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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.

You’re doing them because taking care of yourself will make you a better mother.

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Unstructured play is play without predetermined rules of the game. There are no organized teams, uniforms, coaches or trainers. It is spontaneous, often made-up on the spot, and changeable as the day goes on. It is the kind of play you see when puppies chase each other around a yard in endless circles or a group of kids play for hours in a fort they created out of old packing boxes.

Unstructured play is fun—no question about it—but research also tells us that it is critically important for the development of children's bodies and brains.

One of the best ways to encourage unstructured play in young children is by providing open-ended toys, or toys that can be used multiple ways. People Toy Company knows all about that. Since 1977, they've created toys and products designed to naturally encourage developmental milestones—but to kids, it all just feels like play.

Here are five reasons why unstructured play is crucial for your children—

1. It changes brain structure in important ways

In a recent interview on NPR's Morning Edition, Sergio Pellis, Ph.D., an expert on the neuroscience of play noted that play actually changes the structure of the developing brain in important ways, strengthening the connections of the neurons (nerve cells) in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain considered to be the executive control center responsible for solving problems, making plans and regulating emotions.

Because unstructured play involves trying out different strategies without particular goals or serious consequences, children and other animals get to practice different activities during play and see what happens. When Dr. Pellis compared rats who played as pups with rats that did not, he found that although the play-deprived rats could perform the same actions, the play-experienced rats were able to react to their circumstances in a more flexible, fluid and swift fashion.

Their brains seemed more "plastic" and better able to rewire as they encountered new experiences.

Hod Lipson, a computer scientist at Cornell sums it up by saying the gift of play is that it teaches us how to deal with the unexpected—a critically important skill in today's uncertain world.

2. Play activates the entire neocortex

We now know that gene expression (whether a gene is active or not) is affected by many different things in our lives, including our environment and the activities we participate in. Jaak Panksepp, Ph.D., a Professor at the University of Washington studied play in rats earning him the nickname of the "rat tickler."

He found that even a half hour of play affected the activity of many different genes and activated the outer part of the rats' brains known as the neocortex, the area of the brain used in higher functions such as thinking, language and spatial reasoning. We don't know for sure that this happens in humans, but some researchers believe that it probably does.

3. It teaches children to have positive interaction with others

It used to be thought that animal play was simply practice so that they could become more effective hunters. However, Dr. Panksepp's study of play in rats led him to the conclusion that play served an entirely different function: teaching young animals how to interact with others in positive ways. He believed that play helps build pro-social brains.

4. Children who play are often better students

The social skills acquired through play may help children become better students. Research has found that the best predictor of academic performance in the eighth grade was a child's social skills in the third grade. Dr. Pellis notes that "countries where they actually have more recess tend to have higher academic performance than countries where recess is less."

5. Unstructured play gets kids moving

We all worry that our kids are getting too little physical activity as they spend large chunks of their time glued to their electronic devices with only their thumbs getting any exercise. Unstructured play, whether running around in the yard, climbing trees or playing on commercial play structures in schools or public parks, means moving the whole body around.

Physical activity helps children maintain a healthy weight and combats the development of Type 2 diabetes—a condition all too common in American children—by increasing the body's sensitivity to the hormone insulin.

It is tempting in today's busy world for parents and kids to fill every minute of their day with structured activities—ranging from Spanish classes before school to soccer and basketball practice after and a full range of special classes and camps on the weekends and summer vacation. We don't remember to carve out time for unstructured play, time for kids to get together with absolutely nothing planned and no particular goals in mind except having fun.

The growing body of research on the benefits of unstructured play suggests that perhaps we should rethink our priorities.

Not sure where to get started? Here are four People Toy Company products that encourage hours of unstructured play.

1. People Blocks Zoo Animals

These colorful, magnetic building blocks are perfect for encouraging unstructured play in children one year and beyond. The small pieces fit easily in the hands of smaller children, and older children will love creating their own shapes and designs with the magnetic pieces.

People Blocks Zoo Animals 17 Piece Set, People Toy Company, $34.99

BUY


This article was sponsored by People Toy Company. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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So many parents wish there was a way we could add more hours to the day. Unfortunately, we're stuck with just 24 of them, but we can try to make the most of the time we've got. One way more and more working mamas are maximizing the time we do have is by cutting out the commute and working from home.

It can add an hour or two back to your day, and (depending on your hours and circumstances) it can even make childcare arrangements easier. And with more big companies offering legit remote opportunities, it's easier than ever for parents to find these opportunities. As Motherly recently reported, Amazon is on a bit of a remote hiring spree ahead of the holiday season, and it's not the only one.

Williams-Sonoma is currently seeking Seasonal Customer Service Associates to work from home. It is looking for remote workers in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Phoenix, Reno, Tulsa, and near Raleigh, Columbus, Braselton, and Oklahoma City.

These work-from-home positions are part of Williams-Sonoma's plan to hire about 3,500 associates for its Customer Care Centers. The company says a "significant portion of positions" for the Customer Care Centers will be work-from-home. They're looking for remote workers who live no more than an hour and a half away from one of the Customer Care Centers as "on occasion our Work From Home associates must come to the Care Center for meetings and training with advanced notice," the company notes in the job postings.


The positions are very similar to what Amazon is looking for: Basically customer service reps who can take inbound calls to help shoppers with orders, returns and issues with finding products or deliveries of products. Williams-Sonoma is looking for people who can work 30 - 50 hours per week, and the pay is listed at $12 per hour.

Another perk is a 40% discount on most merchandise, which great because the Williams-Sonoma umbrella includes brands like Pottery Barn and West Elm as well.

Sounds like this could be a great gig for a mama with customer service skills and a high-speed internet connection.

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In the moments after we give birth, we desperately want to hear our baby cry. In the middle of the night a few months later it's no longer exactly music to our ears, but those cries aren't just telling us that baby needs a night feeding: They're also giving us a hint at what our children may sound like as kindergarteners, and adults.

New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

The study saw 2 to 5-month olds recorded while crying. Five years later, the researchers hit record again and chatted with the now speaking children. Their findings, combined with previous work on the subject, suggest it's possible to figure out what a baby's voice will sound like later in life, and that the pitch of our adult voices may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Further studies are needed, but scientists are very interested in how factors before birth can impact decades later.

"In utero, you have a lot of different things that can alter and impact your life — not only as a baby, but also at an adult stage," one of the authors of the study, Nicolas Mathevon, told the New York Times.

The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

So the pitch of that midnight cry may have been determined months ago, and it may determine part of your child's future, too. There are still so many things we don't know, but as parents we do know one thing: Our babies cries (as much as we don't want to hear them all the time) really are something special.

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Plenty of modern motherhood paraphernalia was made to be seen—think breastfeeding pillows that seamlessly blend into living room decor or diaper bags that look like stylish purses. The breast pump though, usually isn't on that list.

It's traditionally been used in the privacy of our homes and hotel rooms in the best case scenarios, and in storage closets and restrooms in the worst circumstances. For a product that is very often used by mothers because they need to be in public spaces (like work and school), the breast pump lives a very private life.

Thankfully, some high profile moms are changing that by posting their pump pics on Instagram. These influential mamas aren't gonna hide while they pump, and may change the way the world (and product designers) see this necessary accessory.

1. Gail Simmons 

Top Chef's Gail Simmons looked amazing on the red carpet at the 2018 Emmys, but a few days after the award show the cookbook author, television host and new mama gave the world a sneak peek into her backstage experience. It wasn't all glam for Gail, who brought her pump and hands-free bra along on the big night.

We're thankful to these women for showing that breast pumps belong in public and in our Instagram feeds.

[Update, September 21, 2018: This post was originally published on May 31, 2018, but has been updated to include a recent Instagram post by Gail Simmons.]

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I was feeling off the other day. Something wasn't right, and I couldn't seem to put my finger on it or kick it for that matter. As the day progressed, it didn't get much better. It was a typical day for us, with the usual 2-year-old meltdowns and chaos that happens when you have two babies close in age.

Nothing was out of the norm, but I just wasn't feeling completely like myself. And right after getting my daughters to bed, when I was alone with my thoughts, the feelings intensified. Through the silence, I heard a soft and familiar voice criticizing my mothering, telling me "You don't do anything right." "You are failing your kids."

My anxiety was attacking me, knowing I am weakest on my own. But I knew what I needed to do. So I took out my phone and dialed, listening to the ringing on the other end.

Waiting for the person who always comforts me.

Who always makes everything better.

Who has the magic words when it comes to calming my soul.

"Hi." She answered the phone.

"Hi Mom," I said, as my voice cracked. I can mask my pain for everyone—but her.

"Everything is going to be okay," she reassured me from over the phone as I broke down to her. I hung up feeling so much better. Because—truly—there is nothing in this entire world like a mother's reassurance. I know that not everyone has this kind of relationship with her mother. That, I am indeed one of the lucky ones—but we can all hope to become this for our own children.

And you, mama, contract that magic right when you give birth.

This magic doesn't make you perfect and all-knowing. No, you don't have all the answers. No one has that. You just need to be you—your sweet baby's mama. That title comes with that last push or lift out of the womb. It could also come if your baby is handed over through adoption or surrogacy.

It doesn't matter the means, the magic comes the second your baby is placed into your arms. It comes with a force so strong it leaves a mark on your heart. It transforms you into a mother. You are enough just by being that person who opens her arms and accepts this baby as yours forever.

Your soft-skinned newborn is placed on your chest, shrieking, tears dripping down her cheeks and onto her pout. The little muscles in her chin trembling with such force, her face is on the verge of turning bright red. Then you cuddle her close and feed her. "Everything is going to be okay." She finds peace in the warmth of your body, her skin on your skin.

There is nothing like a mother's reassurance.

When your baby becomes a toddler, and he falls and gets his first scrape, screaming, because it's a new kind of painful sensation—an open wound. "Everything is going to be okay," you say to slow his tears and scoop him up into your arms. You clean that scratch out and apply Neosporin.

You put a Band-Aid on, sealed with a kiss, and wipe away his tears. You will always be there to pick him up when he falls—literally, now...and figuratively, in the future when he is grown.

There is nothing like a mother's reassurance.

When she goes to her first day of preschool, and you have to separate from each other. She cries as you hold your tears back, as you assure her, "Everything is going to be okay. Mommy always comes back." And of course, you do, and you hold onto those words yourself—repeating them to stay strong.

Because when you are together, everything is right again. You let her go because it's the right thing to do.

There is nothing like a mother's reassurance.

When he gets his heart broken for the first time, he will feel like the only person that truly knew him has abandoned him. He'll feel as if he will never find that again. He may not have the proper coping mechanisms yet to deal with that level of pain.

He comes to you in tears over losing the love of his life. You comfort him and assure him "Everything is going to be okay." Because you know this as fact because he is the love of your life. And, one day, if he has a child—he will feel the same way.

There is nothing like a mother's reassurance.

When life kicks her in the rear-end. When she is struggling to find her place in this wild world, feeling so alone. When she needs support. She doesn't ask you directly, but your mom intuition whispers to you, pulling on that mark on your heart, and so—you make the call.

"Everything is going to be okay," you say into the phone. The sky won't fall and Chicken Little will not witness the world ending because she can't figure it all out right this second. Finding her place in this world will take time, but it will happen. Right now, and for always, you are her safe place, her landing pad.

One day our babies may have babies of their own. When they are sad they will say, "Everything is going to be okay."

They will know that sometimes all our children need is reassurance from us—their safe place. Their soul-soother. Their heart.

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