The Day I Understood the True Price of Success

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My father’s beloved Molly, who refused to leave his side in his last days.

I well remember the sound of the crunching of gravel as two young men steadied the heavy gurney between them. I stood in the doorway with my mother and siblings, all of us holding hands, witnessing this last journey my father would make — down the walkway he’d poured, away from the home he had built. It was his final farewell, the end of the long goodbye that had been his journey since his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s several years before.

But more than those memories, I recall with vivid clarity the sound of gravel crunching under my own feet, of my keys jangling together as I pulled them from my purse to start my own vehicle, of my own half-sobs as I struggled to hold back my own tears as I followed the van carrying my father’s body down the driveway and away from our parents’ home.

I almost wish I couldn’t recall the feeling of my heart breaking over and over as the little girl inside begged for time to grieve with family, to cry and remember the small moments that had made up our fifty-some years together as a family. The little girl inside had to stay quiet that morning so that the grownup could do what needed done.

I had a meeting within the hour with an investor, and as much as I needed to grieve, I also needed to fulfill the commitments I’d made to my cofounders and employees to secure the capital we needed for our startup.

While I am quite grateful for the grace I found to get through that meeting, I am well aware that the personal cost was incredibly high.

As business owners, we calculate and plan for a lot of costs — operations, production, marketing, new hires. We make and refine projections to understand when we will break even or start making profit. But very few of us begin this entrepreneurial journey with the same level of preparation for managing our stress, fear, exhaustion or the dynamics of our personal relationships.

I had already launched APPCityLife when my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and the demands I faced with growing a startup resulted in very limited bandwidth to help my mom with the many hurdles she faced as his disease progressed.

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My dad with my eldest son several years before Alzheimers was diagnosed

When I took time out of my work schedule to be with my parents, it was time not spent our business. When on travel or overloaded with meetings or work, I missed out on time with family that I couldn’t get back. I endured many sleepless nights worrying about how to give more, do more, and be more to my team and my family.

Life is messy, and it doesn’t come in neat little packages that focus on one thing at a time. In the middle of our ambitions and professional goals, we often come face to face with tragedy or heartache — and finding the mental and emotional balance to cope with it all can be quite difficult.

For me, finding that balance has meant embracing a healthy dose of pragmatism about what I actually owe others in the way of sacrifice and what is my own misplaced guilt.

I’ve learned to be more efficient and disciplined with my time, getting up earlier to take advantage of the quiet time in the morning before the day gets crazy. I mute text messaging and email notifications from everyone except my family and colleagues so that I can be more focused on what I am doing in the moment.

I give myself permission to be “off the grid” to recharge whenever I can.

I am grateful to be part of a supportive team that picks up the slack for each other when the demands of life and work clash. In the time that we’ve been together, all of our startup’s cofounders have faced similar difficulties as my own — and all of us have had to balance the needs of the team with the needs of our own and our families’. We’ve done our best to carry each other through the difficult moments in our lives. For me, this mutual support is one of the markers of a truly successful startup team.

Oh, and the investor I met with that day?

They didn’t invest.

Others did, and we’ve since enjoyed an incredible time of growth in our startup.

But I’m not sorry I made the effort. I learned I was stronger than I thought — and that knowledge alone has allowed me to make decisions from a place of confidence instead of fear. I am also learning that it is ok to define better boundaries for myself on what is reasonable sacrifice to seize an opportunity or meet an important milestone or deadline — and what is unnecessary or off limits.

There is a lot of conventional wisdom telling entrepreneurs to sacrifice more, give more, and push harder in order to succeed — and it really does take being “all in” to succeed. But we don’t talk nearly enough about what to do or how to cope when life happens to us on our way to success. Nor do we talk enough about redefining our own view of success to include emotionally fulfilling, healthy lives.

Maybe it’s time we do.

Originally published on Broad Insights via Inc.

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Tilting at IEP Windmills

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“The IEP allows assignments to be emailed. This wasn’t an assignment but a classroom expectation.”

This, according to my son, was the actual explanation provided to him as the reason his teacher refused to accept an assignment by email.

This, in spite of his IEP which clearly stipulates that he is allowed to turn in work by email and to use a laptop in class.

This, despite his arguments with her about his IEP – which led to a meeting with a social worker over disrupting the class – because he should just roll over and accept an F that is in violation of his IEP.

Despite all of his arguments and his efforts to advocate for the IEP that is supposed to provide him with a more even playing field, she still chose to give him an F if his assignment was not printed out. Somehow in her world, her “classroom expectations” supersede a federally mandated plan dictating my son’s individualized education accommodations.

Because my son is gifted and quite articulate, teachers so often assume that he should just ‘do it’, never mind that he has dyslexia, dysgraphia, a memory processing disorder, and a school file full of reports going back to third grade that document his need for the accommodations listed in his IEP.

After fighting similar battles for the past fifteen years, sometimes I wonder if I have it in me to deal with this kind of nonsense another day.

And then I remember that my son is facing it all day, every day.

And I realize it isn’t about how weary I am of the constant battle with his teachers and the school.

It is about my son.

And that helps me find the energy to once again tilt at windmills and help him succeed despite it seeming like such an impossibility on days like today.

Why I Don’t Feel Guilty for Being a Working Mom

IMG_0251I recall the exact moment I decided that something had to change.

I’d taken on a part-time position with a local museum which I’d taken specifically for the hours when my husband would be home with our three kids. And while I actually enjoyed the work, I also missed out on a lot – my daughter’s last year of competing at nationals for climbing as well as weekend camping trips, family suppers, and just hanging out in the back yard with the kids on a warm Saturday night.

But the moment that pushed me over the edge was when I arrived home at 3 AM on a Saturday night. I tried to open our garage door but met resistance. Pushing a little more firmly, I realized I was actually scooting my youngest son across the tile of our foyer. At some point after being tucked into bed, our youngest woke up. He did the only thing a little boy missing his mother knew to do – wait at the very spot he knew I’d return. And so he waited on the cold tile until he finally fell asleep.

I picked my son up and carried him back to his bad, pulling up the covers up and kissing his forehead. I sat at the edge of his bed for a few moments, tears welling up as his little hand gripped tightly around my finger. And in that moment I knew that no job was worth doing this to my son.

Within the month I’d resigned my position and metamorphosed from stay-at-home mom to founder of a tech company. Not that being an entrepreneur eradicated Mommy Guilt. It didn’t. But it did mean I decided what I was going to feel guilty about, because I was the one choosing the trade-offs of what I’d miss to give time to something else.

There are times now that I am definitely judged as being that mom – the one who ends up parenting her kid via cell phone while boarding a plane, who is rarely available to volunteer for anything during or after school, and the one who has more than once sent her kid off to school with a still-damp uniform after forgetting it was needed for a game after school. I’m the mom who celebrates my kid’s somewhat crappy-looking science fair entry while happily ignoring the silent condemnation of his classmates’ parents who see my hands-off approach as unsupportive. Truth is I have no desire to see if my participation in his project will earn him an A. It’s his learning experience, and if I’m judged as the mom who doesn’t help her kid with his projects, I’m ok with that. I’ve made peace with being that mom.

But I’m finished with feeling guilty. Or, at least, I’m finished letting anyone else decide what should make me feel guilty. If I blow off one of my kids or ignore them when they really need me, and I do it because I am far too immersed in my own thoughts to be present and listen, I should feel guilty about that. It is a poor choice that leaves me as inaccessible as if I wasn’t there. If I don’t parent by making my children accountable for immoral, inconsiderate, unkind, or dishonest behavior, if I don’t provide comfort and perspective when my children are wounded by life, or if I’m not accessible for the average, ordinary conversations that are actually the courage-building moments when one of my children might share one of those big issues that they’re carrying deep inside – if I am not available to be that parent, I should feel guilty.

But I’m finished feeling guilty for being gone on travel and not available at a moment’s notice to help one of my children get out of a momentary problem. Yes, I’m unavailable. But, no, it’s not the end of the world. And more often than not, it simply results in the learning moment where my kid discovers they have the inner resilience and resources to manage the issue for themselves.

I’m finished feeling guilty for not being there every morning to cook breakfast. Guess what? Cooking skills are empowering. When my teenage kid discovers he can forage in the pantry and make something to eat without setting the toaster on fire – that isn’t neglect – that’s fostering independence.

And I’m finished feeling guilty for not being invincible. There are days I’m barely treading water because of the overwhelming amount of responsibility that I have on my plate, and allowing my children to witness my own moments of weakness, vulnerability, and fear – that is a gift I am giving them. When they witness the same raw emotions coming from me which often hold the same power to derail their own pursuit of goals and dreams – and when they see me get beyond those momentary emotions to move forward – I am sharing with them the honesty of the journey, the reality of the pain and emotional toll that is taken from each of us if we are to grow to meet the challenges along the journey. I refuse to feel guilty for sharing that with my children.

IMG_3102The truth is that I absolutely love what I do now. I love our company, our vision, the problems we are helping others solve because of what we’ve built. I love the dynamics, talent and energy of our team. And I love the opportunities that have arisen along the journey – the chance to build rewarding friendships, the opportunity to launch an organization with a dear friend which is focused on empowering other women, and the privilege of being inspired by others who are pursuing their own dreams. I also love being a mother, even if the mother I am today isn’t what I imagined. I’ve made peace with the messiness of it all, because it is the mess of it all, the ebb and flow of blending all of these roles together into one reality which has helped me finally feel at peace with who I am.

The Power of What If

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I have a challenge for you. Go dig around in your kid’s school backpack (you might want to wear gloves for your own protection if your child forgets half-eaten sandwiches like mine does). Pull out a few tests and assignments, and see how many questions are similar to the following:

  • List three ways that …
  • Name four of the …
  • Define the following …
  • Calculate the …
  • Determine the …
  • Circle the answer which best …
  • Which of the following do not …
  • Write in the answer that …

Questions which evaluate memorization still make up the bulk of answers our children answer on a daily basis,  despite most of these same students owning a device which can search for just about anything and return information in a matter of seconds. For some reason, we still believe it necessary to determine if a student can recall the exact date in which the Louisiana Purchase was signed, although the chances of needing that specific tidbit of information to escape some precarious situation are quite low.

What if …

Please know I am not devaluing foundational knowledge or the need to teach our children rudimentary functions of grammar, math, science, or other academic studies. But what I am saying is that we are completely missing the boat when it comes to encouraging students to take risks, make mistakes, or explore the unknown where they can discover, invent or create.

A lot has been written about concerns over the decreasing number of young entrepreneurs, but what did we expect would result from spending twelve of a child’s most formative teaching them how to conform in their thinking? As we continue to pile on more testing mandates, no matter how well-intentioned, the result will continue to be an environment that greatly discourages exploration of ideas beyond the page – a foundational characteristic of entrepreneurship.

Asking a question that begins with What if helps us discover for ourselves what is and isn’t possible or what happens when we try something new. For myself, some of the most impactful experiences of my childhood began with some version of asking What if. I am grateful to have grown up in an era when children were allowed the opportunity to make mistakes, because we discovered that mistakes were just part of the learning process and nothing to be afraid of.

When I was about eight years old, my family lived in a neighborhood that bordered an empty field. My brother and I spent hours at a time exploring that field – chasing lizards, catching horned toads, digging in the dirt. We often asked what if and then spent days experimenting, building, and testing our answers. On this particular day, my brother and I had asked each other what might happen if we used balanced our toy magnifying glass over the head of our sister’s Barbie. In our defense, we didn’t do this to be mean; we’d simply run out of our Barbie supply, having already gone through all of mine on previous experiments. Besides, we didn’t use any of her special dolls; we found the one with the ratty hair and the teeth marks all over, thanks to a previous encounter with our dog. We buried the doll about waist deep in the sand and began our quest to discover the answer to our what if question. We were not disappointed. We learned that the sun, when filtered through a seemingly harmless toy magnifying glass, could melt plastic. While my brother and I were ecstatic with our discovery, alas, our sister was not, even after we pointed out our obvious consideration in choosing her chewed up doll.  I’m not sure she ever quite saw it our way – that she got a new doll out of it – but for me, it was well worth losing my allowance for several weeks to replace her doll.

Sure, text books had the same information, and we could have spent that summer afternoon reading about it. But I certainly wouldn’t remember it this many years later had I learned it in a book. I can still recall quite vividly that moment when the soft plastic of my sister’s doll started to sizzle and melt right before my eyes. My excitement at what I was witnessing was only slightly diminished by the realization we were going to be in trouble for destroying our sister’s toy in the process. There is something quite empowering about using actions to explore the wonder of our own mind that can never be replicated by knowledge gleaned from a text-book.

It is probably safe to say that almost everything new that exists today was a result of that single question. What if we can build a machine to fly? What if there is a cure for measles? What if … None of the innovations we enjoy today could have happened without individuals who were willing to go beyond the available knowledge to explore the What If inside of their own mind. If we want to foster a nation of entrepreneurs and inventors, then we need to encourage more What If questions – although I might recommend keeping those little plastic magnifying glasses out of reach. They’re a lot more powerful than the average eight year old might think.

Learning How to Just Shut Up and Love

When my kids were little, I thought I pretty much rocked the whole parenting thing. My kids sat still in the pediatrician’s office – at least for the first hour. They obediently held my hand all the way across the parking lot. And when one of them tried on the whole defiance attitude, I moved in swiftly with strong parental authority, setting them down firmly in a chair while telling them to sit there and think about it until I said they could get up. And nine times out of then, they did.

When my children became adults, I believed the same authority-driven parenting skills would still work. I continued to believe it would work despite multiple failed attempts proving otherwise. Making a toddler sit in a chair until they’re willing to accept your rules may be exhausting, but sitting in a chair all night wondering where you almost-adult child is … that is terrifying. I struggled quite a bit with the transition of being a mother of adult children, and it was fear that drove me to escalate my attempt to control my children as they escalated their own attempts to break free. I tried withholding affection and giving them cold shoulder. I pointed out every wrong decision and lectured whenever possible. I held strong, despite it feeling very much like bondage, believing that not giving ground was the only way to parent a child who was making choices I was sure would end badly.

And then one day my great-aunt, a sweet, quiet woman who had raised six children, pulled me aside at a family gathering. At the time, I had no idea it would be the last time I talked to her. She passed away a few days after our conversation, and I am so grateful that she intervened in my own struggle – when I hadn’t even asked for her help – to tell me that what I was doing was all wrong. Her words changed everything for me as a mother of adult children.

“I’ve learned a lot in my years on this earth, and I feel compelled to tell you something that I wish someone had told me when I was a younger mother,” she said. Something in me bristled. I didn’t want to hear that my parenting might be part of the problem. “Right now … where you are with your kids? This is the time in life when you just shut up and love them.”

She had tears in her eyes. Her advice obviously came from experience, from wisdom she’d gained at great personal cost. Not a week later, my own mother gave me the same advice, and when I received the same advice from two women who had dedicated their lives to being good mothers, who were looking back on their own journey and seeing from their side of the struggle what might have delivered better results, I knew I had to listen.

I decided to swallow my pride and try their advice.

Instead of pointing out the obvious to my kids, I just shut up.
When I felt hurt, I shut up.
When I wanted to lecture, I shut up.
When I wanted to get angry and yell, I shut up.
I just loved – whatever the cost.

And here is what I learned:

  • Just because something works well for one stage of a relationship, it doesn’t mean it will work for the next.
  • Don’t make rules that keep you in bondage.
  • Be willing to hear hard truths and swallow your pride.
  • If you want things to change, be willing to make the first move.
  • It isn’t anyone else’s job to call you, reach out to you or make the first move.
  • They don’t owe you, even if you think they do.
  • A child never learns a good lesson from a parent withholding love.
  • You can make your children fear you, but you have to earn their respect – and their love.
  • Sometimes, the right answer – the only answer – is to just shut up and love.

For me, her advice worked miracles almost overnight. The bonds that were so nearly severed, the fights that almost ripped our relationship apart – they ended abruptly when I chose to take the higher road, to give my children the space to explore their own adulthood. And they’ve made mistakes, painful ones that cost them. But instead of anger and self-righteousness, I’ve found myself filled with compassion, my heart breaking right alongside theirs. They learned they could lean on me, ask for help and advice, and they learned through their own journey that with almost all of the mistakes we make, there is still a way out, a way back – even if it is with a few scars and consequences along the way. My children found the courage to address their own problems once I wasn’t trying to wrestle the decisions away from them in order to prevent the mistakes.

I am sure that I will have to once again have to learn how to be a different mother when my children begin having families of their own. But whatever it is I have to change, I’m ready. I now know that whatever it requires on my part, it’s worth it. It’s so well worth it.

Raising Gifted Children: Rules to Live By

imageI discovered this unpublished post this morning and thought it might be worth sharing. These are a few of the rules I’ve learned to live by raising gifted children, who tend to be high intensity, high engagement, and – sometimes – highly frustrating. These are a few of the things that worked for me:

Always explain why there is a rule so that kids understand it isn’t just arbitrary. (Even if the reason is because I’m frazzled and can’t take any more. If kids know why, they’re more likely to acquiesce.)

On rules that really matter to you (pick a handful), don’t EVER give in. If you finally give in, what your child will learn is that it takes 483 times to get mom to cave and say yes.

Keep it unemotional. Don’t put your kids in charge of your emotions. If you’re crying, yelling, or out of control, your kids will feel out of control and won’t be nearly as likely to comply.

Negotiating and Bribing aren’t always bad, and sometimes they are the most expedient path to a desired result. If it is the only tool you use, it will lose its power, so use with care.

My eldest, now a fine arts major in college, freaked out about textures and buttons on clothes when she was small. I decided it wasn’t something I wanted to fight on a daily basis, so for about 5 years, her clothes were all a specific type of material and did not have buttons. She now is nicknamed Crayola because she wears the entire spectrum of colors and textures at once. I’m so glad I didn’t expend energy creating a power struggle over something that didn’t matter in who she became as an adult.

So my question is why is it so bad for your kiddo to play with figurines in bed?

Isn’t the goal for him to be confined to his room so that he can unwind and not bug you anymore for that night? I am convinced gifted kids need or at least get less sleep. Their little minds go a mile a minute and take longer to unwind. The rule in our house has always been about going to bed and staying in the bedroom except to go to the bathroom. If the bathroom trips became excessive, then there was a warning that if another bathroom trip happened that night, then the next day something would be taken away arbitrarily. The fear of not being able to weigh whether it was worth a specific item being taken away for one more foray out into the family area almost always worked.

My little guy used to do full-out Star Wars fights all by himself in his room, complete with light sabers. As long as he didn’t come out, I didn’t bother him. Once he started school, we did add a rule that the light had to be off by 9 PM. Half his bed is filled with figurines, and I hear him talking in the dark many nights.

As to the nuancing of rules, as in the “you didn’t say to do it TODAY”, I’ve definitely had my share of that. I’ve handled it two ways. I’ve learned to get very specific, because it really does help. And I’ve also called my kid on the carpet for evading something by pretending it was my fault for not being more specific with a comment like, “If you want to try to play me, go ahead. But know that you are still just as responsible for what I asked you to do. If you continue to do this, I’ll add more responsibilities to give you more practice until you decide you want to respect what I’ve asked you to do.”