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 Maker: Elizabeth, Embracing Imperfection and Support Through Change

The new year is ripe with transition for second-time mama-to-be and clinical psychology Ph.D., Elizabeth Adams. Starting this week, she joins Y Combinator‘s winter 2020 start-up accelerator in the heart of Silicon Valley. For three months, she’ll commute hundreds of miles back and forth each week between her co-founders, and her 5-year-old daughter and husband at home in the nation’s capital.

As potentially the “first woman who’s visibly showing on Demo Day” in March, Elizabeth already feels like “a fish out of water,” in more ways than one. She’s a subject matter expert in a sea of younger start-up founders, who primarily bring tech and business chops to the table.

“Ninety percent of the time I don’t know what the people around me are talking about, which is both absolutely frightening and exciting because that hasn’t been my life for a long time,” she says.

After spending the last eight years as a clinical child psychologist at an inclusion school for children with “developmental differences,” where she was able to bring her daughter, Elizabeth is beginning a six-month transition to go all-in as Chief Clinical Officer of Trustle, an app for parents to connect with childhood development experts on-demand.

“One of the things that, luckily, I learned from wiser psychologists than me–throughout my years of training–was hearing people talk about change and saying there’s always loss associated with change,” says Elizabeth.

“The thing that makes change really difficult is that you have to lose something in order for the change to happen. Change and loss sort of travel as companions.”

Naturally, Elizabeth’s decision has roused feelings of fear and guilt; in particular, since her second baby won’t have the same experience her daughter has attending school in the same location she started working in while pregnant the first time.

“I was leaving this safe place that had been a comfort for eight years, and a program that I built and I really care about and people that I’m strongly connected to,” she says.

Elizabeth is giving herself “permission to feel that loss and to be okay and recognize that it’s hard, but also know that if there’s any change I want in life this is going to be part of it.”

During this transition, she’s also letting go of perfection and accepting that her house isn’t going to be as clean as she wants it to be, but more importantly, “being okay with that, and not having everything perfectly lined up and just trying to enjoy the process and just say ‘it’s okay.'”

“My word of 2020 is going to be ‘breathe.'”

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It Takes a Village

Elizabeth recognizes that support is critical, especially for parents during childhood transitions. She noticed this gap firsthand, when she started getting stopped in the hallway at her school by parents asking questions they assumed were out of scope for therapy. Eventually, she started hosting parenting workshops and one-on-one calls.

“I was spending my evenings on the phone talking to my friends, my friends’ friends and my friends’ friends’ cousins about whatever was going on with their kids,” she says, which led to an epiphany.

“We should just be supporting parents better; especially as, culturally, we’re moving away from networks of support and becoming more distant from that,” she says.

“How are people finding their tribes and support?”

Elizabeth decided to start an online parent-coaching business at night, but her window of time between 9-10 p.m. was consistently booking up.

It was around this time that she got introduced to her now co-founder Tom, a Google for Education alum who had reached out to his network to find a psychologist that works with kids, and can help parents.

While the two eventually added a technical co-founder who also had experience with Google–running an autism program for Glass–Elizabeth has spent the last year focused on curating Trustle’s expert coaches and clinicians.

“All of our coaches have a Masters degree or higher in early childhood education,” she says, adding that parents also have access to “a Ph.D. level clinician if they need it.”

“They’re all vetted and trained by me and they’re coming in with at least 10 years of experience working with children and families.”

A combination of credentials, and the ability to develop a personal relationship with each family, are by design.

“When you’re talking about supporting somebody with the most precious thing, their kids, on the most personal thing they can do–which is parenting–you really want to have somebody you can trust and connect with, that can give you non-judgmental but evidence-based support.”

Elizabeth believes that because the business of coaching parents is not a regulated industry, the “variability of quality of those coaches is kind of all over the place” and context is king.

“There isn’t one way to sleep train; there isn’t one way to put your child through school,” she says. “It really has to be contextualized based on the child individually and the family context.”

Over the four years since I became a parent, I’ve witnessed an explosion of resources available online for things like potty training, picky eating and tantrums.

With so many options and so little time to compare solutions that may or may not be right for our kids, Elizabeth and her team at Trustle are determined to simplify and personalize it for us.

“Figuring out how to help parents sort through all the noise that’s out there, and have a personal relationship with somebody who understands children–but is going to honor their context and them as the experts on their kids–is what high quality support is.”

You can try Trustle out for yourself, free for two weeks, with code BEST at http://trustle.com/free.

Mama Maker: Rachel from ParentSpark

As a parenting coach and mother of three boys, Rachel Goldman Sklar is chock full of creative ways to overcome the day-to-day challenges of raising young kids.

Our conversation couldn’t have come at a better time, as my nearly 3-year-old is still adjusting to life with a sibling and we’re constantly negotiating meals, trips to the potty, and bedtime.

While we typically resort to bribery, Rachel suggests a “first, then” technique instead.

“Children are so routine oriented and appreciate the autonomy that goes along with following order,” she says, describing how you might say “first you brush your teeth, then we read a book” as a series of steps instead of dangling the story like a carrot.

“First, then” is just one example from ParentSpark — the “chat bot” Rachel built with a fellow parent, Guy Rom, who brings engineering chops from Facebook and PayPal.

In one hour of feeding my newborn with one hand and chatting with ParentSpark’s virtual host “Heather” with the other, I learned a handful of techniques–and the research behind them–to try out with our testy toddler.

While convenient, ParentSpark is also designed to be more interactive than a parenting book. It features digestible content for the 140-character generation of parents who may not have the option or interest to read a book or attend a workshop.

“Books don’t really support you in an ongoing way,” she said. “They’re not there to nag you. They’re not there to remind you. They’re not there to help you reflect on how to tweak things for your own family.”

Rachel and I discussed how parenting books can also make you feel like you’re doing something wrong if it doesn’t work or that you should have started sooner (like my experience reading the 3-day potty training book).

Helping Families Succeed

Rachel’s initial exposure to parenting wasn’t easy. Prior to coaching, she worked in social services with child abuse investigations. She left to start her own family, and then found herself needing the kind of support she now provides.

“When it came time for me to go back to work–which was kind of driven by the fact that my children were challenging and I needed a break–I went back and trained to be a parenting coach, knowing that I would get my own coaching,” she says.

Rachel figured if it went well, she would turn it into a practice.

“And that’s exactly what happened,” she says. “I began to love parenting, I went ahead and had another baby, and I started my own practice.”

Rachel draws inspiration from all of these experiences to create the content for ParentSpark, and pays close attention to what she hears back from users.

“Every morning I come in and read what people’s takeaways are…and it’s really touching,” she says.

“We really want feedback,” says Rachel. “Every mom who uses it can help the next generation of moms who use it, because we’ll improve it based on all of our user feedback.”

Ultimately, she’d like to bring ParentSpark full circle and reduce the incidence of child maltreatment, through government grants and partnerships with social workers.

How this Mompreneur Makes it Work

Rachel keeps it real, and that’s part of her appeal. She’s created mantras like “At Your Wit’s End” and “Me Time” on Rock Your Inner Mama: Guidance for Mindful Parents. She makes sure to carve out time for her and her husband too.

“We go to Burning Man every year. That’s our one week of being completely disengaged from parenting,” she says.

As for the other 358 days of the year, Rachel navigates the highs and lows of running a startup, while juggling three boys with her husband, and continuing her coaching practice.

Her mornings start off on a strong foot. She’s mastered the art of keeping everyone in bed until 8:00 a.m. during the summer, and 7:00 a.m. during the school year. And she relishes in the solitude of her commute.

But like many of us, “evenings are fraught with chaos and kids fighting and us getting frustrated with each other,” she says.

“Feeding children is the hardest part of parenting for us,” says Rachel, as she describes the limited diet of her three boys, and behavioral issues triggered by blood sugar and gluten.

In similar fashion to the suggestions Rachel shares in ParentSpark, she had an epiphany.

“I was going to hire somebody to watch the kids in the afternoon so I could cook dinner, then I realized I should hire someone to cook dinner so I can watch the kids.”

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At the end of the day, Rachel values the balance that ParentSpark has provided her.

“I have the kind of job that affords me tremendous flexibility,” she says. “I’m really, really lucky that I have a really good blend of work and parenting.”

Mama Shaker: Dr. Sharon Somekh of Raiseology

When her oldest daughter started middle school, pediatrician Sharon Somekh decided it was time to re-orient her career around what she loved most about her profession: working with parents.

In March, she left her practice and launched Raiseology, so she could build “more meaningful relationships” with parents virtually from her home office while being an “accountability partner” for her 11-year-old.

“I help anxious parents go from feeling like a deer in headlights to feeling like they can really do this… to the point where they can stop being so anxious about the day-to-day and really enjoy what they have in front of them–which is their kids.”

“We all love our kids and want what’s best for them,” she says.

Women Helping Women Succeed

As a mother of four daughters, ranging from 3 years and up, Sharon has personally navigated through multiple stages of working motherhood. For her, it was actually easier to get through 80 hour weeks as a resident when her first two were very young.

“One of my mentors said something to me that I’ve since told many, many moms,” says Sharon. “When your children are young is when you will feel better working more. A lot of moms think when their kids grow up, they’ll go back to work. You don’t realize that that’s when it’s hard to go back.”

She says feeling secure in your childcare arrangement and getting help are key to making it through the early years–I couldn’t agree more.

“Whether it’s emotional help, coaching help, physical help, outsourcing certain things you don’t enjoy doing at home–it will make your life much easier and it’s worth every investment in yourself to do that,” says Sharon.

Part of that support has come from moms who pitched in for preschool pick up and drop off. Her then 3-year-old started to notice and at one point told Sharon she wanted to be a stay-at-home mom when she grows up.

“Nothing hurts more than that,” she said. “But when she asked me ‘why do you work?’ I gave her a very honest answer. I think we underestimate what our kids understand and we need to have real conversations–that are age appropriate–with them.”

“Every mom has mom guilt,” she says. “They may have guilt about different things, but they still feel guilty.”

She says knowing your limitations benefits both you and your children.

“I think the example we set for our kids is really important. I like that they see that I’m a driven person and I value what I have to offer and think it’s important enough to put it out into the world.”

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How this Mompreneur Makes it Work

“If you’re asking how I manage four kids, I don’t,” Sharon says pointing to the independence that she’s fostered in each of her children.

She described a recent parent-teacher event where another mother she was volunteering with called her 11-year-old three times to make sure she was getting ready for school.

“I did not have a doubt in the world that my daughter was waiting for the school bus,” says Sharon.

Her 8-year-old makes her own lunch for school, and Sharon and her husband are currently training their 5-year-old to get herself dressed with the help of routines and checklists.

“It takes effort in the beginning, but it definitely has amazing payoff…and it’s great for the kids because one day they’re not going to be living in your house.”

You can learn more about Sharon’s “system of empowerment and independence” on her blog. In addition to her group program for parents of toddlers to school-age kids, she also consults parents of infants one-on-one, and she’s launching a podcast this summer.