Being a Mother makes me a better technologist:

on Mother’s Day, User Experience and technological impact

Mother’s Day tends to give me mixed feels.

It is a rather patronizing holiday, it reinforces binary gendered ideology, ethnocentric and heteronormative ideas of the family, and (in my experience) brings out any issues and anxieties about how your family life is not totally perfect all the time. (Families are perhaps the most complex of all systems.) From its origins as an anti-war protest, it has evolved into an unashamedly capitalist holiday that gives us all warm fuzzies by politely not mentioning the fact that motherhood is the greatest global poverty indicator.

Yet, I want to contemplate my experience of motherhood, and to think critically about it. I want to talk about it! Becoming and being a parent has been one of the most powerful and meaningful experiences of my life. It has made me a better person and a better design researcher, more thoughtful in my interactions, more rooted in my community and more committed to doing good in the world.

As I’ve mentioned, parenthood is a standpoint that I could not fully grasp until I experienced it. Now that I have, I want to use it to make life better for other parents and caregivers. I relish the parts of mothering my kid that seem like they’re timeless parts of the human experience, connecting me to the mamis, abuelas, bisabuelas and tias of the previous generations of my family.

I also marvel at the experience of being very socially, economically, and temporally situated in parenthood: what it means to be a “good” mother means different things in my ZIP code than it does on the other side of the state; it means something different now than it did 10, 20, or a hundred years ago.

To be a parent, but especially to be a mother, is to be an interface between a kid and the world. A nurturer, a caregiver, a provider of order and stability.

The overlapping metaphors of feeding and caring, via Good Support

Mothering is both technical and impacted by technology. It is technical in that it draws on specialized knowledges and applying them. It is impacted by technology in the ways that every aspect of life is. It’s a cliche of parenting, but having a child has changed, my understanding of time on a fundamental level. In late capitalism, is there any more relevant standard?

Judy Wajcman, in her brilliant book, “Pressed for Time: The acceleration of life in digital capitalism”, writes about this relationship, between, time, technology, and mothering:

“We tend to overrate the impact of new technologies in part because older technologies have become absorbed into the furniture of our lives, so as to be almost invisible.
Take the baby bottle. Here is a simple implement that has “transformed a fundamental human experience for vast numbers of infants and mothers, and been one of the the most controversial exports of Western technology to underdeveloped countries- yet it finds no place in our history of technology”. This technology might bet thought of as a classic time-shifting device, as it enables mothers to exercise more control over the timing of feeding. It can also function to save time, as bottle feeding allows for someone else to substitute for the mother’s time… This illustrates that the impact technologies are perceived to have on time largely depends on who is using them, and in what context.”

Reading that passage immediately made me recall, and recoil at a most-hated cliche of User Experience, the offhand use of an expression, “The only intuitive interface is the nipple”. It shocks me that this terribly sexist and untrue cliche still persists. Even its originator has apologized and corrected himself several times over for saying it.

Logically, it makes no sense. Walk through the baby bottle aisle at your local drugstore. Read the reviews of baby bottles on Amazon. Or talk to someone you know who has attempted to nurse or feed a newborn baby. It’s not intuitive for anyone.

I could not find an image of a wrestler’s mother with a folding chair, so this had to suffice.

Mothering my daughter has made me more thoughtful, more attentive, more focused, more empathetic, and better at communicating. In fact, I’d wager that many parents and caregivers would agree with me that empathy as a corporate buzzword is a little ridiculous. Caring for other people requires and generates a great deal of empathy, and it’s often hard to turn it off. If my daughter gets sick or hurt, it’s impossible for me to not feel impacted myself. If another child is rude or mean to her, I feel the surge of adrenaline that gets caricatured in professional wrestling — when the wrestler’s mother comes out with a folding chair to beat down the opponent.

What’s more, this folding chair-wielding impulse comes out when I hear about other mothers and children as well, or even just hearing about others’ suffering. I have always been a sensitive and empathetic, if sometimes misguided person, but becoming a mother turned the dial to 11. When my daughter was about a year old, I was driving home from the grocery store and heard a story on NPR about mothers and children dying of famine. I had to pull the car over and weep. Just yesterday, my neighbor was telling me about his dog’s knee surgery. I had to lean back on the retaining wall, because hearing about a dog’s knee surgery made it feel like I could not stand up.

In theory, I understand how powerful this is, and I am grateful for it. In practice, I find it inconvenient at times to possess this arsenal of feeling. It’s clunky, it slows me down, and makes me feel conspicuous. Like I’m stuck driving around on a crowded city street in an army tank of empathy while everyone else seems to be tooling around in a Car2Go Smart Car that they can just pick up and drop off when it’s convenient. How I wish I could just park all of this and leave it!

Becoming a mother made me less able to compartmentalize, but also far more aware of the need to prioritize and execute. When you have to wrap things up in time to pick up your kid from school, you innately lose capacity for procrastination and bikeshedding.

Parenting your growing kid and her growing brain is a never-ending exercise in learning and reasoning. It requires not only engaging in the “little” tasks that humans require for hygiene, safety, nourishment and social acceptance, but explaining their importance to a little person who would rather not wash their hands or comb their hair.

At every phase of development, watching the connections form in your kid’s brain is both gratifying and deeply humbling. Read The Scientist in the Crib, and tell me that it doesn’t make you think about artificial intelligence differently. Of course, watching children interact with AI is in itself hilarious. “Siri doesn’t know everything”, my daughter likes to tell me.

Being a parent makes me contemplate the long term, and the relationship between generations. It makes me realize possibilities that I didn’t before. What will it mean for my kid to live with the consequences of the technological world we’re creating now? I’ll never know the way that she will experience it, and maybe that’s the most valuable lesson I’ve learned.

(To L: Thanks for everything, kiddo. I’m lucky to be your Mami. )