How I learned to balance career and motherhood
I was sitting in my therapy session talking about my career success. I was feeling good as I reflected over the last 12 years of my life.I had accomplished in 12 years what could take many 20 or 30. Like many new mothers, though, I quickly realized that now I was responsible for another person’s life. A tremendous burden overcame me. It was my first Oh Sh*t moment as a mother. Two and half years later, it happened again. I was so excited before my daughter came into my life. I had two years of practice and knew what to expect, so the anxiety was minimal. That is, until she came on that Sunday morning around 10:00. It was like deja vu. As I held her in my arms, her eyes were wide open and she stared into my soul—just as her brother did two and half years before—looking for the answers to life. Another Oh Sh*t. When I was a teenager, I learned the power of setting goals and a vision. The process has served me well. When I used it to set my mind on leadership, I became Class President in high school. So when I became a mother, I tried the same strategy that had yielded great results, even from the start. I set a vision as a mother. “What kind of mother will I be?” I wrote in my journal. I will be the kind of mother who will always love my son. I will be his first teacher. He will learn the fundamentals of life from me. He will know what love is because he has experienced it with me. In 2002, when I had my daughter, I added to my vision. My children will know what success in life looks like because I will be their example. I will teach them the responsibility of serving others. I will demonstrate what commitment and sacrifice look like. They will know what a relationship with God looks like by my own example. So there it was. I knew I would be a great mother. After all, I had set a vision. I had no doubt I could live up to it. Who knew that getting a new job would change everything! I had been working since I was 14 years old. I knew how to work and have a life outside of it—I was well practiced. So when a new opportunity came along to join a company that was growing and making a name for itself in the wireless industry, I was excited. I was going to be working for a woman I had been enamored of during my interview. She was an accomplished professional, a wife, and a mother. Confidence and intelligence oozed from her lips when she spoke. It was electrifying. I knew I would learn a lot from her—not only as a professional, but also about how to be a wife and a mother. The first day we met, she wore a St. John black suit with gold zippers. Her make-up was flawless, and her red lipstick said I’m Fierce. What’s more, she was an African American woman, like me. By that time, my kids were both in elementary school. Recreational activities were already “a thing.” Dance, football, karate, church activities… then add parent-teacher conferences, school programs and field trips. No worries—I had my vision as a mother to keep me focused on what I was going to accomplish. But my vision failed to prepare me for the emotional journey that lay in the shadows where that vision and the reality of balancing motherhood and career intersected. Every morning, I would get my kids ready for school and we would eat breakfast together. But I often worked into the evening, and the reality that my third grader and kindergartener would not see my face again until the next day constantly pulled on my heart. I wonder if hearing me say “I love you” at least 100 times each morning ever made my kids think I was crazy. When I dropped them at school, I would spend extra time hugging and kissing them before they ran off. It was my way of ensuring that they knew I loved them more than anything in this world. It also served as fuel for my heart to make it through another day. From the start, my new role came with a tremendous amount of new responsibilities. We started our day at 9:00, and usually didn’t wrap up until around 8:00—bedtime for my kids. I would leave the office feeling accomplished. I met the goals I had set for the day. I interacted with amazing people, and I felt great about my team’s progress. I would spend much of the drive home mentally planning what I could do tomorrow to have an even better day. And I was committed to always being that count on me teammate. But then, I would pull into my driveway. The stillness and dark windows of the house reminded me that my family was asleep. It would hit me like a ton of bricks, and my high from the day would be overcome by sadness. The lights off when I got home felt like a message that I was disconnected from the power of my family. What did I miss during dinner conversation? Did my kids have a great day too? What challenge did they face that I didn’t know about? Did they climb into bed without answers? Did they remember to say their prayers? Without me there to tell them, did they go to sleep knowing they are the most important people in my life? It was torture. Some evenings, I would sit in my car and cry to release the pressure. The greatest moments would be if one of the kids couldn’t get to sleep immediately, and instead of walking into a still house I was greeted with a small voice: “Momma, is that you?” I would drop everything and rush to their room, worried they would fall asleep in the thirty seconds it took to get there. Being the mother of two wonderful kids has been my greatest joy. I know my motivation for driving toward ultimate success was to lead by example. I was determined to show them the way. There were two people watching—even if no one else was. That reality was and still is my north star. As their mother, I believe it is one of the best gifts I can offer. But that never seemed to make the feeling of mother’s guilt that often plagued me during that time subside. The even greater gift, I knew, was to give my love and support—to nurture my kids through good times and bad, and coach them through those moments that form who they will become in the world. But to do this, I came to realize, I had to be available and present. And there’s the dilemma, one I didn’t anticipate when I wrote my vision. How could I give my kids the gift of love and support while also nurturing a thriving career? One day, I decided to ask my boss for advice on how to manage my mother’s guilt. She had just sent her son off to college. I didn’t want her to see my questioning as weakness, so when I walked into her office that afternoon I didn’t come right out and say, “I feel like an awful mother. And it is eating me up inside.” Instead, I asked, “When you were raising your son, how did you ensure he was taken care of while you were working?” The look she gave me sent a rumbling in my stomach. She stared at me with a face as unemotional as a mother disappointed with her child. But then, she smiled and told me to sit down. “What is it that you really want to ask me?” she said. “What’s wrong?” That question felt like freedom! I realized I could be vulnerable about how I was feeling. So I told her I felt like I was choosing my career over my family. We talked for hours. What I appreciated most was how patient she was as I took her on my emotional roller coaster ride. I told her how I feared that one day my kids would reveal to me how I let them down for not being there enough. In the next breath, I would affirm that I was making the right decision because I wanted to show them that hard work pays off. I could not believe how much I cried, sitting there with her that evening. Eventually, I got to the heart of it. “How do you manage all the pressure of being a mother and having a career?” She never answered my question. But she did help me talk through what would work for me and my family. Her first piece of advice has stayed with me all these years. “Relax, Kenya,” she said. “You are getting yourself all worked up over what you think will happen.” She suggested that I make a list of people who could help out with my kids. And she said to pick one day a week and go eat lunch with them at school. At the end, I gave her the tightest hug. “Thank you,” I said. I left feeling 50 pounds lighter. Our conversation and the plan we made had helped release the pressure of my mother’s guilt. I now appreciate that my boss didn’t just tell me what she did to manage it all. See, that’s the thing about motherhood—there is no one way to do it. You have find what works for you and your family. It’s a game of trial and error. I am glad that I didn’t give in to the guilt and choose one role at the expense of the other. Instead, I created a plan that allowed me to successfully balance being a mother and a professional. Today, I am the proud mother of a 19-year-old college student and a 16-year-old high school student. And I have come to learn that motherhood makes the best parts of you shine even more brightly. Without a doubt, my own career success has shown me that my children can accomplish anything in life. They can run successful companies. They can serve on boards of directors, or even as Chief Executive Officer of a Fortune 500 company. And now, ironically, I’m the one female colleagues who are mothers sometimes come to when they feel the struggle I once did. Can I say that I got it all perfect? No. What I can say is that my kids not only survived, they thrived. And so have I.Read More
How My Busy Family Stays Connected
At the start of my career, when our children were young, being present for them was a constant struggle for me. Whether it was working late, traveling, job transitions for both my husband and me, or one period when our family actually lived apart, feeling disconnected caused a lot of sleepless nights and tears. As I continued to pursue my career, the challenge did not get any easier. From the time they started elementary school, our son and daughter also had very full lives. Both were active in activities outside of school. Our son played football and took karate. Our daughter took dance and gymnastics lessons. My husband and I were constantly running from school to work to after school activities. We also had our own obligations outside of work. He and I were both active in our church and the community. On top of all that, I had just taken the first of several steps up the corporate ladder. So our lives were busy. One night, after a couple of particularly fretful weeks, my husband and I had a conversation. I was unable to sleep because I was beginning to worry about my family. I told him how concerned I was that with my new job and the growing demands of our kid’s lives we would start to lose our closeness as a family. My husband has always had this way of saying everything will be alright. And that night was no different—he reassured me that would not happen. I appreciated his assurance, but I needed a plan. Call it my type A personality, but plans make me feel better. Lists make me feel better. There we sat in bed, with pen and paper, and made a list of things about our lives we did manage to control. For our part, my husband and I owned the time we spent together. We made a conscious effort to maintain our closeness. We implemented date nights. We had our favorite television shows that we watched together. We attended Sunday service together. We knew it benefited our relationship. But as we talked we realized that didn’t always extend to our time as a family. So, we made a plan. We decided having meals together was the solution. The ideal would have been breakfast and dinner together every single day. But we had to accept that, given our busy careers, that was unrealistic. So instead of making a hard and fast rule about what meal we ate together, this is what we wrote—our commitment going forward. I came to call them our guiding principles for family meal time.
- We will always have family meal time.
- No matter what meal we decide to share, it will be uninterrupted time. No friends, no family, no work, just us.
- Meal time does not have to be a four-course meal. Hamburger helper and rolls is a meal.
- We will communicate our meal time expectations to the kids in advance so they can be prepared.
- We will start every meal time with a family prayer.
- We will be flexible and adjust as our family needs change.
I was on a video call for a community committee when my world started crashing. I had just spent the past 48 hours along with the rest of Black America facing the reality that another unarmed African American had been murdered. This was on the heels of the murder of a Black woman killed in her apartment, a Black man murdered while jogging, and a white woman falsely reporting a Black man for trying to “hurt” her. As a leader in my community, I accept the responsibility that my response and reaction to moments is being watched. Others get their “next steps” and “response” by watching me. “Before we start the meeting, let’s do our check-in.” the host of the meeting stated. This is the way we begin every meeting to gage everyone’s energy level. “Please type in the chat how you are feeling,” she instructed us. “RAGING AND TRYING TO LOVE,” I typed as the tightness in my chest grew stronger. I reached out to my therapist for an emergency session to help me walk through my feelings. I wanted nothing more than to get myself back into a place of love and productivity. “It sounds like these events have triggered your own trauma,” the therapist replied. She was right — it did. The rage that I felt was the reality that the murder of George Floyd is indicative of the extreme injustices against African Americans in multiple “spaces.” I appreciate the increased outcry from my white colleagues and friends who have used their voices to advocate for justice, bring light to racism in America, and simply reach out to express their love and support for me personally. I am also appreciative of the companies and organizations who are using their platforms as a voice against the mistreatment of Blacks. There are brands like Ben & Jerry’s who have been using their platform to stand against racial injustice (racial justice is in their core values) or Nike for their support of Colin Kaepernick. Even the Starbucks, Googles and ABC corporations of the world, who were forced to address the issue because of incidents that propelled them into the spotlight. And, I cannot forget companies like, AT&T and McDonalds who have long supported our community with their financial resources. While I applaud the efforts to have the conversations by several companies, it is simply not enough. A Facebook post read, “I see a lot of corporate leaders sharing their so-called concern for hate and racism. Yet they are the same ones that overlook the Black and Brown for promotions, opportunities, and raises. Let’s see what real programs are established to foster change…” According to a report by the Center for Talent Innovation in 2019, Black professionals held only 3.2% of executive jobs and only 0.8% of all Fortune 500 CEO positions. In the same study, only 16% of the white professionals surveyed agreed that it is harder for Black professionals to advance in corporate America, compared to 65% of African Americans in the study. The findings in this report are not new, the business case for diversity has been around for years now. Companies have spent billions on diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, and yet little has changed for African Americans. The reality is that there is not enough intentionality within organizations to understand, embrace and promote African Americans. This negligence has a direct impact on our families and communities. On May 29, 2020, the American Psychological Association issued a statement calling racism a pandemic. They also declared its toll on African Americans. The statement included the health consequences such as depression, anxiety, cardiovascular disease, and post-traumatic stress disorder. When I read the statement by the A.P.A. president, I recalled the realities that I and many other African Americans face inside these corporations who claim to care and take up cause. Discrimination, microaggressions, similarity bias, poor human resources management, intercompany politics, and company environments that “reward” code-switching are all a part of the structure that must be addressed to eliminate racism against Blacks in the workplace. I often tell the story of when I received my first promotion into the executive ranks. I was determined to be an example of excellence in work ethic, achieving work success and elevating others. I am both proud of and disappointed in what I have been able to accomplish. I am proud because there are several people of color across multiple organizations who have grown their careers because of my influence, guidance, and platform. However, I am disappointed because I was met with resistance to getting to the root of the problem for sustained change and was isolated in the process. I could do a series of books on the incidents of racism within the workplace that I experienced personally and helped other African Americans navigate over my 20-year corporate career. From discriminating against hair styles, dialect, the way we express our passion for our jobs and our communities, not being afforded an opportunity without any explanation of substance, to being isolated and outcast. The list is long, exhausting, and traumatic. “Kenya… What can I do?” My text messages and social media inboxes have been flooded with this type of communication this week. So, to my friends and colleagues in corporate America, be an ally.
- Start by taking a hard look at your practices for special assignments, hiring, and promotions. How do you measure success in your diversity, inclusion, and equity efforts?
- Look at the makeup of your most senior, highest earning positions in your company and assess the “true” value for the work that African Americans bring to your company.
- Create safe spaces within your organization to talk about the issues that plague Black communities.
- In your most uncomfortable moments with an African American, challenge yourself to take a step back and check your biases.
- Put your money, resources, and support behind events and causes unique to the African American community.
So Now What?
Have you recently attended a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion conference or conversation? Now you are asking yourself, what do I do with what I learned? You are not alone. Last Wednesday I spent the day with nearly 200 local business leaders and professionals at the second-annual Diversity, Equity and Inclusion conference in the beautiful city of Charleston,South Carolina. The theme for the conference was “From Intention to Action.” The purpose of the conference was to get the business community off the sidelines and into the game of creating equitable opportunities and outcomes for their employees and the community. As we wrapped up the day, the energy in the room was buzzing with inspiration, hope and enthusiasm. I left feeling accomplished! The conference was a success.We delivered on our promise of an experience that provided insight and practical tips for participants to take back to their businesses. On my drive home, although I was elated and had a great sense of satisfaction about the day, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Now what?” As I moved in and out of lanes trying to avoid getting caught in the “5 o’clock” rush hour traffic, I was thinking about what more I could do to continue to move the business community to action. A pressure that many who lead, or influence Diversity, Equity,and Inclusion work carry on our shoulders every day. Those thoughts, while quickly turning on my blinkers to get into the correct lane so that I don’t miss my exit, led me to write this blog. As my truck made the u-shaped exit ramp, a thought occurred to me, “I am sure leaders left the conference asking themselves the same two-word question that I had, “Now what?” If youare wondering what to do with all the information and insights you gained from your last DE+I conference or conversation, here are five of my recommendations. 1)Facilitate a discussion of those who attended the event. Gather their key takeaways and learnings. Don’t just ask them what their takeaways are, ask this question, “What is at least one thing you think we can do at our company with this new information?” 2)Create a list of three to five actions that your company will take because of what you learned. 3)Create a list of ideas or actions you still need more information on and who from the conference may be able to help you. Did you hear an idea that you want to implement in your organization? Reach out immediately. 4)Appoint someone with decision-making authority to convene a group to dive deeper into the three to five actions. 5)Set a date to follow up on the team’s progress. TIP: Set a schedule of regular follow-up meetings. As a former executive, I know how important developing a plan of action is to accomplish organizational goals.Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion effortsare no different. My challenge to all of you… Identify at least one policy, practice or program you can change, modify or create in your organization that will get your company one step closer to creating equitable opportunities and outcomes. Do this within 90 days of attending a conference or conversation about diversity, equity, and inclusion. We know that to make meaningful lasting change is a journey. But as Henry David Thoreau said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” Take one step, today.Read More
What About Your Friends?
I was sitting in my therapy session talking about my career success. I was feeling good as I reflected over the last 12 years of my life.I had accomplished in 12 years what could take many 20 or 30. As I sat on her couch recalling the elation I felt at every victory, smiling from ear to ear, gazing off into the corner of the room as if it were a movie playing called, My Successful Life, she asked me a question that I was not expecting. “What worries do you have for your future?” That was a loaded question. My mind quickly scrambled– children transitioning into adulthood, marriage, health, spirituality, finances—you know the regular stuff. As I continued to ponder the question a small twinge in my stomach said, “What about your friends?” or as long as I can remember my friendships have always been of highest importance for me. I think it is perhaps the way I soothe myself through some of life’s most difficult moments. It may also be because I have had more positive friendship experiences than bad ones. Whatever the reason, that day, sitting on my therapist’s couch I admitted out loud that I was concerned that my life was rapidly changing and I had no idea how my friends fit or even if they wanted to. “I have been blessed with these amazing women in my life who have been on this ride with me but as I think about where I know I am going next I don’t know if they will be there, or if they want to be. That scares me.” I explained. In the last 15 years or so my friendships have become an integral part of my success formula. God has blessed me through these relationships. When I picture my friendships, I am free. I am not mom, wife, leader, boss, coach, blah, blah, blah. I am Kenya. It is a place where I go to laugh, cry, pray, plan, be encouraged and even get talked off the ledge. It is a sanctuary of peace for me. After I went on and on helping my therapist get acquainted with who were the G.F.F.s and the Sissies as well as the other jewels that God has placed in my life with our own special one on one relationships, she responded. “Sounds like some amazing women who love and support you. What exactly are you worried about?” “I want to make sure that I continue to nurture those relationships. I want them to know they are important to me. I want to be confident that who I am becoming is being seen and respected. I don’t want to gain all of this success and lose in friendships.” I replied. I always call my close friendships a blessing from God because I have found these women to be reflections of how I show up in the world. They are also the place where I can go when I am in search of strength, courage, faith, dignity, perseverance, and wisdom in action. Because they are authentically who they are, I am a constant student in their presence. These are some truly dope women!!! At my therapist’s advice, I created a series of questions that I wanted to know from my tribe and sent it to each of them asking them to respond. NO, they did not all respond and that’s OK. The value in the exercise for me was to get clear about my concerns so that I could release the unnecessary pressure from myself. The answers that I received helped me to see some of my friends more deeply than I had in a long time. I ended up having phone conversations with a few of them to expand on the questions and answers. It was a valuable exercise. How has it helped me in my success journey? I am reaffirmed in our friendships for sure. But the biggest value is that I am not alone as I lean into God’s purpose for my life. My friends are leaning into His purpose for their lives too. We are learning and thriving together, even though we do not talk every day. Even when it does not feel like we are thriving, we know that we are. We embrace the roller coaster ride hand in hand or side by side with our hands up, screaming the whole time. What’s My Advice for You? Take stock in the value you place on your friendships. If they are of high importance to your success, then make time to check in with each other. Set virtual coffee or wine dates. You will be surprised what you learn about each other even though you know each other so well. If friendships are not of high importance to you, then this blog is not for you. And that is OK. I appreciate you for tuning in any way. So, what about MY friends? I am surrounded by the DOPEST women who accept me for who I am yet challenge me when I am not showing up as my best self. They understand what I call “the art of friendship” because they also know when to let me be. They give space AND they hold space. Or as Proverbs 27:17 says, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” #itsachoice I cannot explain why God made me this way, collecting friends at every new journey. I do not question that. I do, however, thank Him that He has not left me on this journey alone.” Kenya DunnRead More
Fact vs Fiction
As a child I enjoyed reading fictional books. As I got older, my preference turned to non-fiction. If you were to look at my collection of books today you would never know that I loved books based on fictional characters, who lived in places that don’t exist in the real world. What I loved most about fictional books is that it was a chance for my mind to wander.
Literally as I read books, I would create images of these fake people and fake places so much so that they would sometimes become real to me. It was an opportunity for me to use my imagination.
Our imagination is highly valuable to us because it is the source of our creativity. However, our imagination can sometimes lead to self-sabotaging, self-defeating behaviors that keep us from achieving our goals and reaching our maximum potential.
This week I have had the privilege to meet with several coaching clients. I was inspired to write this blog as a result of a trend that I noticed in my interactions. When we began to talk through their wins and “stuck-points”, they each found it easier to speak about their “stuck-points” and struggled to find “wins”. But it was not until I spoke to the last client that the root of the issue hit me.
This client has been in her role for nearly a year, yet her “stuck-point” is that she feels like she still does not know everything she needs to know to be highly effective. She even took pride in telling me how she had set up time with others in her organization to fill in the gaps for her. When she finished talking, I said, “Let’s stop for a moment and make a list of all the things you still don’t know.”
When she was not able to concisely articulate anything meaningful, it created a moment for me to level set with her. My approach varies by client. To her, I simply said, “Write this down.”
“I know everything I need to know to be my most effective self and what I don’t know, I will learn.”
What was happening to this client, happens to a lot of us.
We start believing the story we are telling ourselves as truth, the worst part is we do not realize that we are even telling ourselves such a story.
She and I spent some time talking about the story she was telling herself. She kept telling herself that she did not know everything she needed to know to be effective in her role. Not only did this create anxiety within her, it affected how she showed up at work.
I remember facing this giant within myself in my early career. I read books and attended seminars about how as women we struggle with the feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt in the workplace. Every time I heard that I would say, “yes, I do.”
One day (BC—before children) I was having a conversation with a person who had never worked in corporate America a day in his life. He was just a wise older person that I enjoyed talking to. He told me about the importance of maintaining my confidence in every situation. He had spent much of his life advocating for civil rights. He told me that in order to maintain confidence you must get good at not letting the things people say about you or the way they make you feel seep into your person (soul). I never forgot his advice and I always work diligently to protect my person (soul).
But what I now know about when I am experiencing feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, is that it has little to do with what others are attempting to do (to me) and everything to do with what I am doing to myself. I am making up stories in my mind that cause anxieties and slowly steal my confidence.
So, what might some of these stories sound like?
“I have only been on the team for 3 months, there is still so much more for me to learn.”
“By the way everyone looked when I spoke, I must have said something wrong.”“The silence in the room when I made my point obviously means what I think doesn’t matter.”
“I must be doing this all wrong because I should have mastered it by now.”
I learned a way to not allow those thoughts and feelings to control me. I learned to get a handle on my destructive imagination.
I developed a way to separate fact from fiction in my most anxious moments.
When I find myself in moments when I feel inadequate or lack, I stop, and check in with me.
Take three deep breaths (5 secs in, 7 secs out)
Get a pen and paper.
Find a quiet place and answer this question: What is the story I am telling myself in this moment?
In your story there will be facts and fiction. Your task is to separate them.
The facts are usually your feelings: I feel scared. Facts can also be your current situation: This is my first time presenting my business to a potential investor.
Fiction is usually judgment that you are passing on yourself: I am not ready for this. Fiction is also the worse-case scenario you are playing in your mind: If I don’t do this perfectly, I will lose my opportunity to be considered for a promotion.
Once you have separated fact from fiction, spend a few moments acknowledging the facts and affirming yourself.
It might go something like:
“Yes, I am scared but I am prepared. I know my performance. I can articulate my plan.”
When we use our positive imagination to rewrite the story (we are telling ourselves) in service of our passions, goals and aspirations, we restore our confidence. And it is OUR responsibility to restore us, not someone else’s.
WARNING: This work takes intention, time and tenacity.
So, what should you do with those fictional components of your story? My advice? Say a prayer, extend yourself grace and release them to the universe. YOU HAVE NO NEED FOR THEM.
“We all have patterns that make us feel deficient. That is not the problem. The problem is when we accept those patterns as truth.” – Kenya DunnRead More