More than a semblance of self
On re-claiming my identity and finding creative space as a mom
School has started up again here in Berkeley, and after attending Back to School Night just this past week, I’ve been reflecting on how much has changed the last few years.
I’ve heard that these are the golden years of parenting — my kids are 6 and 9, well past the diapers and toddler tantrums, in that magical sliver of time before the infamous moody teenage years.
When people ask me about specifics of when my kids were babies, my memory fails me, perhaps an evolutionary necessity for the survival of our species. It feels like a blur of non-stop doing at home and at work, on weekdays and the weekends.
It took me a long time to feel like myself again.
When my youngest was about a year old, I was feeling burnt out at home and work (a bit more context at the end of this post). At the urging and support of my ex, I got on a plane to visit my friend Winnie in Singapore for a week. I was stunned by how even the long plane ride (something I had dreaded as a child with severe motion sickness) felt like a spacious vacation — with movies, Jane the Virgin episodes downloaded onto my phone, books loaded on my kindle, free alcohol, and chicken salad wraps available anytime.
That week I stayed with Winnie, I caught up on all the time I craved being alone, without needing to do anything for anyone else. I was on the way out of the startup job I’d had for 5 years at Medium, and with the weight of work obligations and parenting obligations off my shoulders, I had so much space to just be.
Months later, I worked with my personal coach, who I met when she was an instructor at the coach training I attended. She assigned me homework of monthly self dates. As I struggled to figure out what to do with the time, she confirmed that yes, I would be really out of practice at feeling into what I wanted to do with that time. So for the first few, I would need to make a plan ahead of time.
Making space comes first
That insight has really stuck with me. When I tell people that I’m trying to make more space for myself, they often ask me what I want to do with it — why carve out time you don’t know what to do with? But the act of making the space feels so important. It’s an invitation to let your body and mind expect that space will be there, that you’re open to something emerging to fill it.
My life looks a lot different these days. I write my morning pages almost every day, and more often than not, I actually write them in the morning. The act of carving out that 20-30 minutes sometime in the morning (rather than rushing it at night before bed after the day is over) feels like a small but important act of self-love, of prioritizing my own needs.
This work feels preparatory and crucial. I can feel some creative energy simmering, and this practice of daily writing and bi-weekly newsletters paves the way for more ambitious writing projects.
Learning to put my needs first
My tendency to put my own needs last is apparently typical of my Enneagram type of 2 (Considerate Helper), which I discovered recently at Range’s team offsite. As a mother and a manager, it’s easy for me to prioritize the needs of my kids and my team.
My original plan for regular newsletter updates was that, I’d carve out a morning every other weekend (when the kids are at their dad’s) to write. But I’d find that we’d sometimes make plans, and I’d end up contorting my writing time around everything else. This week, I set a recurring bi-weekly calendar event for Saturday morning: “Jean’s Time.” It may move, but it feels good that it’s a priority, and not an afterthought.
Society does not make it easy for working moms
From the pressure we put on ourselves to be good moms and partners and coworkers, to the societal expectation that we’re the primary caregivers and the vastly different standards of what a good mom or dad look like, to the lack of widespread adequate childcare options and parental leave, the society we live in (especially in the US) is not kind to working moms.
I saw a tweet at some point that said something like:
If you’re struggling, remember that today’s standard for 40-hours-a-week workplace productivity is based on men who had a full-time housewife who took care of childcare and everything at home.
The plight of the modern parent seems to be figuring out how to split up household responsibilities, childcare, etc. while also trying to have a social life, eat well, exercise, and have hobbies and creative outlets.
Although all parents deal with this logistical challenge, I particularly emphasize the challenge for moms because research has shown that fathers get a “bonus” in how they are perceived at work, while moms get penalized because people assume that they aren’t as dedicated to their work anymore. In fact, after writing about this years ago, a senior leader in the office off-handedly mentioned having read my post and said, you know, you’re right, I totally do think that! 🤔
Parenting resources I found useful
I had kids “early” — amongst my peers, in the area I live in, having children at 26 and 28 was considered extremely young. So I didn’t have a lot of friends to talk to, to commiserate with, to ask, “is this normal?”
But here are some resources that I’ve found consistently useful over the years:
Edit Your Life podcast with Christine Koh (and formerly with co-host Asha Dornfest): the episodes with Christine and Asha are like listening in on two smart and compassionate friends talking about parenting, life, and more. As parents of older kids, it was so valuable to just hear their insights. Asha now has a new newsletter called Parent of Adults. Hearing their conversations about older kids have also made me look forward to teenage years.
Fair Play: This is the work to fairly distribute house stuff, and to have a process and conversations about it regularly, not when years of resentment bubble over. It covers not just the obvious tedious stuff like dishes or laundry, but tasks that take up mental energy like making dentist appointments, ordering more paper towels, and buying birthday presents. I’ve enjoyed the Fair Play book and have the card deck, and I’ve also heard good things about the documentary.
Unicorn Space: This is the second book by Eve Rodsky. Fair Play is in service of parents (the book focuses on moms) having unicorn space, or “the active and open pursuit of self-expression in any form, built on value-based curiosity and purposeful sharing of this pursuit with the world.” To me, this means getting past the survival mode of parenting and having consistent space for self expression.
The next generation
I’m not a very long-term dream type person. I don’t have specific career ambitions, or aspirations for how my life will be in 10 or 20 years. But when it comes to my kids, I do think about them as adults at my age, and what I want to model for them now.
My aspiration is that I can model for them a different way to be a parent, and that that information will help them decide if they want to be parents. That they see that I am a person, not just a mom. That I have friends and interests, that I have projects I work towards. That I fail and try again. That I make mistakes and apologize for them.
I hope they see that parenting doesn’t have to be self-sacrificial and that moms don’t have to end up losing a part of themselves to give their kids a better future. I acknowledge that there is a certain amount of privilege of many forms to have this option. Maybe it felt like less of an option, especially for immigrant parents of our parents’ generation.
Gratitude for the present
I think these are the years I will look back on with great fondness decades from now. Jackson with his Bieber hair that he refuses to cut and his wide baby teeth smile. Alina with her extreme love of wolves and many wolf facts. Their requests for morning cuddles and nighttime tuck-ins. Jackson joining me while I write my morning pages to work on a word search.
If you’re a parent, I’d love to hear how you’ve prioritized space for yourself. Any life hacks or resources you’ve found useful? Or if you’re also yearning for more space, what’s one thing you’d like to do?
Lead Time Chats
Lead Time Chats with Joaquín Roca - Joaquín and I met online a long time ago, when I was writing and coaching. We’ve kept in touch over the years, and I’m really happy to share his thoughts on feedback and performance conversations in remote environments. He shares a lot of processes and specific approaches to having these conversations that just make them feel a lot less daunting.
Things I’ve been enjoying
Embracing minimum viability at home - As we settle into our new home, I realized I had put arbitrary sequences in place, thinking, oh we need to choose patio furniture before I can have a space to write outside. I set up a cheap folding table and got a temporary outdoor chairs off of the local Buy Nothing group, and I am happily writing outside every day.
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