At certain times or in particular areas, companies will prioritize growth and profits above many other things. They’ll invest in launching a new product, or work people and factories for long hours to meet a sudden increase in demand, for example. A related pattern can be seen in taking on financial debt, where we borrow against our potential future earnings to acquire things now, and we will pay that back with interest. In my field, there’s also technical debt, when we procrastinate addressing known software bugs or infrastructure limitations. The interest we pay on that is the increased number of hours to support and maintain that software. As individuals, we do that at times as well, like slimming down for a social event, quickly learning a new skill for a desired job, or training for an upcoming race.

It makes sense when this happens, and we make the effort and focus where we need to in order to achieve big things. And while it may yield those desired results in that one area for a season, it comes with a cost associated with the areas that aren’t focused on, and usually requires an unsustainable level of strength and willpower to stay out of balance. And even more, when we routinely concentrate on growth in one area under the fallacy that it will continue to yield the same high results, we run the risk of having little future to borrow against. 

This isn’t a shocking revelation, but it is so easy to intensely but unintentionally focus on one area (e.g. work) that we end up burning out in many or all areas. We immerse ourselves in a goal so naturally, and we grow and can be rewarded immensely. It certainly doesn’t seem like there is anything wrong with this approach. Until that gnawing feeling that I want more out of life, that life is so much bigger than work. But then it feels like we’re left to choose. Because how in the world can I have a fulfilling life and a career?

The Common Myth

When it comes to being a mom and having a career in tech,
it’s impossible to succeed at both.

This work-life balance sort of myth isn’t unique to life in tech or moms in general, but I have heard it come up so often when talking to other women* at work who have a family or want to start one, and it is easy to use the small numbers of women and especially mothers as evidence of the myth. And it’s not hard to find more myth justifications. Here are ones I have said myself over the years: 

  • “I am a terrible mother because my kids spend so much time in daycare.”
  • “I can’t compete with single men who can hack around in the latest technology in their spare time.” 
  • “Fathers keep advancing faster than me because they have wives that help take care of children and run the household.” 
  • “I am going to disappoint my boss when I tell them that I can’t travel or I’d miss my son’s dance recital.” This one is real, except that I did miss my son’s debut b-boy concert.
  • “I am putting my family relationships at risk when so much of my time and focus goes to taking care of my teams.” 

How I Unpacked It

I’ve worked hard to work through this myth over the last couple years in a way that helped me move forward and make it easier and faster to repeat whenever it comes up again–it always comes up again. It mainly involved getting real about how I view success, and here’s how I was able to do that:

  1. Look at the big picture, and list each role and aspect of my life that is important to me: Engineer, partner, parent, sister, daughter, friend, neighbor. A healthy and strong, forever-learning, helpful/inspiring, fun-loving, and self-confident and faithful woman. For maximum effectiveness, list them in priority order. (Note that this list is not in my priority order)
  2. Look at each role and aspect, and describe my current state for those. Include wins and challenges. Work through any shame so that I can fully accept myself as an amazing human, in this moment, and encourage myself as much as I would any other loved one.
  3. Figure out what I think success looks like for each role and goal. And do `Engineer` last, since I have naturally given that one so much energy over time, remembering that isn’t sustainable when thinking about my full life and the larger community I am part of.
  4. Look at my definitions of success for each, and cross out any that I have no control over, replacing them with ones that I can control. This was vital for me, realizing that I can decide what success is for myself, and not rely on someone else’s definition or recognition.
  5. Reviewing where I am currently at, figure out next steps to take for one or two areas, making sure they are not too big or too small given the current state. Regularly repeat these steps, and keep celebrating, loving and accepting myself, and taking action.

This wasn’t fast, and it wasn’t easy. But it was SO worth it. And the order of these steps are really important. Just like sprinting to the next feature or the next win is ok but isn’t sustainable, aiming for success without recognizing and accepting myself as I am also isn’t sustainable. Doing that first helped me gain massive leverage in making decisions and generating ideas for my own growth.

Here are two of the things I learned through this exercise, and they’re rather nuanced. 

As much as I thought that others’ opinions of me didn’t matter, it turns out they did more than I’d care to admit. Cognitively, I knew it shouldn’t matter, but every time someone else got promoted and I didn’t, or after leaving a job and my replacement would turn into two or three jobs, or one with an elevated title and level, I would feel awful and slighted and undervalued. It also came up for me when someone else was recognized for something and I wasn’t acknowledged for the many things I felt I was doing well. Regardless if I felt they were doing a great job or not, I really would question myself and feel like I failed or wasn’t good enough. I was taking it beyond normal disappointment, and adding in a lot of drama for myself. Why?? 

After thinking about this quite a lot, I figured out that in reality, they could be pay me half and call me `Level 0 Underworld Monster`, and I’d still show up and do the same work. (Hey Boss, if you read this, know that I’m worth double the money and fully deserve a promotion, though <3) That’s because I’ve defined my success as when I’m learning and contributing and helping others do the same. I get to decide that I’m successful, and I can have my own back when I’m working on it. I’m more interested in making sure I can work with other people whose goals can align with mine, or vice versa. I will keep their definition of success in mind, and love the additional input to my own, and then I get to decide if I’m going to keep it or not. This is helpful for making decisions to travel. Sometimes I will choose the work learning and contributions I could have on that trip, and sometimes I will choose connection time with my family. Not very often anymore will it be a hard decision I feel was forced on me or that my success depends on it. And whether or not I’m acknowledged or promoted–those are nice to haves for sure–but my success comes way ahead of that.

In another aspect, I believed a great mother was one who spent more hours with their children than on anything else. I saw so many other mothers who had so much time to be with their kiddos at school and at home and in other activities, and concluded that they were wonderful mothers and I was less. It’s true that I value spending quality time with people a lot more than I do getting gifts from them or having them do things to help me out, so it’s easy to see where this notion came from. But in fact, I got a little confused. It’s not the quantity of time that mattered to me as much as how I spent that time. When I’m loving and teaching my children, I’m being the amazing mother I desire to be. And my success there isn’t dependent on my children learning or loving back, either, as much as it is on my being present with them when we’re together.

I share the recognition-at-work and amount-of-time-with-kids examples with this disclaimer: these are my thoughts and my beliefs that I chose to let go. I do not think that everyone who shares these beliefs must also let go of them. The point is to make your own clear picture of what success is in terms of things that you have control over and not what anyone else thinks it should be for you. When you have that map and the courage to understand and embrace your present state, you will find you can create so many options and actions to try next to meet that, and keep working through things that seem to be in the way.

Am I where I want to be in my life as a parent and partner and as an engineering leader? Put it this way: I really do value myself as I am and how I got here. I’m a human who is designed to figure things like this out, and come together with other humans to achieve incredible things together. And because I know what success means to me, I believe it is possible and that I can make it happen. This helps me continuously evolve my objectives and evaluate my next steps, and not get overly frustrated and stuck as often.

I’ve seen the difference in my life between when I was unintentionally focusing on my career more than my full life, and when I am actively reviewing my map and making plans to achieve it. Taking the time to decide my `why` keeps me grounded, and helps recenter me when things happen that throw me off. Triggers I’ve seen this year alone were some reorgs at work, or when a colleague I’m close with leaves the company, and someone I care about has a health setback. And things that are more fun, too, like an activity I can lend my expertise to or when I return from taking a vacation, even. It’s important for me to keep coming back to what I’ve decided success is, so I can find my motivation again and more easily make decisions related to achieving my successes.

Bottom line: I’ve committed to figuring out how to do both well, because family is important to me, and so is tech. I contribute to and rely on my family and my team at work. I set expectations and boundaries. I adjust when I need to. Because how in the world do I not do both?

The Full Truth

The most important things in the world are families and human connection.
And tech can help us achieve that.

* Clarification

I say `working moms`, but I’m thinking of moms of fur babies as much as I am any individual from any underrepresented background that has or desires any flavor of family. I am a white cis female married to a white cis male–who is a nurse, if we want to continue the theme of underrepresented backgrounds in a given profession, and why there’s a need for us to balance each other out. Anyway, if you do not fit the `working moms in tech` I’m specifically addressing here, this may still help you, and could help you help us more, too.

A Special Note to Engineering Leaders

As a woman who has worked in small and large technology firms for almost 30 years, closing in on 20 as a mother, I’ve written this to share with women* like me what I’ve tried and what I’ve learned.

As an Engineering Leader, I recognize that I can do the same five steps towards defining success for my organizations, for whatever goals there are. But specifically when it comes to building up teams in the organization that make space for mothers*, the steps are unsurprisingly similar, with additional points to consider:

  • Figure out where diversity and belonging falls among other important characteristics of my engineering organization like high-performing and flexible. Be clear about these priorities so my team can align or make an informed decision. 
  • Evaluate the current state for women* on my team, considering points beyond easy counts and percentages, like the self-reported likelihood of staying on the team for a year, and how comfortable they would feel telling their team they need to care for a family member urgently for three days. Listen to them, and find a simple way to measure and communicate activity and progress. 
  • Figure out what success ultimately looks like, and publish it. If it is determined by things that are out of my team’s control, consider reworking them as well. I won’t be able to control mothers feeling comfortable taking time off any more than they are able to control setting policy for making that easy to do. But I can control how much effort I regularly invest, how I communicate about it, and how I recognize the value. Aim for success in the things I can control, and recognize the impact separately so that I’m more likely to work on overcoming obstacles than giving up.
  • Determine actions that make sense for where the organization is at right now, and break down the work to achieve the goals. This is the same as running an engineering project, really. Prioritize, publish, and track progress towards the desired results alongside my technical objectives, with bonus points for sharing them on the external roadmap as well.
  • As with anything that’s important, be ready to get it wrong as I go, and willing to try anyway. Don’t guarantee failure by doing nothing.