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: Meghan, Using Creativity to Heal and Help Women Shine

The ebb and flow of creative expression in Meghan’s life reached a crescendo when her mother was diagnosed with cancer.

“My mom and I have always been very, very close,” she says, describing how their relationship had grown even stronger when she moved back to her hometown of Sonoma, and they starting seeing each other every day.

“To have my mom vulnerable was extremely difficult,” Meghan says.

“I used jewelry to channel my emotions,” she says. “I was able to do something that I enjoyed doing and that made me feel better about all the other craziness that was going on in my life.”

Her emerging jewelry line, Meghan Bo Designs, was starting to gain momentum while she juggled work as a part-time corporate recruiter, and two young kids.

“It was at a time when all of a sudden my business was picking up and I had to figure out–okay, I know I need to deal with my emotions and not push them away,” she says.

“It was a really tough time and having something to preoccupy my time was helpful,” Meghan says. “At least if I was sitting there crying I could make jewelry.”

“I get so emotional just thinking about anybody going through a parent being sick,” she says.

Women Helping Women

Meghan instinctively thinks about helping others, even in the midst of her own challenges. Her coworker at Google lost one of her twins to Leukemia, two days after Meghan had her first son 5-weeks premature and “was working through the emotions of having a preemie” in the NICU.

She later had to spend a week in a children’s hospital with one of her boys. And yet, it all fuels her desire to do more.

“I’ve always had empathy for other people, but when you see a parent going through having a child that’s sick, there’s nothing that I can imagine worse.”

Meghan started working with Unravel Pediatric Cancer–and makes a special necklace or bracelet each year for Unravel’s warrior moms.

The inspiration for Meghan Bo Designs stemmed from a need to make herself–and therefore other women too–feel a little better during the daily grind.

“I had two little kids, I was working from home, and I was running around all day trying to get it all done,” she says.

“I felt kind of frumpy and icky about myself,” she says about her rotation of gym clothes and dry-shampooed hair, which any mom can relate to.

“I’m going to put some jewelry on because it makes me feel better about myself,” Meghan told herself and suddenly she had a business idea that would separate her from the other Etsy shops.

“I wanted to make jewelry that you can wear with jeans and a t-shirt, or you can dress up–it can go both ways–and it’s affordable,” she says.

Her “athleisure” inspired jewelry is for any woman who “wants to elevate their look everyday” whether they work in an office, work from home, or they’re doing carpool and errands.

“They can throw on like two bracelets and instantly feel more put together than they did before,” says Meghan.

Sometimes that means glamorous Instagram influencers and oftentimes its busy moms like myself who are lucky to get a shower in.

Making jewelry satisfied a “creative craving” that was ever-present in Meghan’s life.

“I had always been into beads–I forgot–when I was younger too,” she says. “I had this huge bead collection. I used to make all sorts of things and sell them.”

“I’ve always had that creative bug,” she says. “When chalk paint first came out I literally painted every piece of furniture in my house.”

Meghan remembers living in a college apartment behind the sorority house we both belonged to at the time in Chico, and painting her room violet, when most college students were occupied by other things.

“So I have that addiction to arts and crafts,” she says. “If I find something that I like, I’ll research it, figure out how to do it, and then literally paint my whole house.”

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It Takes a Village

Meghan’s business is “a family affair” with her mom helping ship packages, and her husband and kids pitching in when she has a show or large order.

She recently hired a couple of moms to help with production, in her home studio, during nap time or whenever it’s convenient for them.

“I really like the idea of supporting other women,” Meghan says, noting the flexibility required for mothers and that things are constantly in a state of flux.

“As my kids have gotten older, and now that they’re both in elementary school, I can take more on without that guilt that every mom feels no matter what stage you’re kids are at,” Megan says.

“Every year, especially with two, there’s a new challenge.”

She’s raising her sons to believe that when times get tough, they’ll “put their heads down” and get through it.

For Meghan, that means she’ll keep making jewelry no matter what life throws her way.

Mama Shaker: Lisen, Helping Moms Work, Pause and Thrive

Author and workplace culture advocate Lisen Stromberg has a message for her younger self, and for all of us who feel overwhelmed as working mothers of young children.

“I remember feeling panicked all the time that I wasn’t doing what was best for my children, and I wish I was a little kinder to myself.”

She describes her memories of “being in a constant state of triage.”

“Before 8 a.m. we’ve got to get clothes on, teeth brushed, lunches packed, baby breastfed,” the mother of three recalls — and all before the work day begins.

Lisen describes this ability to juggle as “accordion-like,” where moms are capable of expanding and contracting “in a beautiful way.”

“I wish I had known that my capacity would expand and I would be able to do all those things — not always well — and the kids would live through it.”

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Since we talked in January about her book, Work PAUSE Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career, I took a pause of sorts from writing, while I transitioned into a new job and dealt with an intense new chapter of parenting.

In the eight months since then, I’ve found myself repeating Lisen’s mantras–and sharing them with other moms navigating career and parenting pivots of their own.

“Frankly when I was a new mother, in some ways professionally that was a productive phase of my career because I was so darn focused and so capable of getting everything that needed to happen done,” she says. “And that’s a powerful place to be.”

It helps to hear–from someone who’s lived through it–that this stage of parenting can be a “Phoenix rising” moment, as Lisen describes it. She also believes all the hormones coursing through us in early motherhood are actually a benefit.

“You’re just like on fire in this gorgeous way,” she says. “At the time it feels like hell.”

And that cocktail of physiology and limited time can lead to clarity.

“I got very clear on what I needed to do and who I was fighting for,” she says. “In my case I was fighting for my kids and my future.”

For Lisen, that meant every aspect of her life had to fit: her work, her relationships, her health, “everything.”

“It changed me in a powerful way.”

Women Helping Women Succeed

Work PAUSE Thrive is a wonderfully thorough analogy of research on working motherhood, which features stories of women who’ve successfully paused their careers–in a number of ways.

For Lisen, it meant rethinking her role as a journalist after maternity leave ended (which she wrote about in The New York Times), taking turns with her husband to amp up their careers at different times, and starting her own non-profit organizations and consultancies.

She cautions that pauses are not about getting relief from the stressors parenting.

“Being overwhelmed is the reality of parenthood,” she says. “You are now responsible for another soul.”

Instead, it’s about taking a moment to reassess what you want for yourself and your family. That can mean making adjustments in a current job, returning to work after taking time to focus on family, starting a business, or finding another passion to pursue.

“The women who I saw truly thriving were the ones who just had clarity,” says Lisen.

She describes these success stories among mothers who were “very intentional about their choices, and very empowered about their capacity as humans and what they can deliver.”

Lisen points out that these same women were willing to live with their choices even if it didn’t work out the way they planned.

“I think the women who suffered–that I interviewed with–are the ones who weren’t clear on their values and weren’t clear on what they were willing to give up and risk, and felt guilt about it.”

Lisen originally set out to interview 25 women, which then grew to 150, and then 1500 interviews later she had a comprehensive body of data to back up her instincts about the non-linear paths of working mothers.

“I wanted to be really sure that my intuitions and my beliefs and my experiences were real,” she says.

It Takes a Village

I was surprised to learn in Lisen’s book about a period in U.S. history where childcare was provided by the government so that mothers could support the economy during wartime–guilt-free.

“There seemed to be absolute clarity that this was an important thing to do for your country and to do for your community,” she says. “And it was liberating in some ways, right.”

When their husbands returned from war, the support went away, and mothers “re-claimed their roles” at home.

(And we all know what’s happened–or I should say hasn’t happened–for childcare since then.)

“With 64 million millennials right in the prime childbearing years–not having paid leave and not having affordable childcare–we’re seeing so many women pause their careers who never even envisioned they would do that,” says Lisen.

She cites the paradox of wanting to advance women in the workforce, but not having the structures in place to support them.

“We don’t honor caregiving in our country in terms of our policies and our workplace,” she says, noting the added pressure of being available 24/7.

The secret to thriving is what Lisen refers to as “time mastery” and it was shared by all the women she interviewed who stayed in the workforce. They successfully affirmed their commitment to their jobs while speaking up when they needed to make time for personal responsibilities.

“Their employers didn’t punish them for that, and that’s a distinction we need to make,” she says.

“If there’s anything I could wish for the next generation of talent,” says Lisen, “it’s that they feel empowered to be able say ‘I know I will give you 110 percent but I have to give it on my schedule.’ ”

 

Finding Our Way with Food Allergies

It’s taken six months to finally accept that this chaotic chapter of parenting doesn’t have the typical story arc–that it may never come to an end. But hearing from others who’ve been through hell and back with their own families’ challenges reminds me how important it is to share our stories with each other.

We’re juggling a mix of overwhelming knowns and unknowns, like anyone with food allergies. In many ways we’re very lucky, but that doesn’t prevent the ever-present feeling of dread when anything made out of peanuts, eggs or milk are being consumed in the same room, smeared across hands and mouths, dropped on the floor, or left in the sink.

It started in March, when we took a terrifying trip to the ER covered in vomit, after our hive-riddled 9-month-old ate a minuscule amount of peanut powder a couple of hours earlier. Ironically, what was intended to be an “introduction” to prevent the allergy is exactly what made its presence known. We weren’t properly educated about introducing allergens when your child has moderate eczema, like many babies do, or that doing so in a doctor’s office was an option.

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Haunted but stoic after spending our Friday night in the hospital, we armed ourselves with highly coveted Epi and AUVI-Q pens and slowly recovered from the emotional hangover of our baby’s anaphylactic episode. I flocked to Facebook groups looking for answers and camaraderie, like many food allergy moms do.

Thirty painstaking days later, we finally got in to see an allergist and got our first dose of the ambiguity that comes with diagnosing food allergies. Skin testing, which involves a grid of needle pricks on your baby’s tiny back–which you must hold flat for 15 minutes–revealed not just peanut, but milk, egg, and possibly cashew and pistachio. (This is a short list, compared to many other families.)

Follow-up blood tests could indicate the potential for tolerating an oral challenge of baked milk and egg, but bloodwork is even more rife with false positives than skin testing. Not to mention the trauma of trying to have blood drawn from the tiny, vanishing veins in your baby’s chubby little arm without success–which happened to us more times than I care to remember.

The prospect of transitioning to finger foods and finding a substitute for milk-filled sippy cups at 12 months felt overwhelming, so we turned to a pediatric gastroenterologist and nutritionist with mixed results. Under our allergists’ guidance, we continued introducing all the allergens that we tested negative for, one at a time, holding our breath with each new addition.

After learning about the nutritional deficiencies that milk-allergy infants and toddlers are susceptible to, we came up with a Google spreadsheet that left no stone unturned. We track every serving, every food group, every ounce of hypoallergenic formula and every critical nutrient’s daily recommended intake and tolerable upper limit.

The menu changes every week as our now 15-month-old (and I) get more adventurous. We’re still combining fruit, veggie, meat and grain purees with healthy fats like olive oil, batch-tested salmon, almond butter and coconut milk yogurt that don’t have “shared lines” with any of our other allergens–all which help make up for the surprising variety of essential vitamins and minerals (like iodine) that can only be found in cow’s milk.

Every day includes vitamin D and DHA drops, fortified baby oatmeal for breakfast, a potassium-rich banana, and calcium-enriched animal crackers (yep, the century-old classic) which we try, unsuccessfully, to keep off the floor. But we’re very proud that thanks to all the hard work, we get to squeeze a chubby toddler belly and thunder thighs.

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When we finally regained enough confidence to leave the kids home for a quick overnight trip, it was a foreign experience to not constantly race through a mental checklist around the clock.

I still diligently wash my hands after eating anything made with mayonnaise or dairy products, and shudder at the idea of peanuts anywhere in the house. I’m still wary of high chairs in restaurants and swings in the park. We prepare three different dinners, which is another story in itself.

I can’t imagine sending our little guy away from our safeguarded cocoon out into the world, but seeing moms do it every day gives me courage.

As years are layered upon the hearty foundation we’ve established in this first six months, I know from experience it will get easier.

 

Mama Shaker: Ashley, On Maternal Sleep Deprivation

Ashley Olivine wants sleep-deprived moms to know they don’t have to suffer through months, years or even decades of sleepless nights.

“Clinically I’ll talk to a lot of women who will say, ‘Okay my kids just went to college and I really have not slept since they were babies,'” she says.

“It just gets to the point where they don’t really know what it’s like to feel rested anymore.”

Ashley says many moms don’t believe they deserve to get help because they’ve let it spiral out of control.

“That’s the big problem we see long term with moms,” she says. “They get in this habit of sacrificing their own sleep and their own health for everyone else.”

Meanwhile, Ashley believes healthcare professionals don’t take maternal sleep deprivation seriously.

“Everybody looks at first 6 weeks postpartum, and everyone focuses on postpartum depression,” she says.

“You’re a mother for life. It doesn’t stop after 6 weeks.”

For those of us with babies not yet sleeping through the night, Ashley says there’s no need to panic.

“Moms have this magical ability to condense the sleep cycle,” she says. “Especially in the first 3 months, you are made to wake up multiple times during the night.”

“Let’s say your baby wakes up at the same times every night, and it’s a lot. Your sleep cycles will shrink so that they will fit into that amount of time.”

When the fog of frequent nighttime wakings extends beyond the end of maternity leave, it can leave us feeling much less in sync.

“You’re right that you can’t go on like that forever, because babies are supposed to grow out of that,” says Ashley. “If they don’t, that’s when you need to get help.”

I mentioned how I was “spoiled” with my first born, who slept through the night by 4 months old. But now I’m 8-months-deep into the second time around, and I haven’t had a full night’s sleep since May. Apparently I’m not the only one.

“It’s not uncommon for second kids to be harder, because they’re often carted around for their older siblings’ schedule,” Ashley points out.

And then there’s the added obstacle of keeping one sibling asleep while the other is awake–which can feel especially challenging when you’re running on fumes.

“Let’s say you’re older kid doesn’t know and runs in and and wakes up the baby and you lose it,” Ashley says, describing that moment of rage many of us know all too well.

“Basically when you’re sleep-deprived and stressed, your interactions with your children and spouse are going to be more short and negative,” she says.

Ashley says early research suggests maternal sleep deprivation impacts all family dynamics–meaning divorce rates increase, children don’t hit milestones as quickly and they start having trouble in school.

“You have to eventually put your foot down and say ‘I’m going to do what it takes,’ she says.

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How This Mompreneur Makes it Work

Ashley reached her own limits as a new mom, so she learned to apply techniques from her private practice to her own daily routine.

“My career is brain work,” she says. “I’m pretty big on doing that first thing in the morning.”

Ashley says anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes of brain work can “give me so much recharge it’s like having a babysitter for 8 hours.”

(I can imagine, as I find myself choosing a workout, hot shower or solo Starbucks run over a cat nap to get a much-needed mental break and energy boost.)

“I’ll do the woo-woo meditation stuff; plus the very medically respected, scientifically proven cognitive behavioral therapy; plus some deep restructuring brain work,” she says.

“I just do kind of a mix because I feel like all of them have their own advantages and you can’t get as much benefit with just one.”

Not surprisingly, Ashley is “not someone that ever, ever skips breakfast.”

She also checks her “old-fashioned, handwritten calendar” to see what events are coming up that day.

Next, she walks her older daughter to school as “part of our bonding time” and often extends school drop-off into a stroller run by the water with her youngest.

The remainder of her weekdays are spent juggling her sleep practice and coaching fellow mompreneurs, along with after-school ballet and swim lessons.

Women Helping Women Succeed

“Women should not feel that they need coffee or wine to get through the day, and there should be other options readily available when you go to your doctor,” Ashley says.

Instead of piling on to the jokes about intravenous caffeine drips and wine o’clock, she’s determined to help the medical community better understand maternal sleep deprivation.

“It shouldn’t be laughed off as ‘oh hey welcome to being a parent, it sucks, it’s hard, get used to it’ because these are real medical conditions,” says Ashley.

“What’s really kind of scary is that there is not very much research on all of this,” she says. “Nobody knows the full extent of the impact of all of this stuff 20 years down the road.”

This is why Ashley carves out time for writing papers on maternal sleep deprivation on the weekends, while her daughters are playing.

Her goal for the sleep-deprived among us is to “reverse it, no matter how bad it is,” and ultimately to “get into this good place where you’re feeling good and everything that you’re putting out into the world has good energy behind it.”

In other words: what dreams are made of.

Mama Maker: Amy from Pink Stork

Military wives are warriors in their own right, and Amy Upchurch takes this to a whole new level. When she was 21 weeks pregnant, Amy’s doctor told her that she and her baby had 24 hours to live.

Amy had contracted a blood infection from a “picc” line while being hospitalized for hyperemesis gravidarum (HG)–extreme nausea, vomiting and other symptoms that can lead to severe dehydration and weight loss.

Fortunately, within 24 hours she had made a “complete turnaround” along with little John Hamilton who was later born premature, but healthy nonetheless.

Amy’s pregnancy was a miracle in itself.

“I had always been told I was not going to be able to have kids growing up,” says Amy. “It was a big surprise when I found out I was pregnant” just three weeks after marrying her Marine Corps husband and settling into Virginia.

Three “HG” ridden pregnancies later, when Amy found out she was pregnant with her fourth child, she threw up her hands.

“Out of desperation, I really started researching and working with doctors and midwives, and came up with this protocol to combat this HG that was going to come and hit me like a train,” says Amy.

“I ended up having an amazing fourth pregnancy with all this information that I had gathered, and implemented in my body,” says Amy.

“No more emergency room visits or ambulance rides.”

She delivered a 9-pound baby boy full term.

Soon after, Amy developed Pink Stork to “help other women who struggle during their pregnancies” beginning with a line of morning sickness products.

“It was really cool that it was starting to help other people–close friends and people in the military community,” says Amy.

Word of mouth gave Pink Stork a boost as it expanded into prenatal vitamins, nursing supplements and fertility products. (Their lactation tea smells and tastes delicious as I unwind after putting the kids to bed — a welcome alternative to suffering through other “mother’s” tea on the market.)

Women Helping Women Succeed

It’s no surprise that military wives rallied around Pink Stork at its inception. Amy says they’re not only advanced problem solvers, but also “really strong women, really smart women and really resourceful women” and they excel at forming a connection with their community, more so than the “civilian world.”

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Looking back Amy says, “it was always helping other people–that’s still what I enjoy so much today–that’s what makes everything full circle.”

She recalls a note from one customer who had a double-digit number of miscarriages before finally delivering a healthy baby.

“My heart goes out to them,” says Amy. “That’s why I do what I do.”

Helping other moms is both personal and spiritual, for Amy.

“I clearly remember laying in the hospital beds and doing nothing for months,” she says. “Minutes seemed like hours. I just remember thinking, why in the world am I laying here? Why am I so sick? How come I can’t have a normal pregnancy? Why is God putting me through all this pain?”

“I look back now and I understand exactly why I was laying there and exactly why I went through those struggles,” Amy says. “I feel very blessed to be able to go through those challenges and have those questions answered.”

She’s on a mission to continue finding answers for moms and solving problems for “this stage of life.”

“Pink Stork is going to take their hand and walk them all the way through until they get the answers and results they want,” says Amy.

“I love to see what people are looking for, what moms think, what moms need,” she says. “If any of our customers are looking for something we don’t have, let me know. We can help you, and if we can’t help you, we’ll point you in the direction of someone who can.”

How this Mompreneur Makes it Work

Running a business is truly a family affair, in Amy’s eyes. Her husband, who was deployed during some of her most difficult moments in pregnancy, now plays an active role in growing Pink Stork.

“He’s very much a part of the business,” says Amy. “He’s very supportive of helping other families because he knows what it’s like to see your partner suffer and to feel helpless.”

“I like to think of Pink Stork as not only my family but also all of our employees,” she says. “It’s a family, it really is.”

Amy wants her employees to know that she takes pride in being a woman-owned company, and that she understands and celebrates working moms.

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“We have babies that come into our office everyday,” beams Amy. “You can give a mom sitting in front of me, with a baby laying next her, seven different jobs and she will complete every single one of them just like the next person.”

“I get energized from a good challenge,” says Amy, about becoming an entrepeneur. “I knew nothing; I didn’t go to school for business. I Googled a lot of words. I sat in a lot of meetings and phone calls and learned from osmosis. I’m still learning from osmosis.”

“I would hate for someone to have looked at me when I was starting Pink Stork and had four little kids running around–which I did–and say, ‘You’re crazy.'”

“When you find something that you believe in, and you want to go for it, I encourage anyone and everyone to believe in themselves and just go for it,” says Amy. “Don’t be afraid of what other people think.”

“Keep doing your thing. Don’t worry about it. It will all fall into place.”

Mama Shaker: Carly, on Sharing Household Duties

Carly was the first of a blitz of pregnancies among me and six of my colleagues this year. Mind you she was on her third baby, while the rest of us were on our second or first.

So it’s especially impressive how Carly has managed to divvy up household responsibilities with her husband, while raising a 4-year-old, a 2-year-old and a new baby.

“Mornings are me,” says Carly. “I’m fully on deck.” (As a teacher, her husband leaves for work at 6:45 a.m.)

Often that means feeding the baby while “trying to keep the boys from killing each other,” she says. “That hour is pretty manic.”

She takes a 20-minute walk to school with her oldest for “special Carter time” after the nanny arrives, unless she has an early meeting.

Carly’s in back to back meetings starting at 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. She typically arrives home to her husband making dinner, in the first of several clever partnerships.

“I do all the planning, and figuring out what we’re going to eat,” she says. “He does the execution: the grocery shopping, and the actual cooking of the meals.”

They use a whiteboard in the kitchen that, as long as her 2-year-old doesn’t erase it, features the week’s menu.

“There are no elaborate meals,” she says. “We still eat healthy.”

Recently, Carly had an “eye opening” moment when she ask her husband if there was anything she could be doing to help. In return, he asked if she could set the table.

In her mind, it was a simple task that had big impact.

“I think that’s where silent resentment can build up,” says Carly, noting what happens when couples don’t check in with each other.

The open lines of communication extend to her whole family. During dinner, they sit together at the table and talk about one thing that went well during their day, one thing they learned, or one thing that frustrated them.

“After dinner we switch who cleans up vs. who does baths,” she says, enlisting roshambo when needed.

“We usually tag team storytime,” she says, unless she’s feeding the baby.

After the last toddler standing finally goes to sleep, Carly’s very full day can finally start to wind down. (This non-stop marathon is one of the realities of parenting that no one is truly prepared for, in my opinion.)

How This Mama Makes it Work

Transitions can put a lot of pressure on relationships, so Carly and her husband have put safeguards in place.

“Going from one to two, you’re going from ‘one person can have a break,’ to man-on-man, and now we’re on full-zone defense,” says Carly. “No one’s free.”

“One thing that has really worked for us is that we’re just both in it, together,” she says. “We know that there’s not really a break.”

So they carve out “alone time” for each other. He takes the kids grocery shopping on the weekends, and she picks one night per week to attend a networking event or happy hour.

Since her husband runs a summer sports camp, Carly makes sure to set expectations around other times of the year when she gets a break for some good old-fashioned self-care.

“Over-communicating that stuff is key,” she says, both literally and figuratively. An iPad in the kitchen is dedicated to their family calendar and Google reminders.

Dedicating one-on-one time for each kid is an ongoing challenge.

“I haven’t done as much of that as I would like to,” says Carly, as we compared stories of our toddlers (hers 2, mine 3) struggling from not getting as much attention as they’re used to when another baby enters the picture.

Women Helping Women Succeed

The topic of household division of labor is the subject of endless articles, books and mom groups on Facebook.

In fact, when Carly posted this photo of her husband holding her baby girl with one hand while running the Dyson with the other, it got 349 likes and 81 comments. She reflected in this Medium post on how this wouldn’t be as big of a deal if a mom was pictured in the same scene.

img_8993If you’re feeling the weight of the world on your shoulders, there’s no time like the present. Carly recommends tackling the issue “the sooner the better.”

“The longer you let it go, and just do it, that becomes the norm,” says Carly. “And then 5 or 10 years from now, you have this load of work that you’ve always done.”

To get the ball rolling, Carly and her husband made a list of all the things they’re each responsible for, many of which were surprises to each other.

“I think it’s something that couples should do,” she says. “Set aside time when you’re not absolutely not in a fight, to discuss what you do, what you enjoy doing, and what you don’t enjoy doing, and figure out who should do what.”

Tiffany Dufu takes this to another level in her book, Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less, emphasizing the importance of identifying our “highest and best use,” noting the things that only we can do and align with our values.

Even with a divide-and-conquer approach, there will be moments that push us all to our limits–calling for a dose of “this too shall pass” perspective.

“This isn’t forever and we’re going to miss this at some point,” says Carly.

Mama Maker: Suzanne of Mompowerment

Suzanne Brown wants to empower moms to create our own personal definition of “work life balance.” She’s a living example of how to design careers and family life around what matters to us individually, in each season of motherhood.

For her latest book, The Mompowerment Guide to Work-Life Balance: Insights from Working Moms on Balancing Career and Family, Suzanne spoke to more than 100 women to answer a simple yet daunting question, “how do you create the work life balance you want?”

“A lot of times, especially for professional women, they really just look at it as very black and white: either I’m in the workforce or I’m out of the workforce,” she says. “There is this area of grey.”

Suzanne dealt firsthand with the consequences of making assumptions about motherhood, while trying to keep up business as usual as a first-time mom.

“I was horribly misguided and I thought we could just kind of ‘tuck’ our son into our lives,” Suzanne says. “We could continue to travel the same way, have the same lifestyle, travel and network.”

Her son was born 10 weeks premature, with boundless energy and determination. She describes him as “a mover and shaker since the day he was born.”

After powering through the blur of her first year of working motherhood, Suzanne recalls looking in the mirror around her son’s birthday and thinking “what happened?!”

“I was in survival mode,” she says. “That was a wake up call. I wasn’t paying attention to my own needs or my own goals.”

Nearly three years later, her second baby arrived at 36 weeks, but she was in a better position to face the challenges of juggling a newborn, a “spirited” almost 3-year-old and research for her first book, Mompowerment: Insights from Professional Part-Time Working Moms Who Balance Career and Family.

“When we had our younger son, it was making sure that didn’t happen again,” she says. “Being able to go through that once was enough for me to say, okay, what do I need to put in place so that the second time around I’m much better equipped for what’s coming my way.”

“I had to make the moments count, but I also had to embrace the good stuff and keep it rolling,” she says. “I had to keep up the momentum because if it stalled out, I was afraid of what would happen.”

Once Suzanne realized how much of a precious commodity her energy was, she put herself in the drivers seat.

“I wanted to decide where I would pull my energy from,” she says. “I had to have a very honest conversation with myself to do that.”

She asked herself the same questions that now make up the backbone of her guide, which she says can lead to “creating what we need” for a career and family life that doesn’t constantly deplete our reserves.

How this Mompreneur Makes it Work

Now as an entrepreneur with a 7-year-old and 4.5-year-old, and two businesses, Suzanne says she has to allocate her time and energy very carefully or she will “literally getting nothing done.”

“I try to be very intentional with my time,” she says, describing how she preps for her day the night before–including articles she wants to read–so the next morning she can hit the ground running instead of wasting otherwise productive moments getting her bearings.

After reading The Mother’s Guide to Self-Renewal: How to Reclaim, Rejuvenate and Re-Balance Your Life, which helps moms “fill your cup,” Suzanne was inspired to start doing a self care check-in each morning, in the moments she takes to get out of bed, before diving into her email.

Her boys start school an hour and 20 minutes apart, so she uses that gap to spend some quality time outside with her youngest. After that, it’s time to get down to business.

“Once I drop off our younger son, my power hour starts,” Suzanne says. “It’s my time of the day to get my hardest, most challenging, most strategic work done.”

“If I don’t do anything else in the course of the day, I have accomplished that goal…whatever that thing is that’s going to move the needle in my business or my client’s business.”

“Mid-day is when I start to have my lull so that’s when I start to take calls or I might do volunteer stuff for the boys’ schools,” she says. “It’s also when I might do some of my social media that needs dedicated time.”

Suzanne picks up the boys at 2:30, when she switches back to “mommy mode.”

“That first interaction can make a huge difference with my boys,” she says, noting they each have their own disposition requiring a different style and energy level. She’ll listen to music accordingly on the way to pick up.

Despite her mastery of daily rituals, Suzanne is also a realist.

“Not every day is going to be a great day,” she says. “There are days where you’re going to say ‘today sucked’ and you know what? Who cares! Stick it in a box, understand why was today so bad; that doesn’t mean tomorrow has to be bad.”

“I’ve tried to instill this in my children as well,” she says.

Suzanne often tells her oldest, “you get to decide how today starts…you can leave the bad day in your bedroom. You have the power to shift what happens in the course of your day.”

“It’s a mindset shift for any of us being able to use what it is you know, to take it in a different direction,” she says.

Women Helping Women Succeed

I can’t help but think of Matrescence, when I reflect back on the refreshingly honest note that Suzanne ended our conversation with.

“It is highly unlikely that you will enjoy every season of motherhood and that is absolutely okay,” she says.

“We definitely don’t talk about that enough.”

“For some people, toddlerhood is magical and for others it’s nails on a chalkboard,” says Suzanne. “For some that newborn phase is absolutely delicious and for others it’s like ‘I can’t wait until I get through this. From one child to the next, it might change how you enjoy those seasons.”

“Toddlerhood for me is hands down the most challenging period.”

When a friend and former family therapist gave her this piece of advice, Suzanne no longer felt alone.

“Your tribe is unbelievably important and that can be a lot of different things,” she says. “It can be literally, your family, your friends, your neighbors, your colleagues…it can also be if you have a housekeeper, a mother’s helper, or you use whatever service to buy your groceries.

“The most important thing is to make it your own story,” says Suzanne. “Create what you personally need. Because people will dish out advice left and right; that’s just the reality of–not just when you become a working mother–but as you go from one stage to the next.”

She says it’s tempting to compare yourself with your friends, coworkers, siblings, neighbors and try to maintain the façade of having it all together.

“Figure out what it is you need to deal with that season and move onto the next,” Suzanne says.

“Take what you need, leave what you don’t, and adjust whatever it is that people give you, and make it work for your situation.”

Turning a New Leaf After Mat Leave

As I anticipate my return to work amidst Fall’s cooler mornings and cozy evenings, it feels like the closing of one chapter and starting of another–despite how taxing and complex the handoff may be.

I always feel a wave of nostalgia this time of year, especially since three years ago I became a mother for the first time–experiencing Matrescence firsthand–and one year ago when I learned I’d go through it for a second time.

Reflecting back on the baby and toddler milestones that whizzed past us over the course of the past four sleep-deprived months, I now feel a sense of pride of what ensued.

Here’s a typical “work week” by the numbers, as a temporary stay-at-home mom (and aspiring Chief Household Officer):

  • 14 hours of breastfeeding per week, typically every 2-3 hours around the clock
  • 45 ounces of pumped milk per week, typically while multitasking one-handed thanks to my pocket-size Spectra S9
  • About 15 bottle feedings per week from the aforementioned supply, plus more than 400 ounces of supplemental formula (until we got hit by silent reflux, nixing dairy)

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  • Nearly 1,000 diapers, from teeny-tiny Pampers Swaddlers to my favorite super-soft and sustainable Bambo Nature, where we grew up to size 3
  • Countless hours of eye contact and smiles, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cobbled-together dinners, and bedtime stories

All together, these helped double the size of our once 7-pounder, while his older brother started preschool and became a “threenager” before our eyes.

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I squeezed in self-care through the help of my village, technology and conversations with a group of Mama Makers & Shakers who appeared at the most clandestine times:

And then there are the memories that don’t have a number attached to them, but are immeasurable in the way they’ve brought our family closer.

Together, the four of us have continued to ride the rollercoaster of emotions that started when life caught us by surprise on the last day of May. Both boys keep us on our toes, but when the chaos settles, the sweetest moments are revealed.

While I’m still not sleeping, I don’t have a freezer stash, and I can’t tell you what the next six months will bring, I will embrace the unpredictability.

I won’t feel like I’ve stepped away from my career, but rather enhanced it by overcoming non-stop challenges over the last four months.

This time around, I won’t strive to be super mom, but will remind myself to stay present and do my best for the moment.

Mama Shaker: Amy from TendLab

One week from now, Amy Henderson will open the relief valve for a group of working mothers in the heart of San Francisco’s high-pressured tech scene, during a lunchtime “Career Moms” cohort that starts up September 5.

“We ask each mom to share one of the moments they’re most ashamed about in the confluence of their journey of working and parenting,” says Amy, CEO and co-founder of TendLab.

“There’s so much that happens when you become a new mom that feels isolating and shameful,” says Amy. “When you’re in a cohort of others who have either experienced, it or are experiencing it, it de-stigmatizes it and you realize you’re not alone.”

For Amy, her boiling point came when she lost nine pounds working 20 hours a day for two weeks on the #YesWeCode initiative to increase diversity in the tech sector.

She had brought along her husband, two kids and mother-in-law to New Orleans, because her exclusively-breastfed youngest refused to eat anything else. So the four hours of sleep she was squeezing in, weren’t entirely hers.

To top it off, she found out she was pregnant again a few weeks later, which would mean she’d soon have three kids under the age of four.

“I had always been really committed to my career,” said Amy. “It’s like the wheels fell off the bus.”

Amy’s moment of panic led to an epiphany, as she dialed up dozens of high-powered working moms to find out how they managed it all.

“What happened was this organic revelation that many of these moms had: ‘I’m performing better in my career because of my kids, not in spite of them,'” she says.

Amy soon learned that there was neuroscience to back it up. (You can read more about the important role of oxytocin here along with more of the wisdom gleaned from her findings.)

In a particularly impactful conversation with the original VP of HR for Twitter, Amy learned the same skills acquired in parenting “are the skills needed in the workplace of the future.”

“The light bulbs went off, the heavens opened up, and I was like okay!”

Amy had stumbled upon the catalyst for TendLab, and the woman who would become her future co-founder.

And so their mission became “to unlock the power and potential of parenthood in the workplace.”

In addition to the “Career Moms” cohort, which Amy believes “can actually be fuel for really positive transformation in our own lives and in our collective society,” TendLab also offers workshops, consulting and special events.

To learn about scholarships available for the 4-week cohort, leave a comment below or contact me directly.

In addition, you can read more about the neuroscience and career benefits of parenting–for actively engaged mothers and fathers alike–in articles Amy’s penned for Mother Magazine, Fast Company and Slate.