In the last year since I became a mother, I’ve frequently been asked, “How is it being a mom?” and “How do you do it all?”
These are such complex and profound questions and yet in the whirlwind of adjustments that only first-time parents can understand, my answers have been admittedly stupid. Now, one year out, and my head still spinning, here’s a fresh stab at addressing these questions.
Being a mother is the most addictive, intoxicating feeling. Everyone tells you and yet it’s impossible to understand — it’s the purest form of love –full stop. I get blown away when I see the mental leaps and connections my son makes on a daily basis. There are moments when I gaze into his eyes and feel something that can best be described as wholeness. My role in the world has become clearer –I am helping someone realize their potential as a human being and see the world in a unique way. There are moments that are just so perfect.
But then there are other times. There will be nights where you are so tired that your legs are shaking; when you will be so burnt out all you want to do is listen to a Product Hunt podcast in peace. There will be days where you’ll be a Dove commercial away from a nervous breakdown. Days when you’re stuck in traffic with a crying baby, every goddamn traffic light is red, and it feels like the world is colluding against you. Days when your baby will just feel like crying, and you won’t know why, so you’ll wonder whether you’re the only mother that doesn’t enjoy every minute of parenthood. There will be days when you’ll have shit (literally) in your hands while simultaneously trying to catch pee with a blanket. You’ll be frustrated, question what the hell you’re doing, and the exhaustion will get the best of you. There will be moments when all you want is for your baby to nap, and you’ll beat yourself up about feeling that way. You’ll feel guilty for not being overwhelmed with happiness every minute of every day. When your alarm clock is a tiny pair of lungs at 4am and your idea of a vacation is a 15-minute drive to Whole Foods, it’s hard to ‘keep calm’. You understand rationally that the sleep deprivation only represents about .005% of your life and yet it’s really hard to maintain that perspective when it’s 3am and you have a busy workday ahead and the sleeplessness just seems to go on and on forever.
There will be weeks where you finally feel you’re getting into a balanced rhythm of immersion at work and home and your baby gets sick, which throws your whole week out of whack. You’ll find time to check e-mail, answer Slack messages, and schedule a few meetings. However, deep work –the kind that gets you moving ahead — will seem impossible. It’s hard to call your creativity into existence in between driving to a pediatrician for a checkup and thinking about whether there’s enough food for dinner in the fridge. The endless context shifting leads to a perpetual state of quasi presence that inevitably erodes focus. Attention is a zero sum game — if we pay attention to one thing, we’re inevitably paying less attention to another. The resulting state of divided attention that splits your mind into a thousand tiny pieces is hard to contend. At times, it feels impossible to reconcile the need for total immersion when building great companies with the unpredictability in your schedule that comes with having children.
But, and this is a big BUT… even on weeks where you’re finally in a good groove, there’s The Guilt. The one that won’t let you stay late in the office that one night where you’re finally so close to having a creative breakthrough. You’ll feel guilty for letting your son watch TV at 5am so you can sleep for 10 more minutes. You’ll feel guilty if the apple isn’t organic. The list goes on.
Just the other day, as I was addressing my one year old, telling him how much I loved him, my husband brought up that I sounded like I was delivering an apology. He was right. I speak from a position of guilt. I feel guilty if I’m not spending enough time with my son and guilty if I’m not spending enough time building myself. I never feel like I am devoting enough time to either. I never feel like I am good enough at either. The feeling is exhausting, and it never leaves you. As women, we are programmed to think that parenting is supposed to be an experience of martyrdom. People expect us to lose something in order to gain something else. It’s like we can’t dream big if our screensaver features an adorable photo of our child.
Last week I was enjoying an evening with my son and friends, and someone made the following comment: “Isn’t he beautiful? You spend so much time working but this is where the meaning of life lives”. The implication was one of abandonment, as if my decision to work somehow implied a lesser commitment to my son. We can pretend to ignore these comments, but on some deep level they leave a mark in our mind’s operating system that impacts our own expectations of what we can and should aspire to. Personal motivation is an incredibly complex thing, strongly influenced by the social expectations and unconscious beliefs we carry with us. Women have historically been taken down a damned by genetics path, but the reality is this: traits that may seem to be biologically hardwired in women are actually embedded in our heads through generations of unconscious behaviors and word choices.
The words we choose reinforce deep assumptions about what is normal and acceptable and what is not. Google “Bernie Sanders ambitious,” and you get headlines about the candidate’s “ambitious plans.” Try it with Donald Trump, and you find references to his “ambitious deportation plan.” But try it with Hillary Clinton, and you’ll find accusations of “unbridled ambition” and “ruthless ambitions.” Ambition is admirable in a man, but unacceptable in a woman. I can’t recall a single instance in the past year where someone asked my husband, “How do you do it all?” Not asking how men do it all implies that they aren’t expected to. These sorts of linguistic distinctions may seem subtle, but an entire structure of assumed responsibility is implicit. Many men are also “doing it all” but society continues to only value what they do in the office. If we leave men out of the conversation, we are not only neglecting to value the work that they are doing outside of the office, we also aren’t emphasizing how difficult the juggle is, and why it is so important for them to be a part of it.
For the record, I don’t think we need to get all ‘Oprah’ about how being a woman is the hardest job in the world. I know that I speak from a position of privilege. I am lucky that I’ve found my calling in startups and entrepreneurship and I am lucky that I’ve found I am good at building products and inspiring teams to achieve great things. I also know meaningful work is not available to everyone. I have full-time help at home during the week. I am not a single mom. In fact, my husband helps out more than most and I am lucky that he supports my work. So no, this is not a rant against men.
But the playing field is not equal. There are tangible inequalities, like the wage gap, which has been well document and can be easily measured (on average, men see a 6% increase in earnings after becoming fathers, while women’s wages decreased 4% for every child). These inequalities get the most attention, justifiably so. But even if every external disadvantage, every inequality of opportunity, every challenge we face balancing work and family is removed, we would still have to deal with the fact that through the beliefs we carry in our mind, like the constant guilt, we are becoming our own worst enemy. Unraveling the unconscious drama that parallels our conscious desire for gender equality starts with acknowledging that the collective assumptions we've embedded in women are flawed.
As for me, the one constant that I have found to be true in this short, beautiful, chaotic, overwhelming, anxiety-ridden, laughter-filled, rewarding, tiring, miraculous first year of motherhood is that I should not apologize or feel guilty for not giving all of myself to any one thing. Because the best thing I can do for my son is to teach him that life doesn’t revolve around a single thing, not even him.