Tory Johnson: Advice for Working Mom Guilt

Last night on ABC's hit show "Desperate Housewives," we watched as Lynette's new boss forced her to miss her son's first day of kindergarten. Every mother watching could relate to that heart-wrenching scene: the first day of class is a big deal, for parents and for kids.

As I write this, I'm on a business trip for a Women For Hire event in Chicago, which has taken me away from my 8-year-old twins, Jake and Emma, who are in the third grade at home in New York. Travel for work means I don't get to walk them to school, which is among our favorite morning routines. It also means I miss out on afternoon bake sales, art shows, soccer games and other fun moments.

Even though I've faced this ongoing dilemma for the last five years since preschool, I'm still not comfortable with it. Yet, like most working moms, I've figured out some smart alternatives and coping mechanisms that work well for us, and might inspire you too.

Incidentally, as today's working dads are more involved than ever before in their kids' schooling and extracurricular activities, this advice applies equally to them.

Develop a backup plan. Sometimes it's just not possible to attend a school function. I try other backup options to avoid missing my kids in action, but I'm a firm believer that no play or performance is worth risking your job over. One time when my daughter had a special play that conflicted with a long-standing work commitment, I asked her teacher to allow me to watch a dress rehearsal. That's the best of both worlds: I see her perform and I honor my professional commitments.

If you're unable to attend a school function, I suggest these simple solutions for keeping your kids content:

• Talk to the teacher about attending a dress rehearsal instead of the official performance.

• Ask a family member, friend or fellow class parent to videotape the performance for you. Make a special time at home to watch it with your child.

• Encourage your child to re-create her part at home for you and offer to play along.

• Engage your child in conversation by phone and in person about how it went, who said and did what, and provide an outlet to share his or her enthusiasm.

• Schedule a time following the performance for the two of you to share a special activity. Whether it's visiting a bookstore and reading a favorite selection, playing in the park or chatting over ice cream, both of you will no doubt value each other's undivided attention and affection.

• Find other times to be involved with the school, from helping in the classroom to going on field trips, that work well with your professional schedule.

Two weeks ago, I had to be in Washington, D.C., for business on the same day my daughter was starting a new after-school fashion-designer class. Usually for the first day of new activities, she and I go together to meet the teacher and get the lay of the land. In my absence, I sent her with a disposable camera and asked her to snap photos of her new friends in the groovy design studio. The next day, upon my return, we developed the pictures and had a ball discussing who's who and what went on. It turned out to be much more fun than if I had been there in person.

Don't show your guilt. If missing out on a school event is inevitable, I suggest not drawing too much attention to your absence. Making a big deal out of it leads the children to think there's something bad or wrong with mom not being there, which isn't true.

Because of important business obligations, men have missed school functions for decades, and yet nobody questions their commitment to parenting or their role as caring fathers. The same should be true for women: we're not bad mothers if on occasion we must choose work obligations over school events. I'm proud that my children see a mom with a strong work ethic that I hope to pass on to them.

While the moment of conflict may be rife with guilt, don't be unnecessarily hard on yourself. Keep things in perspective and always look at the big picture. No childhood has been ruined by a mom missing a school play, but many childhoods are made more challenging when a parent jeopardizes her job. Working hard and being dedicated to your work hopefully enables you to be a better provider for your family.

Give your boss as much notice as possible. Sometimes there are most definitely must-attend functions. They're the special days that you wouldn't want to miss for the world. For such occasions, give your boss as much notice as possible to ask for a few hours off or a personal or vacation day. Try not to spring the news at the last minute, especially since it's no secret that such performances and events are planned weeks ahead. It's always better to ask for the time off, instead of announcing that you'll be taking it off. A manager appreciates that courtesy.

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