favorite. She uses it as a greeting, but also when I sneeze.) The time she likes to spend rolling around on the floor like a total weirdo. Her smiles. Her laughs. The way she likes to kick her feet in the bath. And watching her hug inanimate objects because she thinks they're alive. I could go on and on and on. That's the thing that nobody tells you, or at least that nobody told me, about being a working mom: Getting through the weekdays, juggling everyone and everything, is hard. You will inevitably feel bad about not having enough time to do certain things for your kid. You will compare yourself to the other working moms you know, and more frequently than not, you will fall short. That's mommy guilt — and it sucks. But honestly, it's the mountain of tiny moments that I will never get to have with her that makes my heart want to break. We might need them even more than they need us. The truth is, my daughter is happy, healthy, and in the best of care. Rational me knows this, but there's this primal selfishness that makes me want to be with her all of the time. Instead, it often feels like we're living in two slightly overlapping worlds. Cue: mommy despair. Thankfully, we have the weekends. They are always too short and the space between them can feel unbearable at times, but they exist and they are ours. Come Monday morning, even though we've just said goodbye, I know I'll be scrolling through endless photos of my daughter during my commute, like someone in a long-distance romance. I'll be dreaming, like most working parents, of those rare times when we can really be together. No emails. No distractions. Just me and my family.