Inspired by Penny Wirsing, 2019 President of SWE
Is there a typical "working parent"? Maybe. But many people have unique situations. It's easy to meet someone and make assumptions, but often those assumptions are wrong, and the reality of someone's situation contains some unexpected elements.
That's what happened recently when Penny Wirsing, the 2019 President of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), spoke at the Michigan State University College of Engineering Commencement Ceremony. Her speech was encouraging and inspiring. So much so that we contacted her and asked if we could share the content with Working Parent Stories readers.
One thing Penny didn't mention in her speech, and it supports the point that assumptions can be inaccurate, is the story about how and why she became an engineer. While she was a trailblazer at the time she obtained her degree, there is more to her story.
Before Penny started college she married, had a daughter, and divorced. As a single mother, she became a secretary in order to support her small family. It didn't take long for her to realize that she would not be able to live the life she envisioned for her daughter and herself on a secretary's salary, so she headed in another direction and started down the path to pursue an engineering degree.
She started taking community college classes as she continued working. That enabled her to attend evening classes while she countinued to work full-time. And the community college courses were less expensive than those offered at universities.
While working full-time, she completed enough courses to enter Michigan State University (MSU) as a junior. While there, Penny felt as though she didn't fit in with the other students. Only about 25% of the students were female back then, but it was her status as parent and breadwinner that made her feel the most out-of-place. As she juggled a job and parenting with her classes, the other students were juggling their coursework with dorm living and other extracirricular activities.
Most would agree that pursuing a college degree is challenging and that parenthood is challenging too, but few of us attempt to do both at the same time. Penny said she was able to pull it off by focusing on things one step at a time.
A benefit of Penny's situation was that while she was a student, she was also a teacher with a very attentive pupil; her daughter. Her daughter learned that if you want to do something, and you're willing to put in the work, you are likely to get it done. Penny, like most parents, could have told her these things, but she believes that showing her had a more meaningful impact. And it appears to have worked, given that her daughter is now grown and pursuing a career of her own as a Federal Attorney.
Sometimes it's easy to forget that while we're working and learning, we're also teaching. And we're never sure exactly who is watching or who will learn the most.
Related reading (and listening):
Assuming that a person's future family status is unknown (i.e. they are not yet married):
Does it ever make sense to give different career advice to boys/men vs girls/women?
Serious question. Let us know what you think.
Pointer to an interesting HBR article about working parents
If you spend time wondering how your career and/or your spouse's career might affect your kids, you'll want to read this HBR article: How Our Careers Affect Our Children by Stewart D. Friedman.
Here are just a few of the interesting insights provided by studies outlined in this relatlvely short article:
Recently, I spoke with several friends who are also mothers. It seemed like each one of them was complaining about the same thing: They were running around like headless chickens who were tired and worn out and they had no time for themselves.
As working parents we are often pulled in many directions and bombarded with multiple demands at the same time: Your boss wants the report in ten minutes, a child wants a treat now, the laundry basket is overflowing, and we badly need a haircut. The list goes on and on.
Whether you are a working parent with one, two, three or more children, or even the parent of a special needs child, the demands on you and your time seem endless.
Many of us find it difficult to prioritize our own needs above those of others. And sometimes it feels like we are losing ourselves in the process.
While it is important to take care of others, it is essential to take good care of ourselves first. Like the airlines remind us: "Put the oxygen mask onto your own face before helping small children and others". If we can't breathe or function, it's impossible for us to help others.
Taking good care of ourselves has to be a priority! Whether this means going for a run, doing yoga, meeting with friends, or just taking a few minutes to sit down and relax.
Make these rituals ruthless priorities! They help us feel better and stay sane. Plus, your children will benefit by learning and appreciating that taking good care of oneself benefits everyone. Remember: It is not selfish, it is self care.
Pointer to a video news conference with Dr. Donna Strickland
On October 2, 2018 Dr. Donna Strickland was announced as a 2018 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics. Dr. Strickland is an associate professor at the University of Waterloo who describes herself as a "laser jock".
During an entertaining and inspiring news conference, Dr. Strickland described what it's like being the first Canadian woman to win the honour, and she also talks about being a working parent. She and her husband raised two children while pursuing their careers.
When asked (at the 10:50 min mark in the video) if she thinks that scientists have a responsibililty to the world, Dr. Strickland replied (in part), "We all should do what we find fun and what we can do." She went on to say that when her daughter was quite young her daughter was being asked by her friends about the fact that her mom went out to work instead of staying at home. Dr. Strickland told her daughter, "The world works best if we all do what we're good at."
Submitted by "Experienced Mom"
Recently a parent, who gave up her career 18 years ago to focus on her children full-time, shared a frustration with me; her teenaged son is only interested in himself. Even as significant events swirl around him and she tries to explain their relevance to him, his interest in anything beyond himself remains pretty much non-existant.
I bit my tongue as I thought about what she'd said. It didn't surprise me for two reasons;
When we balance family and work we make it very clear to our children that multiple priorities can be managed at the same time. Sometimes our children's needs are our highest priority and sometimes other things demand our attention. Our children learn, by watching us, that they are part of a world that is bigger than themselves and that their needs don't always deserve the most attention. This realization will help them better understand the world, their role within it, and how they can make valuable contributions.
Parents regularly experience conflicting emotions. That's part of life. Good friends and supportive relatives listen sympathetically when we describe lumps in our throats after watching our child walk into a school for the first time, getting behind the wheel of a car for the first time, bounding into a college dorm after a holiday weekend, or accepting a job far away from home (or at least that place they used to call home). These people understand that while we may have fought back tears, we're also swelling with pride. We wouldn't have it any other way. These milestones mean that we've done our jobs, and truth be told, we fear the alternatives.
Being able to experience sadness and joy at the same time proves that we're alive and that we have feelings. It's normal.
So it is with great enthusiasm that I report on a growing trend I've noticed among young working parents; they seem very comfortable saying things like, "I was so sad when I dropped him off at daycare for the first time this morning, and it was so great to see my co-workers again after being gone for so long." Not so long ago it wasn't OK to express these conflicting emotions. But apparently now it is.
Pointer to HBO's new Docu-Series Being Serena
Working moms on Reddit brought our attention to the new five-part Docu-Series on HBO* called Being Serena. The series chronicals the most recent events in Serena Williams' life; from winning the Australian Open while pregnant in April 2017 right up to attending the recent wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
But it's the stuff in-between those events that is most interesting ... and inspiring ... and thought provoking ... and relatable.
For those who don't know, Serena is married to Alexis Ohanian, one of the co-founders of Reddit, so it's especially interesting that Reddit led us to this program. Talk about a synergistic relationship!
Working parents (both moms and dads) are likely to appreciate Serena's story and find themselves relating, thinking, and being inspired as they watch.
* It appears that Being Serena is also available via On Demand until early July. More info.
Pointer to research results published by ScienceDaily
When our kids were in school, we knew a couple who were highly respected parents. Imagine my thrill when I learned that they limited their very smart and very talented son to two (or was it three?) extracurricular activities at a time. While other parents were bragging about the hours they spent shuttling their kids from activity to activity, these parents confidently let people know that they thought some reasonable limits were best for their son.
Their confidence set the example I needed to let go of any concern I had that my own kids might be falling behind because they weren't overbooked and in constant motion. It was really helpful and comforting information during a time that I needed more help and comfort!
If you would appreciate knowing that your kids don't need to be booked 24/7, look no further than this article published by ScienceDaily: Are your children overdoing it? Too many extracurricular activities can do more harm than good. It summarizes results from a small study in England and points out that "a busy organized activity schedule can ... potentially harm children's development and wellbeing." It may provide the info working parents need to better manage their time and protect their sanity.
Originally Published: May16, 2018 | Last Updated: Jun 11, 2018
Submitted by Kathy Haselmaier
Work required me to travel internationally on occasion. I usually viewed these trips as sacrifices since they took me away from my family along with being tiring, if not exhausting. Once I made it to the airport, I usually appreciated the change in routine, and once I made it to the hotel, I usually appreciated the opportunities to meet new people, see new things, and discuss new ideas.
But I rarely took any extra time to explore the area on my own after the business was complete. Instead, I felt compelled to get back to my family and "be there" for them ASAP. (It occurs to me that this sounds downright crazy as I write it so many years later.) Thankfully, there was one time when a colleague and I decided to take an extra day to explore Rome on our own.
Thanks to this fun, flexible and very accommodating colleague, I had a great day as we explored the city. In fact, it was so great that I vowed to return "soon" with my husband and kids (14 and 9) so that they could explore these wonders too.
Thirteen months later, the four of us were sitting on a plane heading to Rome where we experienced, what later became known as, "the best vacation".
Work experiences often make us better parents. And sometimes we need to indulge ourselves in order to understand how to leverage those experiences so that they benefit the whole family.