Design and motherhood
When I was growing up, I didn’t dream about becoming a designer. I enjoyed creating, exploring, communicating, but I always figured I would settle on a more conventional career. To be honest, I don’t remember having a strong conviction to be a mother either. Yet here I am.
I became a mom around the time I started my first full-time, in-house position. We moved to California 6 months after I started, and a week later we learned we were expecting. You can imagine this threw a wrench in my plans.
I had anticipated spending my weekends exploring the coast, mountains, and forests of my new state, to balance the grind of the week that was already burning hot. Suddenly, I found myself swapping hikes for doctor’s appointments. Instead of grinding, I bargained with my boss to let me work from home a few days a week.
This was a hard time in my life. I felt tired, undervalued, and anxious about my visibility in the company. Oddly enough, though, the experience of becoming a mother made me a better designer.
I share this because I’ve seen others express concern that becoming a parent will negatively affect their career. Certainly, there are examples of toxic companies that only want to hire 20-somethings with no children or worldly commitments (though why anyone would fund leadership with such short-sighted expectations is beyond me). Parenthood teaches you ways of thinking about, reacting to, and experiencing life that you can never understand until you’re in it.
I’ve never been good at asking for help. In an odd contradiction, it’s my fear of showing weakness that often becomes my biggest weakness. Combined with an almost stoic perfectionism, I often find myself burnt out and overwhelmed.
Having children forced me to come to grips with this sort of self-defeating behavior.
When your work meeting is interrupted by a toddler home with the flu, or you don’t notice that milk stain on your shirt until you’ve been at the office for a few hours, or you get behind in your work because your little one had night terrors, you’re forced to change your perspective on life.
The best example of this is the most wonderful news clip ever aired, where an interview with an analyst on North Korea is interrupted by his daughter bouncing into the room. This pretty much sums up life with kids. You’re on their schedule, and you might as well embrace it.
I find myself taking things less seriously after kids. I’m better at asking for help, taking criticism, and rolling forward.
After all, we’re only human. We make bad assumptions, we mess up, we’re often wrong. I’ve gotten better at sharing work earlier and taking feedback. I’m less likely to take things personally. I shout out when I’m blocked or stuck and collaborate with others to move forward.
In parenting, a plan is often broken, but the act of planning is invaluable. Same with design. Hope for the best, plan for the worst, and just keep swimming.
The whole time I was pregnant, I was expecting a massive transformation after my son arrived. I’m not sure what I thought I would experience, but suffice it to say, it didn’t work out that way. One day I was me, the next day I was the same person accompanied by this little being I was wholly responsible for.
If you’ve ever wanted to clean up after your drunk friend while deflecting obnoxious questions in a room with deafening, terrible music for the rest of your life, I highly recommend having kids. All those funny books, Tumblrs, and memes about parenting…yup, they’re about accurate.
At first I relied on instinct to get through. Just when you think you’re about to snap (and I mean, totally lose it), this wave of calm sweeps over you as your infant looks up at you, gasping between blood-curdling screams, and you fall in love all over again.
But suddenly this little screaming thing is talking to you, asking questions, throwing fits over the most trivial things. Suddenly, you’re raising this little person that you struggle to relate to or understand, and you’re responsible for them.
I’ve practiced meditation and yoga for about 20 years now, so I come in with an advantage. Still, I could never have anticipated the challenge and beautiful opportunity that being a mom brought to the table. My practice in mindfulness has improved immensely as a result.
I find myself reacting more slowly. When feeling frustrated or confused about my sons’ behavior, I pause. I recognize that I cannot truly put myself in their shoes, and I start to trace through why they may be feeling the way they do. Tears about a popsicle may relate to a lack of control. Potty training accidents are met with embarrassment, but also self-doubt. Expectations shape the way they interact with me and their peers, and I’ve learned to anticipate how they’ll respond to situations based on what came before.
This situational awareness lends itself to design. I’ve become better at exploring the different emotional and physical contexts within which someone may interact with my work. I’m more aware of bias, including my own confirmation bias, and to challenge my initial reactions and conclusions.
I’m more intentionally aware of the needs and unique experiences of others, and this has traced to other parts of my life in ways I never could have expected.
Finally, despite all the chaos. being a mom has made me more organized and deliberate with my time and energy. I’ve learned I can’t be everything for all people at all times, and I’ve come to grips with this.
When people share concerns about becoming a working parent, I often hear them express a fear that people will judge a decline in their work ethic and productivity. While this may be a perception of non-parents and toxic superiors, the reality, in my experience, is completely different.
I used to be a workaholic. I still am I guess, but I force myself to structure my day with more intention. I have to carve out time for me, my husband, as well as work and children, while still accounting for uncertainty.
See the first point above—sometimes things just don’t work out according to plan. Still, I’ve become more focused and productive during my work hours, and better at stepping away and redirecting my attention during the rest of the day.
When I’m with my kids, I try to focus on being present with them. I’m still working on this, but my goal is to be better at experiencing them, fully listening, and investing in each fleeting moment.
I’m not sure if this makes me a better designer, but I think it has made me a better employee and a better person.
This world moves so fast. One day you’re holding your 8lb child in a blanket, and the next he’s losing teeth and telling you about his friends. It’s sad but beautiful.
Everything is temporary. Every win. Every setback. Every compliment and every criticism. We have to balance awareness in individual moments with an appreciation for the journey. In parenting, design, and life, this is a very empowering skill.
Parenthood is a crash course in life skills. It’s an incredible journey, and I’m grateful to be on it.
Note: Some of my closest friends have chosen not to be parents, and some would like to be but are not there yet or struggle. I by no means feel that being a parent is the only way to gain these skills. Happy Mothers Day to all moms, and love to everyone.