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Designing Solutions with Empathy: 5 Things Motherhood Has Taught Me

WHEN MY HUSBAND AND I DECIDED TO START A FAMILY, I knew that having a child would change my relationship to my work. I would need to adjust my schedule, find a way to focus on fewer hours of sleep, and learn to live with 95% good rather than 100% good if it meant spending more time with my family. What I didn’t realize, however, was how much motherhood would enhance my work.

At Friday, our ability to effectively communicate about our clients’ work and design programs and solutions that increase their impact is fueled by our ability to place ourselves in the shoes of those they serve. By becoming a mother, I have gained a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by so many parents across our country along with a new perspective on the importance of education, opportunity, and community. And with two other babies joining the Friday team in 2020 (yes, that’s right, three babies in one year!), it’s fair to say this is true for our entire team.

While it’s impossible to sum up all the ways I’ve grown to see the world differently since my son Adam entered it, five truths have emerged that are already shaping the way I approach Friday’s work.

1. Family First is a Privilege

With every important milestone in my life — traveling internationally, attending college, getting married, founding a company — I’ve gained a greater understanding of my own privilege. Becoming a mother has certainly been no exception. In fact, it’s opened my eyes to how fortunate I am more than any other experience in my life.

I remember the moment it hit me. Two weeks after giving birth, I looked down at my sleeping son, took some deep breaths, and started thinking how differently things could have gone if my life were different: If we didn’t have quality health insurance, my husband and I may have worried about the costs of an emergency C-section instead of simply telling the doctor, “Do whatever you need to do to make sure our son is born healthy.” And when my son struggled with breastfeeding, we didn’t think twice about extending our stay at the hospital to get more support from the lactation consultants.

If my family didn’t have expendable income and flexible work benefits, my husband wouldn’t have been able to support me and bond with our son during those physically and mentally draining first weeks. My mother wouldn’t have been able to work remotely from our home and call it quits early to help us settle in the day we left the hospital. Every time we realized that we had forgotten to buy something essential — or even something that would just make our lives easier — we wouldn’t have been able to use gift cards from family to purchase whatever we needed.

Friday’s small fries (clockwise from top left): the author with her son Adam, Hillary Celebi with Remy, and Emily Davalos with Juliette.

2. Equity is in the Details

I had always been told that California’s paid family leave program was one of the most “generous” and progressive in the country, so I was surprised to find that despite good intentions, the program is not designed to support low income or single parents.

The program provides approximately 70% of your earnings if your highest quarterly earnings the previous year were between $930 and $6,000, and approximately 60% if more than $6,000. The ability to make ends meet, let alone maintain your mental health while trying to keep a new human alive, with only 70% of your full wage is drastically different if you make $930 a quarter versus $6,000. Add the fact that the program doesn’t factor in your number of dependents, whether you’re the sole earner in your household, a seasonal worker whose wages fluctuate, or someone who has recently left a job.

The application process has critical flaws, too. You can only apply for the program after you’ve given birth or taken leave — which means jumping through bureaucratic hoops in between feedings and diaper changes while suffering from sleep deprivation. You don’t learn how much money you’ll receive until after you apply, and you don’t receive the first payment until at least a week later. Even though I had family support at home and enough savings to get by without the benefits, the whole process was far more stressful than it had to be. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for those without those luxuries.

3. Women are the Mothers of Invention

After taking some online classes and adding all the adorable outfits to our baby registry, I quickly found myself overwhelmed: Do we really need all this stuff? Which one of these 22 different kinds of diapers should we go with? Are we prepared? We must be missing something important, right? So I turned to other new moms for advice.

As they shared their own experiences, I started to notice a trend: the products and courses they loved the most were designed by moms who decided there must be a better way. Take the Nested Bean Swaddle for example. The sleep-deprived inventor could only get her son to sleep in her arms when her hand was on his chest. One night, she replaced her hand with a little stuffed toy and her son stayed asleep. This aha moment led her to design a weighted swaddle that safely replicates the pressure of a parent’s comforting touch. (I can attest; it works!)

The story of baby whisperer Cara Dumaplin of Taking Cara Babies, is similar. Although she’s a neonatal nurse and her husband is a pediatrician, it took having her own child to realize that there was very little science-driven guidance to help babies sleep longer and more soundly. It was her own lived experience that started her on the path to developing a program that thousands of parents, myself included, have found well worth paying for.

4. Stories Empower Where Generalizations Fall Short

As soon as I found out I was pregnant, I started Googling. And as soon as other people found out I was pregnant, they started sharing advice. All of the advice was sound, but most of the tips were generalizations that I wasn’t able to apply in moments of need — How, exactly, am I supposed to sleep when the baby sleeps and also find time to shower, eat, do laundry, or just take a minute for myself? — or worse, caused me to doubt myself.

I had read and heard from so many people that a “natural birth” without pain medicine is such a rewarding experience. Even though I knew that two in three women request an epidural during labor, I felt as if asking for an epidural meant failing my first real test of motherhood. Until a close friend shared the story of her two drastically different labors: With her first child, the labor was long and difficult and she opted for an epidural; with her second, her labor progressed faster and was manageable without pain medication. In each case, her boys arrived healthy and happy. After I endured 14 hours of difficult labor with little progress, her story was the one that gave me the peace of mind to ask for an epidural without shame.

5. Community is a Powerful Medicine

I’ve written before about the ways that meaningful relationships strengthen our cities and our nation, but strangely enough, it wasn’t until I found myself struggling with the exhaustion, self doubt, and guilt that comes with new motherhood that I realized how critical community is to my own health — and that of my son.

When my son’s struggles with breastfeeding became my struggle, the encouragement of my family and friends gave me the strength to keep at it. When I left a panicked voicemail about Adam’s swollen eye at 2 a.m. on a Sunday, it was the caring call from our local pediatrician 10 minutes later that calmed me down enough to focus on helping my son. When I returned to work, it was my colleagues who reminded me to sign off for the night, love on my little one, and get some well-earned sleep. And when I cried on the way home after touring a daycare center, it was my friends and family who reminded me that my son will only be stronger for having the opportunity to make friends early in life and for having a “smart, ambitious leader for a mom.”

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Elizabeth Cameron

Elizabeth Cameron

Fueled by a passion for ensuring everyone arrives at Friday fulfilled | Partner @ Friday. www.friday.us