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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.

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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.

  1. We will always have family meal time.
  2. No matter what meal we decide to share, it will be uninterrupted time. No friends, no family, no work, just us.
  3. Meal time does not have to be a four-course meal. Hamburger helper and rolls is a meal.
  4. We will communicate our meal time expectations to the kids in advance so they can be prepared.
  5. We will start every meal time with a family prayer.
  6. We will be flexible and adjust as our family needs change.
Just having it down on paper made me feel better. When I went to sleep that night, my body already felt more relaxed. I slept like a baby.
It worked for a few years. If the meal was morning breakfast, no matter how harried we were to get out the door and start our busy days, we were intentional about making it happen. Most mornings, I cooked a hot breakfast. It wasn’t a huge task for me—breakfast meals were easier than others to prepare. I could do it in about a half an hour. It was perfect to get everyone up, dressed and at the table together by 6:30am. We would always start the morning playing music to wake up the house—music that got us dancing and singing so that by the time we got to the breakfast table all the morning grumpies were gone. These times were so great for me. I love cooking. Preparing meals is one way I express my love to others. In the times when an evening worked better, we planned and would make that happen instead. Our daughter enjoys cooking too and for dinner she often joined me in the kitchen. She is actually a great baker, which is a part she didn’t get from me. It’s something she learned spending time with her grandmother. That time in the kitchen was our mother-daughter bonding time. She enjoyed it and so did I. My husband and son cooked too. As the kids got older, they rotated Fridays preparing dinner for the family. Mealtime became exactly what we wanted it to be—an atmosphere filled with love. Crowded into the kitchen. Scooting past each other. The sound of pots clinking. The rush of water in the sink turning on and off. Stirring what was on the stove. Countless trips to the refrigerator. My husband turning on some music or starting our favorite show on the DVR. My son standing over the shoulders of whoever was cooking to ask, “What are you cooking?” or “Can I taste test?” The occasional spill. Each of us finding the appropriate dishes to fix our portions of the meal. Setting the table. Calling each person by name, rattling off beverages in the refrigerator, asking, “What do you want to drink?” Sunday evenings, we would plan which meals we’d have together according to the upcoming week’s schedule. But as happens in life, it sometimes gets in the way. As the kids got older, our lives got even busier. Despite what had been until then a successful plan, and even though we wanted to have meals together on a regular basis, there was a period of six months when we hardly had a single meal together. Sure, we ate, but it was on the run. We would stop at a fast food restaurant when we were leaving dance practice. It was not uncommon to text my son and instruct him to pick up something to eat for himself. Our schedules had grown so chaotic between our children’s activities and our own careers, we lost ourselves in the grind of life. Even on weekends, we would sleep in. As we each got up, we would take care of our own breakfast. Being that my family was a top priority for me you would think the disconnect would have bothered me. I guess that it didn’t speaks to just how busy I had become. One day, my daughter and I were out running errands. Many times we used car time to chat about random things. We were waiting in the drive-thru line to order. I took advantage of the lag time to check my phone for email, text, and social media updates. My daughter had her face in her phone as well. All of a sudden, she said, “Mom, why did we stop having family meals together?” It took me a minute to register what she had said. An immediate feeling of guilt rushed over me. “That’s a great question,” I finally replied. It was my way of stalling until I could come up with an answer. As I inched forward in the drive-thru line, my first thought was Well we are still together. We watch a show together regularly. But what she seemed to suggest is that just wasn’t the same. After sitting in silence for a moment, I tried to offer an excuse that—even as I said it—I realized wasn’t enough. “You know, we have just gotten so busy that family meals have taken a backseat.” She looked at me. “We should bring them back,”she said. “Good point,” I responded. Then we picked up our food and drove home. She seemed to accept this brief exchange as sufficient, because our conversation turned to her educating me on the latest pop music as it blasted from the radio. But her question stuck with me. Later on, I decided to ask my son how he felt about family meal time. He agreed with his sister. So we made a renewed effort to bring them back. I came to understand just how much our children had grown to enjoy family meal time—maybe even saw it as a necessity for their well-being. They were able to feel connected to us just as my husband and I wanted to with them. Family mealtime remains a priority for us today. Our son is away for his sophomore year in college. I am away for work in Chicago during the week. However, when we are all under the same roof, it’s back to the table to share a meal and catch up. Mealtime is still an opportunity for my husband and me to connect with the kids. We learn about the important things happening in their lives. We share some details of our lives with them too. But mostly, we use the time to talk about anything the kids want to discuss. It is not rare for a high-five (or two, or three) to fly across the table during family meal time. We also used the time to talk about social issues or news topics. I encourage all families to find what works for them. Family meal time worked for us. It was something we could control and plan as our family’s routine evolved. As a busy professional whose days always mean some sort of multi-tasking, I came to see family meal time that way too. I am feeding my family, having meaningful dialogue, and connecting with the heart of who they are all at the same time. That’s what managing multiple priorities is all about—finding activities and actions that will accomplish multiple things at once. But I had to admit one major difference. When it comes to family, it’s not so much about the quantity, but quality. Something my son said that day when I asked him about missing our mealtimes perhaps captured it best of all. “Mom,” he said, “we have fun together. We laugh.” In the end, is there any better way to connect?

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Pull Up!

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.
But before you do all of these things, admit that you have been an active participant in the systemic oppression that has impeded the progress of Blacks (in corporate America) with your silence, ignorance and efforts (lack thereof). Like the phenomenal woman Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” It is all on you!

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“ Your strength is how calmly,
quietly and peacefully

you face life”



I have worked with Kenya Dunn as my executive coach for nearly two years now. During that time, she has provided invaluable insights and outside perspective to my career journey. During our initial intake

Amy Bates, Director of Client Services, Springbuk

Kenya’s approach to executive coaching is unparalleled. She meets clients where they are in their career journey and engages them with a professional, customized plan, helping develop and sustain measurable outcomes. With experience working

Emily Reynolds, Principal, Mercer