parent opinion

HOLLY WAINWRIGHT: This meme wants to make working mothers feel bad. It’s also true.

I remember the guilt like it was yesterday.

It wasn’t yesterday. It was every day, 12 years ago. 

My one-year-old was in family daycare, and she had to be picked up before 6pm. A very reasonable deadline that on some days, when the world didn’t go according to plan, was almost impossible to meet. 

It involved leaving the office on time, no matter whatever small fire had sparked up in whatever corner. Running for the bus from the city to the suburbs. Standing sandwiched between all humanity, willing a smooth passage across town. Any unscheduled pause - a customer who had the wrong pass, an accident, roadworks, would cause anxiety to peak and crash in waves. Then there was a sprint to the car, parked wherever either myself or my partner had found a spot back at the other end of the day. Screeching up to the door of daycare and falling through it in a cloud of apologies, being handed a grumbly infant, tired and cranky from her busy-fun-busy day. And then sinking into the front seat of the car as she squealed and kicked the back of the seat and thinking… “Okay, what’s for dinner?”

But also it was yesterday, when I was travelling interstate for work and not home on the couch with my son, who'd had a rough day.

And it was eight years ago. In the first days of school, when pick-up is an hour earlier than usual, to ease the kids into kindergarten. 

And it was four years ago, in the seemingly never-ending school holidays, when the conundrum of what to do with my non-sporty son who doesn’t love unstructured care grew louder every day. 


And it was last week. When his piano lesson (finally, something he loves!) clashed exactly with a work call I could not miss and my partner was away. 

Also… what’s for dinner?

20 years from now, the only people who will remember that you worked late are your kids and family.  

Yeah, and you. You’ll remember. 

Because the guilt pushed into your skin by words like these, printed on a meme, is always there.  

Do we think that these words, and the many others like it, are aimed at busy fathers, who just happen to be scrolling Facebook and pausing to vibe with its pastel colour scheme? Perhaps. 


What's much more likely is that the intended target is a mother on a doom scroll, to jab her in the heart when it pops up in her feed, or group chat or, yes, on her LinkedIn feed.

Of course, the post-pandemic culture shift has changed the nature of “working late” for many, including myself, and it could just be a gentle reminder of the toxicity of hustle culture, pushing back on the tired idea that the grind has moral value and a multi-tasking goddess never sleeps. 

It could also be designed to positively re-enforce the choices of women who’ve put family, not paid work, at the centre of their lives. But let’s be real. In this economy, the “choice” to work outside the home is rarely a choice at all. 

No. It’s a spiky little bomb pasted on a tasteful lilac background, lobbed at working mothers from a distance. 

Because there is nothing more certain, even after decades of reassurance, that mothers’ guilt still sells, and gets clicks and shares and comments.

Watch: Superwoman Is Dead. Post continues after video.

Video via Mamamia.

After almost 14 years of family life, during which my partner and I have worked a variety of ways - full time, part time, both full time, both part time, in an office five days, at home all the time (thanks, COVID), and with a mixture of home and office - I am often asked about it by the next generation of mothers who work where I do, at Mamamia.


It was one of them who showed me this meme. She works late often. She is the lead breadwinner, as I am. She has a commute. Two small kids. A very full plate. She questions, every day, whether not ‘Being There’ is a forgivable sin. 

The guilt hasn’t been washed away by more than a decade of social media presenting many different examples of motherhood. It hasn’t been reduced by the well-worn statistic that the vast majority of Australian families involve various configurations of working parents. That female breadwinners are on the rise. That it’s almost impossible to live in a city on one income. That, increasingly, it’s agreed that some degree out-of-home care for the under-fives is the Best Start for a child’s education. 

And, I can’t actually reassure my colleague that it gets any easier. As your kids they grow older, homework will need supervising and afternoon activities will ratchet up the difficulty factor of office hours. Who they're hanging out with after school and where becomes essential information. 

There will always be a class parent who organises all get-togethers for “the park at 3.10pm” - a foreign land to many working mothers - and there will always be someone who doesn’t have to ask the school office to hold on to their sick kid for an extra 40 minutes as they battle the traffic to collect them. Those people suffer other judgements in a work-obsessed world, just ask them. 

But the meme still cuts my friend. So do the side-eyes from friends whose lives are different. So do the pointed comments from family members. 


And all I have to say to her and others, after a decade and a half of public parenting is… Let it go. You do what's best for your family. Look straight ahead. Don't beat yourself up.

It’s an inadequate, flabby weapon, but it’s true. 

The more parenting years you have under your tightening belt, the more you realise that blanket judgements about how families should operate are about as useful as a chocolate tea-pot. Children’s needs vary wildly. So do economic circumstances. So do families themselves.

When your kids can talk, express opinions and tinker with your emotions, it’s pretty likely they’ll tell you that they do prefer it if you are around. At least until that point when they can think of nothing worse. 


You will probably try, as we all do, to get home to them as early as you can as often as you can, but you’ll also figure out that the world doesn’t stop turning if you’re not the one unpacking their daycare bags a couple of times a week. 

Balancing family and work is hard. It always has been, but in a culture of constant commentary and judgement, of picture-perfect parenting vignettes on Instagram and an endlessly circulating feedback loop, sometimes it can feel impossible. It isn’t. Almost everyone does it. 

So yes, your kids will remember that sometimes you worked late. That sometimes family dinner wasn’t a thing, or was a hastily constructed least-worst option. They might remember that sometimes you were distracted by emails when they wanted your attention, or that you couldn’t make every single school play. 

But they might also remember you modelling working hard for your family. That you treasured time with them like a rare jewel. That you rushed home to them whenever you could. That you always tried to make it to that school play, and sometimes you did, flustered but waving madly. 

They might also understand one day that everyone is in a constant state of juggling priorities, and their needs were not your only concern. And maybe, just maybe, that breeds resilience and perspective.

Keep scrolling, my friend, and de-activate that guilt bomb. 

Feature Image: Instagram/Mamamia.

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