Saying goodbye to working mom guilt is the best way to celebrate Mother’s Day

“She always stands up for herself, for her kids, for her husband if required,” said Barkha Bhatnagar of her mother.
“She always stands up for herself, for her kids, for her husband if required,” said Barkha Bhatnagar of her mother.
Image: Reuters/Daniel Becerril
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Karolina Kartus thinks she would be in a very different place in her life if it wasn’t for her mother. The 29-year-old from Warsaw, Poland, recently left a career in marketing to launch her own social impact business. None of it would have been possible, she says, without her mother Mariola, a former judge who now manages her own law firm, and who showed Kartus that “there is no limit.”

Working mothers around the world face challenges, ranging from a lack of affordable childcare (paywall) to workplace discrimination (paywall). Women also face a “motherhood penalty,” meaning they earn significantly less money after bearing children.

But they also face another obstacle that comes from within: Guilt.

According to a 2015 Pew survey, 39% of US mothers who are employed full time believe they spend too little time with their kids. Many mothers feel guilty that their work keeps them away from their families, a dynamic that contributes to the fact that, in the United States, 43% of highly-qualified women with children leave their careers for a period of time. This has a snowball effect: As Emma Johnson writes in The Lily, “working-mom guilt leads some women to drop out of the workforce [and] take less-demanding and lower-paying positions. Long-term, they rarely catch up, and collectively, this keeps the pay gap alive and well.”

And yet there’s no reason to believe that the children of moms who work full-time are any worse off than their peers. Harvard Business School conducted a survey of about 31,500 adults in 24 countries and found that the daughters of working mothers are more likely to be employed, to manage or supervise people, and to earn more than the daughters of stay-at-home moms. Their sons are more likely to contribute to household chores and spend more time caring for family members.

This Mother’s Day, Quartz is bucking that guilt-inducing narrative. We’re highlighting the stories of women whose working mothers inspired them to be the best versions of themselves and motivated them to take bold steps in their personal or professional lives. Quartz journalists spoke to women from India, the United States, Poland and South Africa, whose mothers were judges, educators, and engineers while they were growing up, to get a sense of how how their working moms made them better.

“The joke growing up was that my Mom’s water broke right as she has finished a big work project and when she went out on maternity leave, they replaced her with three other people,” said Anna Bondy, a nutritionist at Johns Hopkins’ Women, Infants, and Children clinic. Bondy’s mother was an electrical engineer, one of only three women in a staff of 200. She says her mother taught her to “never shy away from getting my hands dirty,” and to work hard: “I also saw my Mom working all hours of the day and night,” she explained. “She used her support network to juggle her work schedule and raising us kids.”

Vuvu Vena of South Africa also remembers her late mother, Nomathamsanqa, a teacher, as a woman who stood out in a sea of her male colleagues. “She was always immaculately dressed, oozed of confidence, surrounded mainly by male colleagues in the early 90’s, she still stood her ground,” says Vena. She taught Vena “the importance of self respect, financial stability and security, integrity, passion and reputation in the world of work; most importantly that a mother’s love is sacrifice.”

Kartus, the entrepreneur from Poland, explains that she and her mother have a good relationship now in part because of her mom’s career: “She understands my worries and when I have to make some kinds of decisions when it comes to professional life, because she lived through it,” says Kartus. “That’s what is different to some of my friends, that they don’t have this kind of relation with their mothers.”

Vena’s mother also served as a professional mentor during difficult times. “I remember a time when my own career seemed wobbly and I confided in her,” remembers Vena. “She told me that no one has the power to make me doubt my skills, urged me to trace back my career tracks, list my achievements and accolades and remember what I’ve attained, and basically live in that truth regardless what may be going on at that present moment. That advice saw me through.”

Barkha Bhatnagar works for the Gates Foundation in New Delhi, India on the organization’s neglected tropical diseases team. Her mother was a high school teacher, but left her career when she had Barkha and her sister. A decade later, she decided to get back into education and joined a group that delivers skills-based tests to schools across India. “She really has been the change agent in the family,” says Bhatnagar. “It’s not really easy, being an Indian woman, a mom of two kids, and have to manage everything … to say, you know what, I’m going to start working from today.” Her mother’s decision inspired Bhatnagar to pursue her undergraduate and postgraduate education in New Delhi and in London. “It was my family who really motivated me,” she says. “They really pushed me to the maximum, especially my mother. She really doesn’t accept any kind of average performance.”

These stories highlight just how important working mothers can be in their children’s lives—as role models, confidants, and motivators. Far from dwelling on missed birthday parties or long work trips, these women remembered the times their mothers inspired and helped them. “My mom showed me the supernatural abilities of women,” said Vena. “Only when I became a mom did it all translate. I will boast of her to my children for years to come. This one gift is for a lifetime—it was a blessing.”

Alexandra Ossola and Annalisa Merelli contributed reporting to this story.

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here