Working motherhood expert Allyson Downey talks overcoming guilt and what it really takes to thrive.
Allyson Downey is the founder of weeSpring, a Techstars-backed startup she launched in 2013 that makes the process of finding the best baby and kids products easy for parents—like Yelp, but think reviews of Merlin’s Magic Sleepsuit and Burt’s Bees lotion instead of the new sushi joint downtown. (We couldn’t live without it.)
Allyson is also an author of Here’s the Plan and the host of Motherly’s class for working mamas.
This book is a game changer, ladies. It answers the who, what, where, when, and hows of everything parental leave, balancing your nights and weekends, finding childcare—and beyond.
We sat down with Allyson to talk about how to deal with the guilt of unplugging on the weekend and how to work to make things equal at home.
It seems like in a lot of situations today, both women and men are ill-informed about what they are entitled to or what they should fight for when it comes to parental leave and work flexibility. Do you think there should be a class offered in high school or college detailing all the intricacies of work and parenting?
Allyson Downey: At the risk of sounding like a zealot: Yes. But it’s a more complicated yes, because I don’t think it’s just about “teaching” work-life balance.
There are so many simple tactical skills that we totally fail to educate kids about in high school and college.
And while I’d love to see conversations starting early on about family balance and the economic case for parental leave (see Jessica Shortall’s outstanding TED Talk for more on that), I’d be pretty satisfied to see girls taught simple fundamentals like negotiating. If girls came out of high school knowing about anchoring high and finding the efficient frontier, they’d have a fantastic foundation to build from when it’s time to negotiating their compensation while on parental leave.
I think a lot of women may have crucial maternity leave, extended leave questions, etc. for their potential employers while on interviews, but are scared to ask them because they’re afraid they may not get hired. Advice for women in these situations?
Don’t ask them when you’re interviewing. Devote 100% of your energy to putting yourself out there as the rock star you are. Don’t muddy the waters by inviting people to think about you as a mother or a prospective mother.
I know it’s discouraging to hear that, but you don’t want to distract someone for one second from hearing about how phenomenally you’ve performed in your previous roles, and what a tremendous asset you’ll be once they hire you.
Save your logistical questions (and even cultural questions, when you’re digging for insight on work-life balance) for after you get an offer.
The details of maternity leave, parental leave, disability policies, etc. often seem secretive at companies. We need to dig for the information ourselves. Why do you think companies aren’t more up-front about these details?
I wish I knew! Despite that corporate opacity, there are some great new resources—like Maybrooks [now Après] and Fairygodboss—that crowdsource data to try and shed light on company policies (as they relate to women) and culture.
But one of my calls to action in the book is for companies to wear their policies on their sleeves.
We’re seeing more and more of that as companies like Etsy and Netflix trumpet their generous leave packages, and my hope is that there will eventually be enough companies being transparent that all companies feel compelled to do so.
In terms of your home life—there’s a quote in Here’s the Plan that says, ‘I’m so glad you always ask what you can do, but I don’t want to have to be the one who always thinks of what needs to get done!’ I think this hits the nail on the head for a lot of women. We strive for an equal household—the mother and the father do equal amounts of childcare, planning, prepping, household chores, and both work—but a lot of these things ultimately fall on the woman. How do we continuously work to make things equal at home?
This is one of my very favorite lines in the book. It’s funny: I didn’t initially dig very deep into what I call ‘household division of labor,’ but a few of my early readers seized onto the little bit that was there and begged for more. So I sent an email around to what I called my book ‘brain trust’—a couple dozen women who I’d ping when I wanted to get outside perspective and insight. And it wound up being the most active email thread throughout all my research for the book. The topic just hit home for people, and I think it comes down to what one woman described as ‘executive planning.’
Even if Dad is the one doing all the baby laundry, Mom is the one thinking about getting hand-me-downs in the next size up, and that ‘thinking’ work is rarely acknowledged—despite being cumulatively exhausting.
My best advice is to think in terms of responsibilities (not tasks!), and divide things along those lines, so the ‘thinking’ work becomes part of the overall job. I also am a big advocate for putting things in writing and clearly assigning responsibility. I posted a worksheet on herestheplanbook.com that couples can use as a starting point in thinking about how they want to divide things up.
I think relinquishing control of parts of our home life and our children’s care is hard for women. How do we become comfortable with and good at delegating tasks to others in our home life?
You have to get comfortable with imperfection. That’s not to say that women are perfectionists and men aren’t, but women often have a clear vision for how they want things to be—and they’ll jump in when it looks like something is going awry. And sometimes it just seems easier to do something yourself than explain it to someone else. You have to accept a little short-term discomfort (like some well-intentioned but pantsless baby outfits) for long-term equality.
How do we deal with the guilt of unplugging for the weekend or leaving the office at 6 every night? Basically, how do we prioritize things based on what is best for us and our families, but leave the guilt behind?
I think it’s important to remember that guilt is something we’re projecting on ourselves; it’s not about other people. It would be overly reductive to say, ‘You’re in control! Just turn it off!’ But to an extent, if you don’t want to feel guilty, you don’t have to feel guilty.
Another thing that’s important to remember: If you want something to get done, ask a busy person. And there’s no one busier than a working parent. It’s almost like there’s a magical switch flipped when you have kids—a superpower that enables you to get way more work done between 9 am and 5 pm (or whatever hours you have childcare).
Acknowledge that you’re getting more done in less time.
I recommend that women devote 15 minutes at the end of each week to writing down what they’ve done that week. We spend so much time worrying about what we haven’t done that we forget to celebrate what we have accomplished.
As mentioned in Here’s the Plan, working from home can cut commute time, which means more available work hours and more productive employees. So why do you think more companies don’t offer this option?
I think we’re starting to see a shift away from ‘forced face time,’ but it’ll be a slow evolution. There are so many technological tools at our disposal that make it easier, but there are some definite downsides to having a fully remote workforce. It’s much harder to establish culture and rapport—so it can take longer to build a well-oiled team. And there are some tasks that are just easier to accomplish when you’re sitting next to someone. But I see almost no downside to empowering people to work remotely a couple days a week, particularly if you’re able to cluster that face-to-face teamwork onto ‘office’ days and have home days be the ones when you’re working on more solitary projects.
You talk a bit about the Pomodoro Technique in Here’s the Plan: 25 minutes of distraction-free work sessions followed by a short break. Do you think this process is the answer to working distraction free throughout the day?
Lots of studies have shown that taking a short break helps refresh your thinking. And the reality is that most people are taking short breaks right now when they take a few minutes to scroll through Facebook, but they don’t necessarily conceptualize it as a break because it’s rarely planned and it often can interrupt the flow of what you’re doing.
I also talk in the book about how multitasking can be your worst enemy because you wind up doing everything half as effectively (there’s a great sample task in there that I think will convert even the most emphatic multitasker).
Pomodoro forces you to be disciplined about remaining focused on one task. It’s about doing more in less time.
‘Me time’ is important. Often we feel guilty about taking time for ourselves—trying to fit it in with work, playing with our children, cooking dinner, bedtime routines, time with our spouse, etc. How can we prioritize time for ourselves?
Here we are talking about guilt again! I jest, but it’s such a pervasive part of working motherhood.
When you’re with your kids, you feel guilty about not working. When you’re working, you feel guilty about not spending time with your kids. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t struggle with this.
I think of my ‘me time’ as my opportunity to refresh myself, so I can be a better person when I’m with my kids or running my company. This past year, I spent 12 days in Cape Town solo visiting my best friend from business school. (Side note: My husband should be sainted for encouraging me to do this while he stayed home with the kids.) Oh, the guilt. The guilt! I wasn’t with my kids. I wasn’t working. It felt horrible. But after a couple days, I relaxed into it, and when I got home, I just had more energy. I had more energy for my kids, I had more energy for weeSpring—and I was a better mom and CEO because I ‘indulged’ myself (I couldn’t stop using that word the whole time I was gone). What I really did wasn’t indulgent. I was replenishing myself.
So carve out that you time. While 12 days may sound crazy and impossible (it sure felt that way to me), you can derive benefits even from 12 minutes. One woman I talked to told me that she uses her morning shower to reflect and be alone in her own head. Do that, or go play tennis, or have dinner with just your girlfriends—and remember, you’re not just doing these things for you.