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Parenting while Producting
How to manage a high-performing Product career and active family life
Hi there, it’s Adam. 🤗 Welcome to my (almost) weekly newsletter. I started this newsletter to provide a no-bullshit, guided approach to solving some of the hardest problems for people and companies. That includes Growth, Product, company building and parenting. Subscribe and never miss an issue. Questions? Ask them here.
Today’s newsletter is a response to a reader-submitted question. I get versions of this question all the time privately and wanted to write something publicly about it.
See one of my other popular newsletter topics on parenting here.
Q: As someone considering parenthood while also contemplating their career path, what can you share about your lifestyle of raising kids while holding a product leader position? Anything you'd change or do differently?
I recently wrote a shorter version of an answer to this post on LinkedIn. Unfortunately the character count on a LI post doesn’t really cut it for answering this question so here we are…
First, CONGRATULATIONS. This is a big step in life and the fact that you are thinking about parenthood and career path is already a great start. I’ve learned a lot about this over the last 10+ years of parenthood and leadership.
I have two kids now and my oldest daughter was born right around the time we were raising our Series B (late 2012) at Lyft. Not only was she our first kid but she was also the first kid at the company. I remember taking her to the Zimgiving (Lyftgiving) annual holiday celebration at ~2 months old. My coworkers looked at her like a novelty item since most of them were still years away from having children of their own.
Being a VP of Product at a fast-growing startup or holding any senior leadership role while starting or raising a family is a challenging task for most people. Finding the right balance between them can be elusive if not impossible.
Why does this struggle exist? What are the potential solutions? And how have I (and others) personally managed to maintain a healthy balance? I’ll attempt to answer these questions here.
Why does this struggle exist?
The role of a [Product] leader is vast and includes a focus on customers, team, strategy, roadmap and the bottom line. It’s a demanding role that can leave you with little time to focus on your personal life, let alone also raising a family. It’s more than a full-time job. Some compensate by swinging the pendulum the other way but then get dinged for not being present for the “fast growth startup that needs you!” Even if you can timebox your hours, it's really difficult to “turn off” your work brain and sometimes even more difficult to “turn off” your family brain at work.
This is all perpetuated by the (uniquely American) thin support structure that exists for parents. Someone commented on my LinkedIn post that a friend of theirs was discussing this challenge with a boss and that boss’ advice was “Hire another nanny.” Gee, thanks. This is also not the first time I’ve heard this advice. The (lack of) support for parents is a topic worth exploring in another newsletter but I don’t have the character count for that here today.
One way that I solved this earlier in my career was working during the day in the office, coming home to spend time with my family, and then getting back online in the evenings to do more focused work. And when remote work wasn’t a thing and school drop-off couldn’t happen before a certain time I ended up having a shortened in-person workday a lot of the time. This is one of the big reasons that I’m a proponent of remote-friendly environments. Sorry Sam.
Many dual-working parents find themselves in a similar situation. Working all day–meetings, trying to be present for quality family time, and then getting back online in the evenings.
But there are a few challenges with this.
First, it’s never this straightforward. Kids don’t always go to bed (or stay in bed) when you want them to; if they’re young there’s a house to clean up once they’re down; and then you might want to have a meaningful conversation with your partner. The next thing you know it’s 11pm and you’re up until 1am trying to finish that “deep work.”
Second, even if you manage to do all those things over the long run this becomes unsustainable. This is especially true when trying to maintain a healthy relationship with your partner and take care of yourself. Some people can get by on 5-6 hours of sleep at night. I could never manage this for more than a few days at a time or else everything suffered.
Third, and perhaps most important, who wants to live this way for years at a time?
But we have weekends! You made it. Weekends might seem like the perfect time to recuperate, but life often has other plans. Your kid(s) get sick, there are 3 birthday parties or soccer games, there’s laundry, the guinea pig dies, your kid puts a pencil in their nose, and so many other unexpected events that finding time to relax and recharge can be a huge challenge.
The struggle intensifies for those who have multiple children, twins, infants, kids with special needs and/or a partner with a demanding job. Striking a balance of responsibilities at home while meeting work obligations can seem nearly impossible.
What are the solutions?
For better or worse here are some of the most common ways I’ve seen people manage through this.
Pursue an alternate, more flexible career path.
No doubt that this is a privilege. If you happen to have the privilege to do so, consider switching to a more flexible career that still aligns with your skills and passions. For example, you could focus on advising or taking on fractional or interim executive roles. This would allow you to maintain a healthier work-life balance and be more involved in your family's daily activities.
This is the path that I’ve taken for the last few years. In the Reforge Growth Leadership program we talk about the various phases you go through in your career – 1) validation, 2) repeatable success, and 3) unlocking optionality. I’ve done enough of one and two to be ready for three at this point.
Advisory and interim executive work provide the optionality that I need. I wrote about advising on Growth here. I’ve also tried some of the next approaches before getting to this.
Work with a team and boss in a similar life stage
Teaming up with colleagues who understand and empathize with your situation can provide much-needed support. One way to achieve this is to surround yourself with co-workers and bosses who are in a similar life stage. I think back to the level of understanding and empathy that I had for parents before we started a family and in comparison to now it was basically zero.
There is potential to get this wrong though. Just because a leader or a team are in a similar life stage, have families of their own, etc. doesn’t mean that they’re in a similar life situation. They could have a non-working partner, a live-in nanny, other family members who are around to help out, older and more independent children, more financial resources… or just a different expectation and agreement about how present they are for their family.
None of these are wrong but they can change their expectations and point of view on how you should operate your personal and professional life. And it’s probably in conflict with how you want to operate.
For example, I’ve had a few bosses who had children but never spent any time with them (and seemingly didn’t want to). This is almost worse than working for someone who doesn’t have a family of their own. Tread lightly
Accept being "80% good" at your job and parenting.
A successful founder, CEO and father of three shared this piece of advice with me once. His suggestion was that one should accept being slightly less perfect in both roles for a while. That was the approach that worked for him–whether it also worked for his partner is open for debate. I never asked her!
But there is a guilt-factor with this approach that definitely doesn’t work for everyone. Sometimes that’s guilt about family commitment and other times it’s not being committed 100% to your work. For my personality type this approach doesn’t work for me no matter how hard I’ve focused on accepting that 80%.
Be less involved at home.
Some parents (mostly fathers, sorry dads) choose to focus more on their careers and be less involved in the lives of their family. This was the fashion several decades ago but I don’t know how people support or accept that lifestyle today. And while this approach might work for some, it's not an ideal solution for everyone. Especially with two working parents.
Another reason this doesn’t work for many stems from one of the observations I’ve had over the last decade of parenting and working.
Where you derive your satisfaction and purpose from starts to change (for most people) after they have kids. People associate less of their identity with their professional selves and more from with their family. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in your friend group.
In my 20’s my friend group mostly came from work and professional colleagues. In my 30’s that changed, pretty drastically. Now my friends are other parents in my community, neighbors, and far fewer colleagues.
This upside of this has been a much more diverse and satisfying friend group–no longer limited to other tech denizens. The downside is feeling less of a pull to want to “hang out” with co-workers which can be interpreted as a lack of commitment.
I also want to acknowledge my privilege and the elephant in the room here. Working women face even greater challenges in balancing work and family life. Societal expectations and ingrained behaviors can exacerbate the struggle, making it all the more important for couples to work together and find a balance that works for both partners.
What would I do differently?
Striking the perfect balance between a demanding career and parenthood is a challenging task, but it is not impossible. By examining the options, being honest with yourself and your partner, and seeking support when needed, you can find a way to make it work.
I haven’t gotten this right over the course of my career and I’ve tried many of the options above (minus the ‘be less involved’ one). One of my deepest regrets stems from my naivete around parenthood when my daughter was born 10+ years ago.
I recall telling John and Logan (co-founders of Zimride then Lyft) about my pending fatherhood and they were very excited and supportive. But then they asked me a question that I didn’t know the answer to: “So, how much time are you planning to take off?”
We had no parental leave policy at Lyft and no one had taken time off for that before. There was no precedent and I didn’t know what to do. So I said, “I don’t know, probably two weeks? That seems pretty normal.” They agreed and that was that.
Those two weeks came and went and I was not ready to go back. But I did anyway.
When given the chance to do it again with my son I took off a lot more time, but I still have regrets from my daughter’s birth and wish I could rewind the clock and do it over again.
My advice to others who are contemplating parenthood and wondering how it will fit in with their career is that it’s important to establish agreements and plans ahead of time with the people in your life. Just like you’d set a strategy for a product you can set a strategy for starting your family. Most people are great about the plan surrounding the birth of their kids, but then not much after that.
Also, expect to make adjustments to that plan. In work nothing quite goes according to plan and it’s even more true with family life.
These days I am much more up front about the important role that my kids and family play in my life. I was almost embarrassed to talk about these things earlier in my career but now definitely not. So much so that I’ve put it into my “Working Well With Adam” manual (a topic for a future newsletter).
Some specific points that I cover:
I have two kids and I spend time with them in the morning before school and in the evenings after school. You won’t hear from me during these times. If you do, expect that I could go dark in the middle of a conversation. I’ll be back once the kid stops licking the dog or I take the hamster out of the toilet.
My wife works full time in a very demanding career. We’re equal partners at home and so I don’t travel very much or often for work. If I need to, I have to plan it in advance.
My days are pretty well planned out in advance and have a structure to them. I can’t always drop everything on a dime to respond or drastically change my schedule. Again, with planning this is possible.
I prefer async discussion to live meetings whenever possible unless something requires a live discussion to resolve. This is because I can respond to the async at off times which makes it more flexible but live discussion has to happen in certain time windows.
Being a working parent is amazing, exhausting, rewarding and challenging. With some planning,
I'd love to hear about the solutions you've discovered in your own lives to achieve this delicate balance. Share your stories and tips in the comments so we can all learn from one another.