Everyone said that becoming a mother would change my life. I expected sleepless nights, a messy house, and fully embracing dry shampoo. I wasn’t surprised by the roller coaster of emotions as my daughter toddled through her first steps and climbed out of her crib by 15 months. There was a quiet acceptance when I realized I had grown apart from some friendships and deepened those with fellow parents. These were the things the parenting books, the unsolicited advice from family and friends, and the knowing looks from total strangers had warned me about.
I didn’t expect parenting to make me a better product professional, but the changes that made me a better caretaker of a tiny human have made me more empathetic, a better team member, and a more attentive observer. Contrary to the narrative that becoming a mother is the death of a woman’s career, I believe these skills have propelled my career forward. That said, I won’t sugarcoat it. Work/Life balance and the expectations of the modern working mom are brutal. I constantly doubt that I’m a good enough mom and a good enough employee, but I hope that sharing my reflections on my own personal journey can help other parents out there give themselves a little grace in the workplace, celebrate our growth and accomplishments, and smile at our collective poop-stained adventures.
Parenting changes how I evaluate the risk of an initiative.
When I entered the workforce as a naïve twenty-something, I thought that all the best workers were the ones staying late and putting in crazy hours. The cowboy coder who solved the outage at 10pm just had to be the smartest engineer on the floor. Fast forward a decade and I’ve come to realize that the engineers who routinely take the type of risks that result in a frantic 10pm code fix are the ones who likely do not have a child that needs to be picked up from daycare by 5:30 or a spouse waiting impatiently while dinner gets cold. I’ve helped the fellow parents on my team rearchitect a solution so that it didn’t require a late-night deployment that would sacrifice bedtime routines. We’ve pushed back a launch date so that a father could make his kids’ soccer game. My younger self would have considered these actions a lack of commitment to the company and our team’s goals. Now, I embrace the culture of seeing our team members as whole people who need and value flexible schedules, and I appreciate a healthy discussion of risk that includes the risk of disrupting family time.
Parenting reminds me of the lessons in my favorite children’s stories.
Children’s stories and fairy tales teach lessons and instill values that can be applied at home and at work. I was so struck by the parallels between product development and Mo Willem’s Let’s Go for a Drive that it became the inspiration for my very first Medium article. I’ve also written on Mixed Up Chameleon products, the opportunity cost of sharing ice cream, and how Chicka Chicka Boom Boom really is just the story of a DevOps incident. I’m currently sitting next to a stack of books I’ve stolen from my daughter’s bookshelf because they have the spark of great future articles. The quiet snuggle time after stories and before she drifts off to sleep has become a surprisingly refreshing time for reflection on the lessons of the day.
Parenting forces me to prioritize making the world a better, more just place.
If you asked me before I became a parent if I believed It Gets Better, Black Lives Matter, and if climate change was real, I’d have said “of course,” but my actions wouldn’t have matched my words. Since becoming a parent, the reality that my daughter will inherit the world we’re actively creating today as software professionals hit me hard. Reading Technically Wrong by Sara Wachter-Boettcher was a particularly eye-opening experience. I’ve since prioritized learning how to be a better ally and how to apply inclusive design principles. I spearheaded product initiatives that would have used our product data in the service of social justice causes. When my former employer thought those initiatives were too risky and refused to contribute to the movement here in Minneapolis, I quit and joined a company with an unwavering belief that all people deserve to be seen, heard, and respected in and out of the workplace. I became a founding member of the equity, inclusion, and diversity steering committee at my current workplace and proudly advocate for more inclusive and equitable decisions at the product and company level.
Parenting makes me a more attentive observer.
At some point around the time my daughter started crawling, I developed that caregiving sixth sense that just knew when kiddo was about to get herself into trouble. It’s a unique way of listening and observing that has proven invaluable in customer research interviews. The newfound eyes on the back of my head have helped me to listen beyond what the customer says and focus more on the how, why, and motivations behind the words and exasperated sighs.
Parenting gave me a better bullshit monitor.
I will never forget the first lie my daughter told. She was whining about wanting milk before nap time and my husband asked her what Mommy said. She responded with, “Mommy says, ‘That’s a good plan!’” This is a brilliant lie because it is a thing I do say to her ALL the time. It had just enough truth to be plausible, and it probably would have worked on my husband if I hadn’t heard it from the other room and burst out laughing. Since then, the little fibs and half-truths that children use to manipulate parents into getting precisely what they want have only accelerated, but so has my ability to identify when a colleague or customer is also only telling me half the story. It’s helped me ask better questions to get to the bottom of sticky situations.
Parenting made me a more precise communicator.
If I tell my 3-year-old daughter to go get dressed, she quickly gets overwhelmed and pouts that she can’t do it. She still lacks the capacity to break down “getting dressed” into the steps of choosing a clean shirt, pants, tutu, underwear, and socks, then undressing, then putting on each article of new clothing. I could have saved myself months of tantrums if I’d realized earlier that she does much better when I first ask her to pick out her outfit, then to undress, before finally telling her to put on the new clothes. Since making that realization, I’ve also evaluated the biggest miscommunications I’ve had with other colleagues, and almost always it’s because someone misunderstood or became overwhelmed when needing to break down a large task into smaller ones. While I don’t advocate treating all your coworkers like preschoolers, using simple instructions has absolutely helped me be a better communicator.
Parenting reminds me to never take work too seriously.
With Covid-19 and working from home, it’s inevitable that any colleague of mine will experience my 3-year-old barging in on a meeting eventually. The most embarrassing example of this was on a phone call with a new vendor. I had just pushed the unmute button when my daughter proudly proclaimed that our new puppy did not have a penis. The puppy had a vagina just like her. The meeting was recorded. I could have died. This was just a few weeks after my daughter yelled, “Mommy, I pooped!” when she was supposed to be napping during a mid-afternoon meeting. I walked in to find her body and room finger-painted with feces. There’s nothing like having to excuse yourself from a meeting to scrub poop off the walls.
Thankfully, my daughter isn’t always talking about feces and genitalia with my coworkers. There have been many sweet moments, like when the founder of my company called and she insisted on hugging the phone to say hello, or when my husband’s boss stopped by our home and she excitedly declared, “You’re the man from Daddy’s computer!”
No matter how polished and professional of an appearance I cultivate as a working mom, my daughter will always sneak into the conversation. She constantly surprises me with her insight, teaches me to see the world in a new way, and inspires me to be better. My daughter reminds me of what it means to be human. As a product professional, that reminder has been a welcome shot of empathy that has helped me be a better teammate, learn how to really listen, and given me the courage to only work on products and teams that share my goal of creating a better world for her and all our children.