Published on September 14th, 2016 | by Jade Sanchez-Ventura0
Sling City: Allyson Downey Tells Jade Sanchez-Ventura How to WORK IT!
I sat down with Allyson in the end of April, mere hours before the launch party for Here’s the Plan: Your Practical, Tactical Guide to Advancing Your Career During Pregnancy and Parenthood. Our conversation took in Disney World, organic cannabis, post-weaning depression, baby wearing, and the un-tapped wisdom of Millenials. Allyson is funny, approachable, and very much on top of her game. She is exactly the person you want giving you advice on managing your career through motherhood. Though she doesn’t say “managing,” she says, “advancing” and she means it.
I’m amazed that Allyson isn’t bitter. Because she did have a plan, and it didn’t protect her when she was forced into bed rest with her first child. The more apt term would have been “bed work” because she immediately set up a home office, but this didn’t stop the Wall Street firm for which she worked from quickly and silently pushing her out of her job in an especially vicious example of pregnancy discrimination. Allyson went on to new work, had a second child, created her successful startup weeSpring and channeled all that she learned into Here’s the Plan, a book of new and better plans for mothers. She didn’t get bitter. She got informed. And we’re all lucky for it.
I didn’t expect to find myself in the pages of Here’s the Plan. I’ve avoided traditional business structures all of my working life. But when I sat down with it, I realized that I had been dealing with workplace assumptions made about me as a woman who might someday have a child, let alone as a pregnant woman or a new mother, for years. Here’s the Plan reminded me that these assumptions didn’t go anywhere simply because I wasn’t paying attention to them. The toolbox Allyson has amassed is incredible, and women are going to be benefiting from it for a long time. In addition to the specific strategies she offers, her argument is that we have to look this reality straight on. We need to stop just accepting that which is fucked up and work for long-tem change, while making sure to take the short-term actions necessary to protect ourselves and thrive in our chosen careers. Her plan is a blend of radical and pragmatic that I find really appealing. Even if we came from very different working lives, by the end of our conversation, both Allyson and I were thoroughly in agreement that if a business wants to thrive in the modern era they best begin listening to the mothers in their midst. – Jade Sanchez-Ventura, for SLING CITY
MUTHA: What was the process of writing this book?
ALLYSON DOWNEY: I was thinking about what I could say that would be relevant to this [weeSpring] audience and my terrible pregnancy [discrimination] experience came back to haunt me. I was lying on my couch googling employment law and not finding any resources that seemed trustworthy, even to questions like, “If your kid’s sick and you have to cancel a meeting, do you explain why you’re canceling?” * And those are things that you haven’t thought about until you’re in that moment, so I wanted to make it easy for women to access that information. Because no one talks about that stuff. When you get a group of new moms together, they talk about diaper patterns and how little their child is sleeping. It’s much more rare that the conversation goes to, “Hey I notice I’m not getting as much responsibility at work.” I think part of that is that there’s a sense of shame women feel—like maybe it’s their fault that they’re not getting as much responsibility or they’re being treated differently or they’re getting mommy tracked.
*The answer: Probably not.
MUTHA: How do you feel having a kid has informed your work?
ALLYSON DOWNEY: I think it actually made it more possible. When I went back to work after having Logan, I worked at a non-profit for this woman who was really tough, and every time I sent her a document she pointed out typos. I had always been so meticulous that when I worked in politics and we sent something out on the campaign, I was the last person who saw it because I was the eagle-eyed one, and I was horrified and despairing that when I went back to work after having a baby that I was the one making the typos. It sent me into this spiral of thinking that I had peaked, and I was never going to be as good again, and that I was going to be mediocre for the rest of my life. And I already associated pregnancy with failure because I “failed” in my Wall Street job while I was pregnant. Even though I knew logically that was not the case, how you feel about it is different. So I failed and now I’m mediocre. I’ve always feared mediocrity.
I think now that having a baby just changed my capacity. Being a mother and being exhausted all the time meant that my mind just couldn’t zoom in, in the same way. I would proofread a document three times and it would still have typos in it. But that freed me to think more big picture and strategically and creatively. And the skills that used to be my strengths and that used to be interesting to me just weren’t that interesting anymore.
This opened space for weeSpring to come into existence. And then the book.
And it was actually a quick process to get the book sold, but then I had to sit down and write it. And I had this day job, and I had this eight-month-old baby, and I was struggling with post-partum depression. Which is another whole thing.
MUTHA: You mention it in the book.
ALLYSON DOWNEY: I’m not secretive about it and I do reference it, but I was paralyzed. I was not getting out of bed. It was a month in which I did pretty much nothing.
MUTHA: How old was your second child?
ALLYSON DOWNEY: It was weaning. I had post-partum depression with both kids.
MUTHA: I’ve heard that weaning is a major trigger area that’s often not talked about.
ALLYSON DOWNEY: I woke up one morning and I just couldn’t stop crying and it was almost that sudden. I started googling and it was like, psychotic break around 8 months?.
MUTHA: Sleep regression and…psychotic break.
ALLYSON DOWNEY: I found Joanna Goddard’s post on Cup of Jo about her experience with weaning and related depression. It’s beautifully written. And it was like, Oh, that’s what’s going on. This is not me falling apart, this is something that’s hormonal that happens to other people. I have a long family history of depression, so depression is not something that’s new to me in any shape or form. I’ve always been a pretty high-functioning person despite it. But I watched a lot of TV in bed in my house while our nanny hung out with my kids and I felt so guilty about that—that I wasn’t working and I wasn’t with the kids. Our nanny would go off duty at 6 o’ clock and sometimes my husband might call, Do you mind if I work late tonight? And by 6:15, I’d have to call him and be like, I just can’t do it.
ALLYSON DOWNEY: The book ultimately was what gave me enough structure to get back out of bed again. At that point, weeSpring was a totally unappealing chore to get out of bed and sit in front of a computer and do, but getting up and sitting in front of a computer and interviewing women about their experiences…that was a lot more manageable. I think I almost wrote myself out of depression. Though, I also therapy-ed myself out of depression, and medicated myself out of depression, and exercised myself out of depression. But the book helped a lot.
MUTHA: Coming out of the baby stage, do you feel like that your part of your brain—the typo-catching brain—comes back, or is it altered now?
ALLYSON DOWNEY: I ceded it. I decided that that small, detail-oriented part of my brain is something that I’ve outgrown. It was less about not being able to get it back, and more about not wanting to.
It was empowering because it corresponded to the point in my career where it was better for me to be going big-picture, and thinking globally rather than staying head-down in execution. Now people work for me who are the executers and I trust that they’re going to do it.
MUTHA: I was thinking, reading your book, how much companies and businesses lose when they don’t take into account that with a professional who’s a parent, there are whole other modes of interacting, multitasking, prioritizing, thinking creatively, and improvising that are lost.
ALLYSON DOWNEY: I think of the adage, “If you want to get something done ask a busy person.” That epitomizes being a working mother.
You’re constantly doing triage. When I went on “maternity leave,” in quotes because I had my second baby when I was starting my start-up, I identified a ton of tasks that I thought were important until they didn’t get done for three months, and then I realized we don’t have to do a blog post every day, we can do a blog post every three days. If we had more working mothers, they would be trimming off a lot more waste, saving a lot of money.
MUTHA: It feels like the changes that make the workplace more dynamic also support families. I don’t think we should have to mask family positive changes as a way to push them through, but unfortunately I think that’s necessary sometimes.
ALLYSON DOWNEY: Everybody spends so much time crapping on Millenials and their sense of self-entitlement, but Millenials deserve a lot of credit, because the workplace changes that they’re asking for don’t necessarily have to do with kids, they have to do with the balance of personal and professional. And I don’t think it’s entitlement as much as their recognition that technology has allowed work to creep into their personal lives and they’re asking for the reverse to be the same. Coca Cola is crediting Millennial men for their new parental leave policy. They now have six weeks of leave for both men and women, which you know is not very much, but for a staid company, a dinosaur of a company that’s making everyone obese and doesn’t care about making everyone obese, to hone in and grant equal parental leave for both men and women is something valuable. That Millennial sense of entitlement is going to benefit…
ALLYSON DOWNEY: Everybody. People who are in their sixties and have an ailing parent to care for are going to be benefited by this new flexibility.
And that really is what it is. It’s not about working less. It’s about balancing out the intrusion of technology into your personal life. It’s realizing that we’ve made all this room for you to check email at nine o’ clock at home, let’s make a little more room for you to go surfing on Tuesday morning.
How’s it been going bringing your son to work?
MUTHA: Amazing. I have about six more weeks and I’m aware that this is going to be the end of my teaching with my baby and I think it’s the right time to stop. I credit it with helping me with my emotional and mental wellbeing, because I could be part of my pre-pregnancy community: I wasn’t asked to divide my selves, and the message they gave me was that you’re going to be a better teacher because your child is here, because you’re a mother, and that was such a gift.
ALLYSON DOWNEY: When I had Caroline, I mostly worked from home. I started working almost full-time when she was about four weeks old. I say full-time, it was full-time between breastfeeding sessions. But I took her one day a week to meet with our developer and we had a rock ’n’ play that we pulled out, and I baby-wore the rest of the time and booked a conference room for when I wanted to nurse. I don’t know why more people don’t wear babies into meetings. There were so many times when someone would walk over to me and ask, “Is there a baby in there?”
MUTHA: Because you can’t even really tell there’s this little nugget.
ALLYSON DOWNEY: My trick was that I wore a navy blue nursing dress all the time and a navy blue Moby wrap, and it all blended together.MUTHA: I wish more workplaces were welcoming. There’s all this language around how you’re supposed to parent and so much of it is asking for mothers, because it’s going to be mostly mothers as amazing as many fathers are, to totally change their life for the baby instead of keeping your baby on your body and taking them with you into your office.
ALLYSON DOWNEY: I had a radically different experience between my first and my second baby. I had a hard recovery after my first-born and was housebound for a long time. The second baby, it was a different story. There are these “shoulds” that make women think they need to be cloistered and sequestered. But we took Caroline out with us from when she was three days old! When she was about six weeks old, my husband went to a bachelor party and my mother took my three year old for the weekend and it was just me and the newborn, and she and I had the best time together. We went to a movie. We went out to lunch. We went to a tasting menu with my friend. A six-course dinner while baby wearing.
MUTHA: What are the three most important takeaways, from the book. If you can do nothing else…?
ALLYSON DOWNEY: If you can do nothing else, make connections for other people. Because those connections will come back to you. And you don’t have to do that in person, you can do that while you’re breastfeeding on your smart phone. So much of what I’ve been able to do and accomplish for the entire last ten years of my life has been because I’m invested in building relationships, and you build a relationship by helping people. Try and introduce two people a week to other people. I’m always tracking in my head who I owe a return play date. I’m so eager to return that favor all the time, and I think that same calculus applies when you’re someone who’s helping someone professionally.
I also beat the drum on being really specific and vocal about what you want.
ALLYSON DOWNEY: Oh yes. I love that.
AD: Employers are often afraid—they think it’s the third rail to talk about work and family. If you’re planning to come back to work after maternity leave, drop that into a sentence every week. “I would like to take on this project when I’m back from my leave.”
And the third ties into that, and that is understanding that people make a lot of assumptions about pregnant women. They also make assumptions about women who are not pregnant and do not want children. A woman just told me that she had a manager at one point who said, “I just don’t think it makes that much sense for me to invest a lot in you because you’re going to have a baby at some point and you’re not going to come back.”
MUTHA: These takeaways could apply to life in general.
ALLYSON DOWNEY: The assumptions happen any time you’re vulnerable. If you have an ailing parent, and you have to go to California to care for your mother for two months after she’s had a stroke; those same questions are running through people’s minds. Is she ever going to come back from California? Is she going to be able to focus in the same way? If you are battling cancer. If you’re going through a divorce. Anything that makes you vulnerable in your personal life, makes you vulnerable in your professional life.
MUTHA: What part, if any, did race or ethnicity play in your interviewing? Did the women you interviewed cross the spectrum?
ALLYSON DOWNEY: They do. I was mindful that that was the case. The book reflects people of all socioeconomic backgrounds, of all colors, of all sexual orientations…but the themes were still the same, so I didn’t wind up calling it out. People of color were saying the same things that white women were saying. I was curious to see in gay couples, the habits formed by division of domestic duties was different according to who was on parental leave. But among the couples I interviewed, nothing clearly emerged.
I think some of the societal mores that women are taught from an early age—that we are nurturers, that we are the ones that take care of people emotionally, that we think about people’s feelings—is reinforced by the structure of leave. That mothering is, or parenting is, woman’s work. If for the first three months you’re home with the baby on maternity leave, then all of these new habits form and you become the expert. I don’t think that’s as common when you have men who are equally present. And that’s not to say that the men that are married to the women I talked to were not working as hard at being parents, and were not spending as much time doing things, but the mental space it takes up was just really different.
Personally, I work to delegate tasks to my husband. And I think that the mental work remains women’s domain, and socialization is certainly part of that, but the construct around the first three months of the baby life sets it up. Do you think it’s different for you with your husband?
MUTHA: Yes, I do. [We were both home during the newborn period.] But I will say that even when he went to work at four months, I noticed a shift, and what we had both been able to do for the baby, suddenly only I could do. Not because my husband didn’t want to, but we hit the four-month sleep regression at the same time, and suddenly I’m the only one who can put the baby to bed.
My husband and I have been together a very long time, and we’re accustomed to be being equal partners in everything. But in those early weeks we chose to be super explicit and determined to make it happen. And it required time where my husband has the baby and I’m out of the house. Even if I was just going to walk around the block. Otherwise, we have this tiny little being who’s crying and we know he’s going to stop the second I hold him and if I’m there there’s no way my husband is going to learn his own ways to soothe him, to rock him, to diaper, and so on. We found we had to be incredibly focused on making him an equal caregiver.
You cite a statistic, which showed that when her partner also has at least three months parental leave a woman’s income shows a steady incline through their career.
ALLYSON DOWNEY: Sometimes I’ve wailed in my lesser moments, “I’m so glad you want to know what you can do to help, but I wish you could do it without asking.” So then, it very much stuck in my mind. Are we setting women up for failure by not having the third member of their new family around for that time when you’re becoming a new family?
MUTHA: I think the right number of people to care for an infant is something like ten.