Discover more from Mind the Beet
A working mom's framework for balancing two active careers
Two moms and product leaders discuss what it takes
👋🏻 Hello community! This week, I’d love to share a collab I’m doing with a fellow working mom who is a VP of Product at Productable, Bhavika Shah. Bhavika and I met through a Women in Product Slack community and it reminded me how much in common we have as women, product leaders, and moms.
Check out and subscribe to her newsletter, Working Mom - especially if you are looking for insights and resources. For example, I learned that there is a Working Mom’s support group that you can sign up for!
[Bhavika] What do you do for work?
[Helen] I work at a late-stage startup that serves adult learners to help them upskill and reskill in service of economic mobility. I drive the student product experience from onboarding through conversion and engagement on our platform. I have a couple of teams under me and engineering and design counterparts. I love getting to solve interesting problems with smart people. My other passion is coaching so getting to do product work and coaching people I work with on a daily basis is very satisfying.
[Bhavika] What does a best case work day look like?
[Helen] My best day is one that I was able to plan. It would mean that I got to do deep thinking/strategy/customer insights work in the morning and then have a mix of product reviews and brainstorms and coaching 1:1s in the afternoon with people on my team.
[Bhavika] How has parenting changed as your kids went from toddlers to their current age?
[Helen] When the kids were younger, my life felt transactional. Winning meant getting through the day - changing diapers, feeding, bathing, reading a book, getting the kids to bed, etc. And because sleep was unpredictable, a day could get derailed at any time, so I had to be very pointed with my time at work. Parenting taught me to ruthlessly prioritize. Tactically during that period, it was hard to have hobbies or extra time with co-workers or friends. When I had extra time, I would sleep or workout. It was all about survival and meeting basic needs.
Now there’s a little more time. Kids are in school longer and they have a lot of activities (I can see why Uber for kids like start-ups are trying to figure out this market). In some ways, it’s busier and more hectic, but it also feels physically easier. For example, two years ago, my husband and I decided to start a blog on parenting, leadership, and product management - Mind the Beet, the kids were four and seven. Things were more tenable and we were both able to commit to writing a weekly post.
One other big shift that happened to us as kids moved from the toddler phase to elementary school is the establishment of family norms as they align with our values. Some examples include using TV as a tool to help us manage, daily reading rituals and the mentality of self-sufficiency and 100% responsibility.
[Bhavika] You mention your use of screen time as a tool - I love that and we follow a similar philosophy for our son. Can you expand on that and talk about the other family practices have you found helpful?
[Helen] TV - it’s a tool that is in service of parenting sanity. We opt to use TV when it helps us get life and work done. So kids watch TV in the mornings when we try to sleep, on travel days or if we have late meetings and kids need to be occupied. But to that end, we don’t utilize screens during dinner time. This means that as we go places where dinners take longer (family gatherings or Paris this summer) - we plan for what that will look like and how to get kids fed and either excused or occupied. To that end, I carry age-appropriate activities to restaurants and we also have a list of conversational topics and games to help dinners go smoothly.
Reading and learning - daily routine. My husband and I have strong conviction that fostering a love of learning and specifically reading is a gift we should give to our children. So even as kids are getting older, we continue to read to them every night and reach for books in our spare time.
Morning efficiencies - As they got older and I didn’t have childcare in the mornings anymore (when my youngest started kindergarten), we switched to a checklist. The checklist has both pictures and words for morning tasks like wash your face, make the bed, pack a snack and they just check things off as they go each morning.
[Bhavika] Insert amazement here from me, a toddler mom. I asked Helen how she gets them to follow it and she was like what do you mean?
[Helen] We tell them to, and they do. Amazing 🤩
And sometimes they don’t - they might get distracted and we just bring them back to the checklist. It’s an activity to do and there are fun items, too, like doing a dance or the word of the day.
[Bhavika] Are there parts of work you bring into parenting or vice versa?
[Helen] Curiosity is the big thing. I’m big into letting kids try and solve their own problems and not prescribing a solution for them unless it’s safety related - like crossing the street. Being curious about what they’re going through, what their ideas are, asking a lot of what/how questions, not a lot of yes/no questions. All the things we do at work, too, right? I try to create spaciousness for feelings, and conversations in daily life at home and at work as much as possible.
[Bhavika] How do you balance the parenting load with your husband?
[Helen] My husband and I try to be interchangeable, while still sometimes specializing in certain things - a good parallel to being a T-shaped product manager.
To make this real, I travel once a month so I’m gone for 3 or 4 days. While we have systems set up in place to manage our day-to-day - shared calendars, and WhatsApp carpool groups, when I travel for work, I don’t do anything special to prep the household like pre-make meals or do carpool communication ahead of time. We seamlessly pass the ball of day-to-day responsibility between us and add our own twist to it and embrace it as opposed to trying to micromanage it. For example, when I am out of town, the family goes out to eat more than they do when we are all home. They have rituals and special restaurants that they go to together. This gives everyone something to look forward to and to break up the hard work of single parenting.
This works in reverse as well. Last week my husband was out of town and our patio flooded so I needed to figure it out. I called a friend and learned how to stop the leak. When my husband and I were able to check in, we made a plan for the next steps. But no trip was cut short or plans canceled because of a problem at home. Having said that, we still have our specializations - he’s responsible for taxes and I manage the babysitter rolodex. But we try to be as interchangeable as possible because we want to be able to substitute for each other in a pinch.
[Bhavika] Since you and your husband are both in leadership positions, does that ever come into conflict? How do you decide whose job is more important on any given day?
[Helen] We actually have talked about this a lot - we have not found a lot of role models in our lives where both spouses had active careers. So to accommodate this, we communicate and try to be intentional about whose important or urgent thing we are prioritizing at any given time.
A specific example where this comes up is around work travel. I travel monthly but for shorter periods of time. My husband travels quarterly but for a week at a time. Tactically, he supports me monthly but when he has a big trip coming up, I work my monthly travel around his quarterly one. For short term priorities (someone has an early or a late meeting and we need to juggle kid pick up/drop off) - we look at the week ahead every Sunday and write down who is doing drop off, who is in charge of dinner and who is on point for carpool. We also reduce decision making as much as possible. Meal planning happens on Sundays which includes regularly planned takeout on Fridays. We alternate reading to the girls - so each of us is in charge of bedtime for one of the kids and we switch the day after.
I think the thing I’ve learned - and this seems like a woman thing - is not to overcompensate and just volunteer to figure everything out. For example, when someone gets sick and the plan goes out the window - my natural instinct is to absorb the load and be a hero. I’ve learned to stop doing that and instead we sit down, look at our calendars, and make a plan together.
[Bhavika] What do you find most challenging right now?
[Helen] Quieting the voice of not being enough continues to be a challenge. When the kids were younger, I was operating at the lower level of Maslow’s heirarchy of needs. But now, I’m back to asking myself - am I being a good parent? Being a good spouse? Am I connecting with people who matter most? As my mental space opened up, the question is - am I living the life I want with the intentionality that I aspire to.
Reflections on spontaneity
[Helen] I redefined spontaneity in this phase of my life. My life is not very spontaneous right now, in fact, it’s pretty scheduled. And that’s okay because that’s what it has to be for my life to work right now. I also know that this period will pass and I will be able to make plans on a whim. I can already picture the day when my girls won’t want to hang out with us on Friday nights – it’s not that far away, so I am savoring this period for everything that it is.
[Bhavika] I joked about how it takes me 3 times to schedule anything with a friend these days - someone gets sick, something comes up, and usually by the third attempt we’re making it happen. It’s kind of funny but also seriously exhausting at times.
[Bhavika] How have you thought about career growth and parenting together?
[Helen] I love working - I think it makes me a better parent. What I’ve been thinking about recently now that my kids are in fourth and first grade is the next 10 years. It’s really not that long and I want to spend time with them before they leave the house. So I think about what are the career paths that can support me in that goal and how much of it can I achieve working full time vs. adjustments or tweaks that I will want to make to achieve increased flexibility.
Rapid fire questions (answered by Helen)
Go to recipe: Roasted broccoli - it takes 5 minutes to prep and if it’s crispy and salty enough, my kids will eat it as a pre-dinner snack. It makes me feel like I’m winning in parenting.
Must have for your office: Standing desk - my husband set this up for me when we switched to working from home and it has been a game changer.
Favorite kids toy: We are in Friends lego phase
Best parenting hack: Pick 10 - when we need to clean up, we declare a “pick 10” and everyone needs to pick up 10 things off the floor or put them in the right place. It’s an outcome-based activity and gets the house tidy pretty fast.
What are you reading/watching/listening to right now?
What’s one question you have for other working moms?
What do you do for self-care?