I sent my eight-months-old baby to day care and went back to work,’ confessed a young mother during a workshop. Her eyes became moist and she flinched as though she expected the other women to pelt her with stones, each heavy with the  words ‘ Bad Mother’.

“Why don’t fathers feel any guilt leaving their children and going for work?” pondered another mother who had quit her job to take care of the children. She seethed with suppressed rage and resentment.

I feel so bad and keep worrying every time I travel away from home on work,” a friend once admitted. “If anything goes wrong with the children, they will blame the mother only, na?”

Guilt by itself is not a bad emotion. It is a sign that we have a conscience, that we feel responsibility towards another and is an indication that we still belong to the human race. A healthy dose of guilt makes us stick to that diet, guilt prevents us from splurging on that horrendously expensive designer outfit we don’t need and guilt nudges us to re-look at our moral compass.

All parents experience some form of guilt. Baby does not sleep at night- I must have eaten the wrong kind of food at the time of pregnancy. Child does not get that gold star- I should have watched those Baby Einstein videos instead of taking that afternoon nap. It is normal to indulge in a bout of self-flagellation. All mothers often go on guilt trips. But Working Mother’s Guilt is a nasty mutant that gnaws away at our vitals, diminishes our self-worth, distances us from our closest connections, reduces us to quivering, bleating creatures incapable of coherent thought or action. Sometimes the guilt monster forces us to throw in the towel and retreat from the workplace to the cool numbing  confines of the home.

What causes Mother guilt and why are fathers immune to it?

Girls and boys grow up with different stories.

All girls hear a version of the Mother story.

Motherhood is the woman’s most important role; in fact it is your destiny.

There is nothing more wonderful or noble than sacrificing everything for your family.

There can be no substitute for a mother’s selfless care.

There is no medal or award more precious than the title of Good Mother.

We are told these stories by our own mothers and grandmothers and have become complicit actors in them. Even the liberal and progressive among them see motherhood as a woman’s highest priority. We are conditioned to believe that any other activity will somehow negate our motherliness, anything that we do that does not directly benefit the family will be at the cost of our motherhood. We are constantly worried that our worst nightmare of being exposed in public with a Bad Mother label pinned to our chest, will come true. So even if there is a minor transgression, a small deviation from the ideal narrative of the Mother story, we reach for our prickly little guilt whips and beat ourselves up.

As a mother who travels on work, guilt used to be my constant companion until I relegated it to the role of an unwelcome guest, the sort who pops in at inopportune moments but needs to be firmly shown the door when it has overstayed its visit.

To do that, I needed to change the Mother Story. I needed to recognize that the story I was holding on to was only a grim fairy tale.

Yes, we do want to be good mothers and it is an important part of our identity. But we can determine what kind of mothers we want to be in our context. We can appreciate ourselves for all the amazing things we do for children. A good mother is one who gives her child the gift of independence. A good mother always takes a call from her child even during a meeting. A good mother puts a robust support system in place so that she is not carrying the responsibility of childcare all by herself. A good mother allows the father to be an important part of child rearing. Pick your story and stay with it.

No one can make us feel guilty without our permission. Yet constant taunts and cautionary tales can erode our confidence. We need to surround ourselves with people who are truly supportive of our choices. Tune out the gossipy aunt or judgmental neighbors who evaluate you on the basis of their own stories. Instead, nurture good friends who will pitch in, who will  cheer you on or shake you up depending on what you need.

Don’t push for perfection. A perfect mother is a mythical creature.

It is okay to feed your child Maggi noodles once in a while. You will not be damned if the art project does not look like it needs to be displayed in the Louvre. The child will not remember the marks she got in elementary school, but she will recall the look on your face when she announced them.

The best gift one can give any working mother is an Instant Guilt Repellant or Super Strong Guilt Remover. But no one else can give us these gifts except ourselves. We need to create our own empowering stories where guilt is not a terrible red-eyed demon but a  just a naughty little sprite that helps to keep us on the right track.

Read other Stories in the #SheTheMom series here

Nirupama Subramanian is a contributor to SheThePeople. Nirupama is an author, leadership development facilitator, certified coach and co- founder of GLOW-Growing Leadership of Women.The views expressed are author’s own.

Email us at connect@shethepeople.tv