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Do you compare your insides to other people’s outsides?

Most of us do, even though we know better. We’re social creatures. It’s natural to make comparisons.

But we rarely get to glimpse other people’s insides. When we make our comparisons, we inevitably wind up comparing how we feel to how other people seem.

This may partly explain why so many mothers feel so much guilt. We look around at the women we know from the office or the kids’ school and see patient parents, happy marriages, and well-adjusted children. And we think,

What’s wrong with me? I let my kids watch too much TV and I snap at my husband for folding the laundry wrong and I hate my job. Why am I the only person screwing up her life?

I asked seven of the women* I admire to send me a paragraph or two about the things you can’t see about their lives from the outside. If they thought it was a dumb idea, they kindly went along with this little experiment anyway.

In fact, the answers they gave were so much richer and juicier than I expected that this post ended up running long, so I’m breaking it up into two parts.

Today I give you the first three successful, together, high-achieving women, outside and inside. Think of them the next time you feel like you’re doing everything wrong:

‘L’—Pioneering mom in the world of high-tech

Outside: If there were a poster girl for the self-actualized working mom, it would be ‘L.’ High-paying, high responsibility job in tech. Breaking barriers at work by negotiating a part-time schedule. Somehow she manages to go to weekly dance classes, and still devote weekends to her two young kids. Husband (who also works) is a full partner with kids and housework.

Inside:

What people don’t see about me is I’ve been on the edge of a panic attack for the past 6-8 months—just started seeing a therapist. Worst time of the day is 5:35 p.m., when I get home from picking my 21 month and 3.5 year old up from daycare/pre-school and we’re all starving, grumpy, and don’t know what’s for dinner.

I’m sick of being the main breadwinner and fantasize about moving to a little town where we can live on a farm and I can be with my kids all day and raise chickens.

I feel guilty about the business trip I have to take this week, and all the household projects I never seem to have time for. Today I’m working from home and spent the morning in tears because I haven’t been able to get online and I have work to do, which is what I should be doing now that our Internet connection is finally restored…

‘A’ Mom with coveted job in high-profile nonprofit

Outside: ‘A’ is incredibly organized at work. Not only does she do what she says she’ll do, she always does it well, usually while wearing some stylish outfit. Despite having a child with health problems and a commute, she manages to work full time and then some. Luckily she has a job she adores.

Inside:

What people don’t see about me (or maybe they do!) is how anxious and cranky my commute and job make me. Ever since I went back to work (and stopped breastfeeding), I’ve found myself needing to take Ativan a few nights a week on work nights. When I have a day of non-stop, back-to-back meetings, followed by the inevitable email backup, followed by the mad rush to the train to do daycare pickup for my toddler, followed by my daughter not wanting to get into the car seat and screaming and crying in the parking lot at the top of her lungs, I find myself hyperventilating in the car and I have to take an Ativan by the time we get home so that I can literally breathe. I’m cranky towards my husband when he gets home, annoyed with our dog, and grumpy and anxious. I manage to hold it together all day and be professional, upbeat, and on-the-ball (I even manage to work out at lunch time a few days/week), but by the time evening comes around and I’m trying to cook, I’m a mess!

After dinner, bath, and stories, I usually get back online to catch up on work since I left “early” to do daycare pickup, so I end up eating chocolate to stay awake. And the nights I don’t take Ativan, I often can’t fall asleep because I’m thinking about how much I have to do at work, so I end up taking half an Ambien to fall asleep!

When we go on vacation or I take a few days off of work, I find myself not needing to take Ambien or Ativan, and I realize how much my job and commute affect me. But I also love many aspects of my job. It energizes me, and I can’t imagine not doing it. I love my professional community and presenting to my peers at conferences, but I just wish there were a happy balance and it was not an all-or-nothing situation (my employer would never say yes to part-time or flex-time).

The other thing people don’t see is that my daughter has a serious medical condition we will have to manage for the rest of her life, and this adds an extra layer of anxiety and worry. We have extra doctor’s appointments and evaluations. It’s a lot to stay on top of with her health, and some days I get so worried and overwhelmed that I go in the bathroom at work and cry.

‘J’ Glamorous lesbian mom in music industry

Outside: J. and her partner have one of those made-for-TV lives. They both have hard-won careers in the music industry, and count various famous musicians among their preschool parent friends. Their house looks like something from a movie set. For the last few years, J. has been freelancing, which gives her more time to be at home with her son while still keeping her career alive.

Inside:

I feel like each day that goes by where I am not fully employed in my industry, my career slips further and further out of reach.  When I am ready to jump back in full time, who is going to want to hire a 42 year-old mom, when there are 20-somethings chomping at the bit to do my job for longer hours and less pay?

My mind swirls with this thought and others:

“I need to volunteer more at his school.”

“I need to start running again in the mornings.”

“How come my son can’t memorize his Tae Kwon Do student creed?”

“I should take him to a baseball game so he gets more into butch sports.”

“Baseball’s actually not that butch.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t have done private school so we could save money for college.”

“F**k, I have no 401k.”

“I have to remember to water my zucchini garden when I get home; how do I get the tree rats to stop eating them?”

“I need to make more friends outside my marriage.”

“Do the other moms think I am weird because I am gay?”

“Do the other moms think I’m hot?”

All of this could take place in my head in the same 5 minutes.  I smile on the outside because to describe what’s going on inside would make me seem off my rocker. I cry in my car on the way to pick up my son and then turn the air conditioning on full blast to cool my face down and un-puff my eyes. It doesn’t really work, but I say I have bad allergies.

Cross-posted from Working Moms Break. You can read about the next four moms here.

* I’m using only initials, not full names.

Follow Katrina on Twitter: @kalcorn.


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