Strong Like A Mother
During a particularly challenging arm set in a workout video last week, one of the trainers asked the other to say a word that means strength. I thought of my own words: power, grit, determination, hustle, focus. The other trainer (the one with the most svelte, toned, pumped arms of the bunch) gritted her teeth, lifted her (very heavy) weight and said in a deep, powerful voice, “MOTHERRRR”. I LOLed. Then I sat down and thought about it. And burst into tears with a huge smile on my face. Wow. Yes. A thousand times yes. More than any of the litany of words that came to my mind, mother means strength. There is no experience in my life that has challenged me to grow stronger, tougher, fiercer, more resolute, than that of being a mother to our three children.
I got pregnant for the first time shortly after I accepted my first CMO job. I spent my pregnancy turning around a marketing organization, preparing a company for the public markets and transitioning a team and culture. The company rang the bell on the New York Stock Exchange the day I went to the hospital to give birth. It was like having two babies at once. I had big plans for my first maternity leave. I was going to read a stack of books (novels!), become an expert in early childhood development, bond deeply with my baby, my wife and our 7-year old daughter, go to baseball games, rest, do yoga, reclaim my body and come back to work refreshed and full of the verve and vigor that comes after a really great vacation.
I spent a fairly harrowing two weeks trying to give birth. After two failed inductions, two trips to the hospital, a million hours walking, one whole pineapple every day (somebody on the Internet said that would help the baby come out) and what felt like four thousand hours of pushing, I delivered via c-section, bleary-eyed but smiling at 5:01am at exactly 42 weeks. I was a wreck, both physically and emotionally.
My body was tender, broken and didn’t feel like mine. I was so happy to meet my child and I was impossibly exhausted. I was in the Twilight Zone. I was forced to learn about the healing power of rest — and about the disorientation and disruption of the lack thereof. I learned about the healing power of food, both for my body and to fuel the growth of my baby. I spent endless hours feeding and caring for this tiny being. He was an amazing ball of fussy, sleepless, messy wonder. Nevertheless, we persisted.
I got to the end of each day feeling utterly unaccomplished. I was so used to making things happen, driving change, transformation and leading others toward a vision. This time it was a much smaller team and the only thing we accomplished was that we were both alive at the end of each day. It took me the full twelve weeks of my maternity to make peace with the fact that getting to the end of each day was the accomplishment. This was both wonderfully profound and terribly frustrating. As my wife would, and often does say, “Parenting is like a rodeo. And you’re the bull.”
Turns out that no matter how accomplished we may be, Accomplishment is not the point of parenting. Parenting, not like product development, is best approached with the outcome in mind. Instead of looking at a day in terms of a number of tasks to accomplish, consider the outcomes that support human thriving: well fed, well rested, engaged in whatever developmentally appropriate activities apply.
In product development, we employ an approach of continuous discovery. The idea is to create more value by building with an outcome (not a product or a feature set) in mind. Instead of trying to pursue all the answers and perfect our work in one go, we are always in learning mode. We get the set of answers that we need in order to progress to the next step. The product is designed to follow the value as opposed to forcing a design or feature that we think fits the value. Kids are not products, but this iterative, continuous approach is a much better analogy for parenting than the check-list, queen of my domain vision that I had for the job.
I learned to get more comfortable in the quiet spaces, in stillness. I still struggle with being still, but I learned that in stillness, creativity and insight flourish. I went back to work excited to charge ahead but with a different grace and an intense focus on ensuring the time that I was at work was impactful. I became extremely efficient, knowing that I needed to do my job well, pump, take care of my team, get home by a certain time to see my kid/s before bedtime and not collapse. I learned that adult tantrums and toddler tantrums are eerily similar and you can apply the same management tactics to both.
At one of the companies I worked for, we did an incentive trip for the top salespeople to celebrate our shared succes. On one such trip, our Chief Revenue Officer pointed out to me the significant number of single moms in the top salesperson cohort. His theory was that being a single parent demands total focus and utter efficiency. You have to be the master of your system, and know and plan for what it’s going to take to accomplish your goal. Which also happen to be among the skills that it takes to be a great salesperson. Diamonds are created under extreme pressure.
There are endless gifts and challenges that come from being a parent, but the one we don’t talk about enough in professional settings IMO, is how being a parent makes you a more effective, efficient leader, team member, contributor, partner. What if we looked at parental leave as an expansive sabbatical instead of a leave? It is for sure a time to physically regroup for parents who give birth and it’s a crucial time of bonding for the entire family. And it’s also the beginning of a significant transformation and transition from which so many valuable lessons are gained. It is additive to the professional journey.
Many parents find a new power in parenting while also learning alllllll about powerlessness. The power to prioritize what matters. The power of sleep and nutrition. The power that comes from tuning into a broader picture because it’s no longer just about you. Parenting teaches you efficiency, and it teaches you limitations. Understanding both makes delegation more accessible, and in many cases makes parents more focused and effective team members.
What if we looked at parents as people with more breadth to give instead of employees who may now be limited by their familial obligations? What if we looked at lived experience as professional experience? You can’t tell me that someone who has effectively managed a household budget wouldn’t quickly grasp the fundamentals of managing a P&L.
It changes the picture when we see the breadth of strength and skill and experience that people bring to the table. We’re all prisms but you don’t get the rainbow without including all of our edges, angles and intersections. What if we looked beyond professional accomplishments and sought to understand and elevate the experiences of the people we work with that have defined their lives? How would we value people differently if we included lessons they’ve learned from these experiences and how those lessons do or could translate to their professional experience? No doubt we would not only see more potential, but we would also unlock greater impact, more meaningful connection and most likely go further faster, together.