Mama Shaker: Shannon, Choosing to Be Present Instead of Perfect

Former competitive gymnast Shannon Stearn is learning how to calm her inner critic and be mindful as she and her two sons grow—while coaching others to do the same.

“For the past 40 years I’ve always talked to myself pretty negatively,” she says. “I’ve been a really hard critic. I’m very much a perfectionist, which made me really successful as an athlete; but, as a person, especially as a mom, there’s a lot to criticize.”

As a gymnast, Shannon was under extreme pressure to maintain a certain weight and constantly felt like she wasn’t good enough. The self-criticism followed her through school and even into a lighthearted form of athleticism as an acrobat in the circus.

“I didn’t want to just perform and have fun,” she recalls. “I wanted to be the best.”

“I’ve always been a really introspective person and I have had a lot of things I’ve had to work through with my own issues from parenting and the way I grew up,” she says.

When Shannon started her family, and all these memories came flooding back in the reflection of her boys, her perspective began to shift.

“I never will be the best mother or wife,” she realized. “So how do I be okay with where I am? Not just okay, but how do I thrive?”

“It just made me think there has to be a different way, especially for moms—we have so much else to take care of, how do we also take care of ourselves in a way that isn’t completely punitive?” she thought.

As founder of Savage Wellness, Shannon empowers her clients to grow stronger, both physically and mentally—no matter what their inner critics say—by helping “make it something where we get to feel proud every step of the way, and focus on every small choice that we’re making because it’s so hard to even make the small choices.”

With her two boys, Shannon now finds it liberating to release the urge to control every outcome.

“Initially it was kind of hard for me to let go of that control,” she says. “What’s kind of fun is watching how they teach me about myself now and give me these little challenges that help me grow as a person.”

Shannon is witnessing her 7-year-old “becoming his own person; he has his own thoughts and ideas, and wants and needs.” So she’s “transitioning into parent now that listens to my child and what he wants, and helps him make a decision versus just telling him what I think is the right thing to do.”

Plus, there’s an emerging dynamic when the two brothers (4 and 7 years old) are together that Shannon says requires a new parenting style for “this third child centered our lives.”

Since her older son’s disposition is so similar to hers, Shannon is working through some of the challenges she faced in childhood, while encouraging his growing independence.

“As he’s becoming more autonomous, and I have to let go, it’s really kind of freeing for me to to learn to trust him,” she says, acknowledging that it’s not easy. “I’m really focused on creating that trusting relationship and letting him feel confident as a person and not just somebody who’s being bossed around.”

Mindfulness is something that Shannon practices with her son when he’s feeling upset or being hard on himself. Together they take deep breaths and do meditation.

“My hope is that he can grow up feeling a lot more peace within himself.”

“I see this little mirror of myself,” she says. “I’m parenting myself through all these challenges that I struggled with and didn’t really come to an understanding of that I needed until I was 35.”

“Here’s my chance to really be able to nurture those things and those frustrations I’ve had with myself,” she says.

Mama Maker: Christy, Embracing Parenthood in the C-Suite

When Christy MacGregor traded her position as a law firm associate for a commute across the street to join her husband’s startup as Chief Parent Officer and General Counsel, the barriers between parenting and career came tumbling down.

“I have a lot more flexibility now and it’s really nice to be able to move back and forth more fluidly between the world of parenting and the world of my job,” she says. “I feel like it’s very integrated. So I wouldn’t necessarily say I have balance, but nothing feels in conflict, like when I was at the law firm.”

The mother of four-year-old twins and a one-year-old now clocks her hours meeting with parents at Colugo, which her husband launched as a direct-to-consumer model made popular by fellow Wharton brainchild Warby Parker, after a disappointing experience stroller-shopping at big box stores.

“It releases a lot of the anxiety of being a working parent because you don’t have to pretend you’re not a parent,” she says, now realizing the noticeable absence of stress as a result of the “lifting of that burden.”

Previously, if one of her kids was sick or she had to go to a doctor’s appointment and “something had to be rescheduled, that would never be the reason,” at the risk of being perceived as “unprofessional.”

Christy’s experience at Colugo has been a stark contrast from day one. She made the transition from advising on the sidelines to a full-time leadership role when her third child was about 6 months old.

“One of the first calls I was on with the team, I had my baby with me and he was making noise,” she says. “Our head of marketing was like, ‘oh, that’s very on brand for us.’”

At the time, she remembers thinking “wow, a whole new world I’m in, it’s such a gift.”

While Christy is the first to point out that she’s lucky to be in a position where kids are core to the company’s mission—and she has childcare and family nearby to help—feeling the urge to apologize for the sound of kids in the background is a scenario any parent who works remotely, or joins calls from home or the car, can relate to.

“Now I’m on calls with parents all the time and you hear a baby crying in the background, or someone needs to get picked up early from school, and we all get that,” she says, adding that it can be “a great way to connect with people” and it “brings you closer together faster.”

Whether or not companies are ready for the rapidly increasing blend of work and parenthood, Christy believes it’s an opportunity to bring out the best in employees, especially when they don’t have to waste energy trying to separate their dual roles.

“More workplaces should recognize that if they let parents be fully themselves at work that’s only going to make them better employees—better team members—because they’re able to be open about where they’re at,” she says, and feel motivated by being “seen at work instead of feeling like they’re having to hide this huge aspect of their identity.”

“I’m now at a company that is so parent-focused that I’m seeing what can be done when you are all in on that,” she says. “And the strength of that, and the way that parenthood can amplify the work you’re doing because you’re much more efficient and focused.”

“You want the work you’re doing to be meaningful in a different way because there are so many other things you’re juggling and you want to feel like this is worth it,” she says. “Your time just means so much more.”

It Takes a Village

Christy believes that a family-friendly, community-oriented culture is not only “hugely beneficial to Colugo,” but it’s good for customers too.

“Our entire customer service team is moms who work part time,” she says. “So they’re able to do flexible, meaningful part-time work, which is what I feel like a lot of parents want instead of having to choose one or the other—to be completely out of the workforce, or to have to work full-time.”

In return, customers get the benefit of hearing from someone who “understands what they’re really asking” when a question comes in about product features, and ultimately “feel like the brand has your back.”

Building a family and a brand has taught Christy the importance of not being too “attached to outcomes,” and instead, “confident that I’m doing my best.”

“I can focus on that instead of trying to focus and feel anxiety about the ultimate result and that has served me well,” she says. “I think that is something I have learned through parenting, that I’ve been able to then apply to my career; and it’s a strength that I don’t know that I would have had certainly thinking back to myself in school, or early on in my career, when I was very attached to the gold star.”

She now finds “peace and fulfillment through the process” of spending her time listening to parents, thinking about how to continually improve their products, and build a strong community over time.

“It’s not something you can just snap your fingers and create,” she says. “So being part of that process, and comfortable with that process, has been something I have been able to take from parenting and apply to my career.”

Christy’s evolution as a mother and Colugo’s innovation as a company go hand-in-hand, thanks in part to the seamless integration between the two.

“We’re creating the products people want, we’re improving the products people have, and we’re building an even stronger community because our mission is to give parents the confidence they need to take on the adventure of parenthood,” she says.

Mama Shaker: Sue, Reminding Us the Kids Will Be Alright

Susan Groner became an empty nester sooner than she expected when her teenage son begged to go to boarding school an hour away. After spending 17 years as a stay-at-home mom of two, volunteer and occasional marketing consultant, she found herself pondering her next chapter.

With her emerging 20/20 hindsight, Sue began coaching parents on how to find more joy in those early years as The Parenting Mentor and went on to write Parenting: 101 Ways to Rock Your World.

“I have the benefit of the retroactive crystal ball, because now I see my kids as pretty together, functioning human beings,” she says. “All the things I worried about were worthless, and such a waste of my time and energy.”

Sue’s kids are in their twenties and thriving in college and grad school. Meanwhile, she’s relocated from Bedford to New York City, where she enjoys going to events and co-working at The Wing.

“I wish I had me 10-15 years ago,” she says. “But I didn’t and not having that was part of the impetus to start The Parenting Mentor.”

“If you could see what your four-year-old was going to be like as a young adult, and see them as a really healthy, active, functioning, kind human being, all the little things that you worry about you wouldn’t have to worry about,” she says.

It was at this point in our conversation that I got a little emotional thinking about how much pressure we put on ourselves to keep our young kids safe and healthy. To get them to eat, put their shoes on and wash their hands. And then we worry about what those battles are doing to them and what the stress is doing to us.

“Maybe just say, ‘you know what, either I accept my kid getting up and running around in between bites or they eat separately,’” she says. “Maybe dinner time just isn’t this wonderful, beautiful thing right now.”

Sue points to the example of tantrums, when our immediate impulse may be to try and stop a meltdown in its tracks. Instead, she encourages us to see our children’s outburst in a more empathetic light.

“Look what they’re going through right now,” she says. “They are so upset about something that this is what they need to do to show me how upset they are.”

It’s easy to forget that our kids need to develop coping skills and learn how to regulate their emotions, and it’s “unrealistic for us to have expectations on little kids that are unfair” she says.

Sue remembers vividly what it was like to worry that her children’s social behavior in kindergarten was indicative of their ability to make friends later in life.

“I was one of those stressed out, anxious moms thinking that how my kids were, at that particular moment in time, was a reflection of what they were going to be like as adults, which is crazy, you know.”

When you look at it objectively, or after the fact, it’s clear as day. But in the moment, it’s so easy to fall into the trap of mom guilt and feel anxiety about our role in shaping their future.

“We need to step back and look at our kids and say this is a human being,” she says. “This is a person with their own thoughts and ideas, and likes and dislikes, and feelings.”

In Sue’s case, she watched her daughter blossom from a young girl who preferred to call the shots to a young woman who now takes trips to Paris on her own.

“I wish someone had said to me, ‘it doesn’t matter—stop projecting your concerns about your child as an adult on your little child,’” she says.

“It’s not our job to make our kids happy all the time. That is a huge, huge burden that we put on ourselves.”

Sue believes that “all of that comes from a really wonderful place of love,” but “it’s the bad evolution of the maternal instinct” acting up and signaling “to protect my child from imminent, life-threatening danger.”

Trying to juggle our own emotional rollercoaster while helping our kids through theirs is a tall order. Fortunately, she says, we can work through our feelings together.

“The more that we as moms express how we’re feeling to our kids—whether it’s the frustration because you can’t find your phone in the moment, or something happened with work and it’s really bringing you down, or you were supposed to go out and the babysitter canceled—you need to be saying to your kids, ‘I’m really disappointed. I was really looking forward to going out with my girlfriends tonight.’”

She says that when they see that 15 minutes later you’ve calmed down, they learn “she felt disappointed, and then she was fine. She felt frustrated, and then she was fine. She was sad and then she was fine.”

“Then they start to see, oh yeah, these are normal feelings,” she says. “Adults have them. Kids have them.”

The other trap Sue sees parents fall into is what she describes as an “engineering project” where aspirations focus on achievement vs. skill development.

“Ultimately, what do you want for your child?” is a question she asks her clients. In response, she often hears, “I want my child to excel. I want my child to be as smart as they can. I want them to use their full potential. I want them to do well in school. I want them to value education. I want them to be physically fit and eat well,” and “the list goes on and on and on.”

“My theory is wait a minute, what if we work on raising kids who are resilient and self reliant with good problem solving skills and good coping mechanisms,” she says, “as opposed to being proficient on the piano. Those are the kids who are going to go into the world and be happy because they’re going to be able to deal with whatever comes their way. They’re going to know that no matter what happens, they have the tools to deal with it.”

Perhaps the most compelling reminder of all is that these intense years with our children are fleeting.

“I do think it’s a healthy way to look at life in terms of chapters,” she says. “As you know, 18-20 years is not that much of your life.”

“A lot of people feel their reason for being becomes their children,” she says. “And then when they’re not needed anymore—and that not needed part happens when your kids are at home, too—you feel useless. I did not want to feel that way,” she says. “And I never did.”

Sue was fortunate to take the cue to shift gears in her own life, as her children became more independent.

“Whether your kid is three, or 13, or even 23, everyone continues to grow and develop and evolve. I mean, I still am,” she says.

When emotions are running high and our worries are spinning out of control, we can pause and appreciate the opportunity we have to watch what emerges for our children—and ourselves.

“It exciting to look at our kids who are little, and say, ‘well, I’ve got the privilege to watch these little human beings develop,’” she says.

“I’m going to sit back as much as I can and just be there for love, and I’m going to see how they start thinking about things, and developing what they like, what they don’t like, and how that changes. What they’re interested in, what they’re not interested in.”

“And that it’s all okay,” says Sue. “It’s all really good.”

Mama Shaker: Whitnee, Fueling Parents at Work

Helping mothers thrive in the workplace is literally what gets Whitnee Hawthorne out of bed in the morning. She’s honed the art of a 4:45 a.m. wake-up call, so she can dedicate two hours before her son wakes up to The Savvy Working Mom, her coaching business and brand new podcast—all before she heads to the office.

“What inspired me was seeing this gap in support for this population that I am now part of, that I believe is ultimately the game-changing population for our country and for the world,” she says about creating a platform to help working mothers, alongside her full-time role as a technology director at JetBlue.

“Society is not set up to support us in the right way, and that kind of pulled back the curtain on the challenges,” she says. “I get a lot of head nods. I hear a lot of support and I get a lot of thank you’s for bringing this conversation forward.”

Whitnee and I share a passion for celebrating inspirational and entrepreneurial mamas despite us both being fixtures in a corporate setting. From her perspective, therein lies the opportunity.

“I know that there are a lot of groups out there supporting working moms as entrepreneurs,” she says. “But I also feel very strongly that we need to keep women in corporate. I really believe working moms are the backbone of society, and if we get supported better, our society is going to improve and our corporations are going to do better.”

Whitnee believes that taking a holistic approach to supporting caregivers in the workplace goes a long way.

“There’s a focus on providing tools to help people multitask better, and manage their time in the office, but there’s not an understanding that when you show up to the office, you show up as a full person,” she says. “And I think there’s a big gap in addressing what does someone need across the day, across the week, across their life, so that they can show up with their A-game at work.”

How This Mama Makes it Work

“Eating right and working out helps me to have the energy level that I have,” says the former personal trainer and gym owner, who incorporates yoga into her morning routine since she has another baby on the way.

While it may sound like Whitnee has endless energy, it’s passion that fuels all her pursuits and a personal definition of success. It’s a framework that she follows for her clients too.

“A huge part of that is getting to a place where you know yourself, where you accept what you want, and you believe that you deserve what you want,” she says. “And making decisions that are right for you and your family; not making your decisions based on what somebody else, some outside force—your neighbors, Instagram, your colleague, your boss—think is right for you.”

“When you have that clarity of what it is that you want and what success looks like for you, then you can align your actions to it and it makes life much more joyful.”

Now, those early morning hours, that many of the women I speak with swear by, start to make sense as a critical foundation for a happy and fulfilling work day.

“I get a lot of pleasure out of helping others, so success for me also looks like, ‘who have I helped today, whose life have I made better and have I contributed outside of myself to make the world better?’ Whitnee says. “And when I feel like I’m doing that, then I feel like I’m being successful.”

Mama Maker: Chandler, Being Open to the Unexpected

Chandler Lettin believes that moms deserve much more than a one-size-fits all approach to motherhood. As the co-founder of a line of nursing-friendly bras, she’s a refreshing oxymoron.

“I have a strong stance on ‘fed is best’ because some people aren’t able to do it and that doesn’t mean that they’re failing,” she says about the pressure on moms to breastfeed.

“I can tell you this firsthand,” Chandler says. “My world was crashing,” is how she describes what her own struggle to breastfeed felt like in the moment.

“I didn’t know why I couldn’t do it, but it was just not in the cards for me.”

By creating a design to “ditch the clips,” AVYN can work for any active woman since “there’s nothing aesthetically that screams ‘this is a nursing bra’” she says.

“The journey in motherhood is something that you just are never going to be prepared for,” the mother of two girls 13-months-apart says. It’s why her approach for herself and her company is to “just go with the flow.”

“I’m really big on just saying no to the mom guilt,” she says. “It’s too much and the pressure today is unreal. You can’t be great at everything.”

Women Helping Women Succeed

Chandler and her business partner, Lauren Woodworth, have enjoyed getting to know other women in a similar path.

“All this is very new and we have pretty steep learning curve,” she says. “We are definitely still learning and we’re very transparent about that.”

Unlike hyper-competitive business environments where egos clash, they’re reaping the benefits of a more honest, open approach to the growth of AVYN.

“The best part about doing this is the more you let your guard down and ask the questions, people are amazing and so willing to help and offer advice,” she says. “Women are really supportive of each other and that has been my favorite part about it.”

“I like learning a new way and hearing what all these amazing people are doing and what worked for them,” she says. “Even in different industries, you still find similarities and processes to make things more efficient, and cheaper and better.”

Chandler finds comfort in connecting with other entrepreneurs locally and online, in all sorts of businesses.

“It’s really great to have a support system of other people who might not necessarily be in in your same place, but who understand your battles.”

She’s learned that know one really knows that they’re doing when they first start out. With the plethora of information available, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by opinions and options.

“Finding your support system is the best piece of advice I can offer because if you have people to back you and understand your decisions and let you be who you are and not pass judgment, then it’s a better experience,” she says.

“At the end of the day,” Chandler faces the unknowns of motherhood and entrepreneurship by “trusting my gut and making the best decision with what I have available in a moment and going from there.”